Rev. Sarah Buteux
Second Sunday of Lent, Year A, March 12, 2017
I’ve been struggling to love people lately. Not all people, mind you, just, you know, like, most people.
Alright, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Maybe I shouldn’t say most people. Actually, I think what I’m finding is that it’s becoming easier and easier to love the people who are easy for me to love and harder and harder to love the people who are hard for me to love.
Does that make sense? Any one else experiencing this lately? And there’s not a whole lot of middle ground anymore, is there? No.
And when I say “hard,” I mean really hard. I’m talking like almost impossible hard, because loving others well entails contact – right? – and contact typically requires communication and communication often involves words and words are kind of where the whole love thing tends to break down for me these days.
It’s the words that get me into trouble. My words. Their words. Doesn’t really matter. It’s kind of an equal opportunity disaster area because it feels like no matter what we talk about it’s only a matter of time before we start to disagree.
And because the battle lines these days are so clear and because the idealogical trenches we’ve dug are so deep and because – whether we are talking about climate change or immigration or healthcare or education or basic human rights – the stakes are just so damn high that our disagreements seem bound to escalate no matter what.
And I hate it. It’s exhausting. Conflict is something I would so much rather avoid – and I know I’m not alone, can I get an amen?
I don’t want to fight, but it’s like we can’t help ourselves, anymore. It’s like the whole country right now is being driven by competing moral obligations to speak up, which means that the moment you open your mouth and let your words come out it is “game on.” You’re going to end up arguing, arguing whether you want to or not, arguing just like Jesus and Nicodemus.
This is an argument we’re witnessing here in our scripture reading this morning. Maybe you didn’t notice it because there are a lot of words in this passage, but when Nicodemus steals away in the middle of the night to visit Jesus, those two find themselves locked in a an argument faster than you can say Jack Rabinowitz.
And it’s interesting, because I don’t think Nicodemus meant for that to happen. After all, he starts out so gentle and respectful:
“Rabbi,” he says, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
But before he can go any further, Jesus reads his mind – which, granted, is a little rude – divines why he has really come, and answers his as yet unspoken question: “Very truly, I tell you, (Nicodemus) no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” or “born again.” It’s a word that can be translated either way, but Nicodemus hears it as born again, which is why he says, wait, what?!
”How can anyone be born after having grown old?” (subtext) Why would you even say something so stupid. “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (That doesn’t make any sense). And bang! They’re off. They’re arguing before Nicodemus even knows what hit him.
And it’s no surprise, because if there was one thing a Pharisee was primed to do, it was argue; and not because they were naturally difficult or contentious people.
I know the they get a bad rap in scripture because they are always going up against Jesus, questioning him and giving him a hard time. But think about it: they wouldn’t be found arguing with him as often as they are if they weren’t following him around all the time listening to what he had to say.
And they were following him around all the time listening to what he had to say precisely because they cared – deeply – about getting things right.
In fact, I think I probably would have gravitated toward the Pharisees if I had lived back then, because they were the questioning believers of their day. They were the ones who took scripture seriously without taking it literally. And they believed earnestly that their faith could and should be used to help shape the world around them for the good.
Unlike the Essenes who fled to the deserts to live out their faith in peace or the Sadducees who were willing to collude with the empire if it meant keeping their high positions in the temple, the Pharisees were the ones brave enough to stay socially engaged as people of faith even though it put them at odds with the empire.
They were the ones who believed in publicly resisting the ways of Rome in favor of following in the way of God, trusting that God would vindicate them someday for their faithfulness.
And speaking of faithfulness, the Pharisees believed that all people could lead holy lives, not just the priests, which is why they spent their days arguing endlessly over how best to do that. And those arguments could get pretty heated because you know what? The stakes for them were pretty damn high too.
The “kingdom of God” Jesus knows that Nicodemus wants to see, that was what all the Pharisees wanted to see. They longed for the day when God would come in some mighty way and overthrow the Romans: give them their land, their temple, and their autonomy back.
And they believed that God would come once the people of Israel got their collective act together and chose to live faithfully.
There was even a group that believed that if they could all keep the law perfectly for one day – just one day! -then God’s kingdom would come, God’s will would be done here on earth, and God’s people would finally be free.
That’s the real reason the Pharisees were so hard – on themselves and everyone else. It’s why they shunned and shamed the folks they perceived to be sinners.
If perfect obedience was what it was going to take to see the kingdom of God come down then by golly perfect obedience was what they were going to strive for, and God help you if you got in the way or didn’t measure up.
God help you if said the wrong thing or took an opposing view. God help you if you weren’t on board with their plan to save the world.
Only here’s the thing. According to Jesus, their plan – just do the right thing and then God will love us/reward us/save us – wasn’t God’s plan. Wasn’t back then and isn’t right now.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that he and his peeps have it all wrong. So wrong that if Nicodemus really wants to see the Kingdom of God then he’s going to need to go back to the beginning, re-think and re-learn everything he thought he already knew about God and how God works. We’re talking such a full reversal that he might as well start over and be born again.
Born again? asks Nicodemus. That’s impossible.“How can anyone be born after having grown old? “
And Jesus, in effect, responds: Nic, I’m not talking about being born again physically, I’m talking about a spiritual rebirth. I’m talking about seeing the world, God, our faith and your destiny from a whole new perspective… a perspective where you don’t get to hurt people anymore in the service of some higher good.
“How can these things be?” asks Nicodemus. How is this possible? And – this being the gospel of John – Jesus says a lot here in response, much of which is difficult to comprehend, but trust me when I say that the heart of his response is love. It is a verse so famous I bet most everyone here knows it by heart. Go ahead if you do. Lay it on me.
John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Now we’ve all heard that verse a million times but I’m not sure we understand it any better than Nicodemus did. I mean a whole lot of people have heard those words and devised a new plan to get God to love and accept us, a plan whereby we just need to get ourselves born again by making a commitment or saying prayer, and then we’ll be ok, then we’ll earn our golden ticket to eternal life.
And they can be as fierce as any Pharisees if you don’t buy in.
Repent and then God will forgive you.
Believe and then God will save you.
That somehow, no matter how free the gift of God’s grace there is still something you need to do to make it work, something you need to do… or else? As if God’s plan to save the whole world was something you had the power to screw up.
Well let me tell you something right now. That’s not God’s plan either.
The good news is not a threat.
The good news is ever and always an invitation.
The good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is not repent and believe so that God will love you and grant you eternal life. No, Jesus’ message is that God loves you already, whether you repent or not. The kingdom is yours, already, whether you believe in it or not and there’s no need to wait until you die to experience it. The doors of heaven are wide open and everyone is welcome just as you are without one plea. “Indeed,” says Jesus, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
“Acceptance precedes repentance – not the other way around.” Go home and re-read the parable of the Prodigal Son if you don’t believe me. God always moves first, goes first, loves us first. Read the whole Bible if you don’t believe me.
Jesus didn’t come preaching “repent so the kingdom of heaven can draw near.” He preached “repent for the the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.” It’s a subtle difference but it’s a subtlety that makes all the difference in the world.
And this, this is what Nicodemus needs to learn. This is what we all need to learn, not in order to be saved or earn God’s love, but in order to live more fully into the reality of that love. For it’s the living into that reality that makes it so.
It’s in loving as we are loved and in forgiving as we have been forgiven that we see the kingdom, enter into the kingdom, experience the kingdom…not someday when we die, but right here, right now. When we love, when we forgive, when we extend the same grace to others that God has extended to us, we step into the light of heaven.
To live otherwise is to withdraw back into the darkness; not by God’s choice, but by our own. The good news is we don’t have to stay there. We never have to stay there. We may need to be born again and again and again, but the good news is that we can be. The gospel is an invitation, always open, to come into the light. Which is why these last few verses, as hard as they are to hear, are so very important.
Listen again to what Jesus says to Nicodemus: “Those who believe in are not condemned, but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only son of God. And this is the judgment, (in other words: this is how you will know if they believe) this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world and people have loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”
I know that sounds like an awful lot of condemnation given that I just said God loves you no matter what, but keep it in context.
Jesus is speaking directly to Nicodemus here – a pharisee who has come to him under cover of darkness – and he’s inviting Nicodemus to step out of the shadows into the light and follow a new way, Jesus’ way.
He’s letting Nicodemus know that his old way of being – his propensity to withhold love and forgiveness until he thinks people deserve it, his penchant to judge and shame others in the name of all he believes to be right – is hateful. It is of darkness.
In 1 John 2: 9 we read: “Whoever says, ‘I am in the light,’ while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness.”
You can’t hate or be hateful to others and still claim to believe in the way of Jesus. To believe is to show love. It is as simple as that.
It’s as simple as that…and just that hard.
I don’t know how Nicodemus felt hearing Jesus’ words back then, but I know how I feel hearing them right now and friends, like I said at the outset, I’m struggling. I’m in a rather dark place. I’m struggling to love the people who just don’t get it, and I know I’m not alone.
Ideologically, whether we’re talking about religion or politics, we’ve come to a place where if people don’t tow our line than we either don’t know what to do with them or we want nothing to do with them. It’s not just easy to dismiss and disparage the people we disagree with, it feels good. It feels right. It feels righteous.
And I know that’s dangerous, but it’s hard not to believe that the people I disagree with must be stopped at all costs or they will destroy everything we’ve worked for and everything we need. Doing a little wrong for the sake of all that’s right makes all kinds of sense to me right now. The stakes are just that high.
So I am thankful for these words that give us pause. I am thankful for these words that convict my heart. I am thankful for these words that remind us all that it is not our job to save the world any more than it was the job of Nicodemus. God’s already got that covered.
Nor is it our place to shame or cajole or argue or shun or terrorize anyone toward the good, the right, the kingdom; because that simply doesn’t work.
Our place is to stand in the light as children of the light and allow our lives to be our witness. Our job is to love. Our job is to forgive. Our job is to extend grace upon grace because God has extended grace to us already.
That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t stand up for what we believe is right. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speak out. We should and we will. We can and we must. It just means that when we speak our truth, we do so in love.
Martin Marty once said, “I no longer find it useful to separate Christians between liberals and conservatives, but between those who are cruel and those who are kind.”
….those who are cruel and those who are kind.
Perhaps it really is that simple.
May God keep us in the light.
May God help us to love.
May God help us all to be kind. Amen.