Moving toward Jesus
March 16, 2014
Scripture: John 3:1-17
I had coffee with a couple pastor friends this week. We were talking about the state of the church. I want to share with you a bit of what ended up on a napkin during that conversation.
(Draw the Liberal/Conservative axis) We were observing that much energy in the church and in the political rhetoric of the broader culture is generated by the poles on this axis. We could name issue after issue that has divided the church and this country into red and blue. True…false. Faithful…unfaithful…
But there is another axis that I am beginning to see needs to be added. I believe it helps us see a reality that is even more important than the conservative/liberal spectrum. At least for followers of Jesus. (Draw the Open/Closed axis vertically)
I want to propose to you this morning that as I read the gospels, this is where I see Jesus (write on the Open side of this axis). It is what we see in the story of Nicodemus.
First a bit of context that helps us see that this conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus cuts against the grain of much of what we find in the gospels—as far as the relationship between Jesus and the religious leaders is concerned.
When we study the gospels, we see that the Pharisees are not portrayed in a favorable light. Jesus calls them a “brood of vipers”, “hypocrites”, “blind guides”, “blind fools”…
Jesus calls them out as those who “clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside are full of greed and self-indulgence.”
Jesus calls them out as those who “are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.” (Matt 23).
The sharp rhetoric goes both ways. In Matthew 15 we see the Pharisees and scribes coming to Jesus from Jerusalem and saying: “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” Jesus answers them: “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?”
In Matthew 12: Jesus cures a man who is blind and mute so that he can speak and see. All the crowds were amazed and said, “Can this be the Son of David? But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons, that this fellow casts out the demons…”
These are just a sample from those included in the gospels. This adversarial relationship and tendency to demonize the other continued into the rhetoric we see between Judaism and the Christian movement of the first century and beyond. Sadly, as Christianity gained more power, this kind of rhetoric from scripture would be used to justify anti-Semitic attitudes and much persecution of Jews.
So this is important context as we consider our gospel reading for today. The Nicodemus story provides a counter story to all the stories that are bitter and combative in tone. I see this as a story of moving toward Jesus. I want to offer four things from this text that might help us in our movement toward Jesus.
The first thing I notice in this story is that moving toward Jesus involves spaces for conversation. I would not call this an open space for conversation, because Nicodemus comes to Jesus not in the light of day, but after dark.
When we are a part of a closed system, voices and characters that challenge our perspectives can be threatening. I have a hunch that Nicodemus came to visit Jesus at night because he was fearful of what others would think if they found out that he initiated a conversation with Jesus.
Moving toward Jesus sometimes involves risk, especially if we are coming from a closed way of seeing how God works in the world.
In the light of day, Nicodemus is part of a group that earnestly tries to guard the boundaries of the community. Boundaries that God had given.
But, in the darkness of night, Nicodemus is led by a hunger in his heart that moves him. I sense it is a hunger that is deeper than his identity as guardian of the boundaries.
In Nicodemus, I see a human being who, underneath the religious garb and identity, is hungry for more. And so he begins with what he knows: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God…”
Jesus, who sometimes is very guarded about what he says to those beyond his inner circle, opens up and shares with Nicodemus the Pharisee words that are at the heart of the gospel.
He says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. (NLT: “unless you are born again”)
Jesus’ response points us to the second thing I notice in this story about moving toward Jesus. And that is, that moving toward Jesus, seeing the kingdom of God, involves a process of rebirth.
It’s one thing to be where Jesus is doing signs and wonders. It’s one thing to believe that Jesus is a teacher sent from God. But if we want to see the kingdom of God, it will mean going through a process of rebirth. This process of rebirth involves water and Spirit. The process of rebirth involves baptism. The process of rebirth involves something dying so that something can be born.
This is a difficult concept for Nicodemus to grasp. I don’t think it’s any easier for us. At least, as I reflect on my experience, it has not been easy for me.
It’s not easy to leave the safety of the womb—our closed systems that provide a sense of security and control.
But being born again means going through a painful birthing process. It involves labor…work. For me, it has involved places of darkness, where my childhood images of God needed to die, so that I could see the kingdom of God in new ways.
I spent most of my 20s and 30s in this process—the process of being reborn into new ways of seeing. I am still in this process at the age of 45.
It’s a process I saw happening in me this week as I sat with a group of pastor-types at a retreat and we took turns sharing something we wanted to bring to the group. Something that reflected our human brokenness. Something that reflected our desire for wholeness.
It’s a process I see happening in me even when I blow up and say words out of anger with Heather. And sometimes this happens on the night before I’m supposed to stand in the pulpit and preach.
And so I know that seeing the kingdom of God involves a process of death and rebirth. I know that process to be excruciatingly painful at times. And yet, it is a process that touches the deepest hungers of my life.
So I have a lot of sympathy for Nicodemus. When we are in a place where we are asking, “How can this be?” We are in a good place. It is the place where Nicodemus finds himself. It is the place where young Mary found herself when she was told she would become the mother of God.
When we find ourselves in that place—the place that cannot be explained with the answers of our closed systems. That place of deep mystery and chaos, that is the very place where the Spirit of God hovers and begins to create something beautiful out of the dust. Out of us.
This is the third thing I see in this text. That moving toward Jesus, involves moving toward places of darkness and chaos where the Spirit is at work birthing something new.
Jesus puts it like this: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Moving toward Jesus, is a movement toward trusting the creative work of the Spirit—even when we don’t know where the Spirit is coming from or where the Spirit is leading us.
In recent weeks I have talked about what this looks like in the story of Peter going to the house of Cornelius and then going back to the church in Jerusalem to share about his experience.
These are anxious times in the church. It is difficult to discern the direction of the wind–perhaps especially when we are anxious.
In this moment, there is much that is not clear to me. I don’t know what will happen as the Bishop Board designs and leads a time of exploration and discernment intended to assess whether or not Lancaster Mennonite Conference will continue to affiliate with Mennonite Church USA.
What I recognize within myself is a deep desire to move from a place of fear to a place of trust in the movement of the Spirit. Even when the movement of the Spirit is as uncontrollable as the wind.
The last thing I see in this conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus is this. That moving toward Jesus involves movement toward Love and away from condemnation.
The gospel of John does not begin with a genealogy. It does not begin with a birth narrative. It begins by situating the story of Jesus within the story of time—the story of “all things”.
It begins with the declaration that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. It begins with the declaration that all things came into being through him.
The story of God is that from the beginning the energy that calls all things into being is love. It is because of Love, John tells us, that God sends Jesus into the world. John tells us that God’s love has no limits. God’s love extends to the whole cosmos. That’s what the word translated as “world” actually means. God so loves the cosmos that God gives Jesus.
God is in the process of saving the cosmos, and in Jesus we see what the love of God looks like. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
If we are looking for a moment of conversion in the story of Nicodemus, John’s gospel does not give us that. What John’s gospel does give us is this other part of the story (John 19:39-42). After Jesus has been crucified, Joseph of Arimathea is there to tend to the broken body of Jesus. And John tells us that Nicodemus was also there to prepare the body of Jesus for burial. Perhaps a sign that Nicodemus was moving from a closed to an open way of seeing God at work in the world…
I have been moving toward Jesus for 45 years now. It is a journey that began even before I was consciously aware of it. It began in the womb where I was knit together. It continued as I took my first breath. It has continued as I have lived in different places. It has involved different stages of life. It has involved a career change. It has involved facing the reality of death and other losses. It has involved an unending process of change.
I heard someone say recently that when you are through changing, you are through.
I don’t know what that means for the conversation that is happening in the church right now. What I do know is that I have a deep desire to continue moving toward Jesus. In that movement toward Jesus, I desire places for conversations like the one between Jesus and Nicodemus.
I desire places where we can share what we know about Jesus and go deeper into the mystery of the word made flesh.
I desire places where the process of rebirth can be cultivated in me…in you…in others.
I desire places where we are open to moving with the wind of the Spirit.
I desire places where we are moving away from condemnation, and toward Love.
What are you desiring?