Several people have asked for a copy of the sermon I preached at Growing Together on September 17 at White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh (the fall education program of the Presbytery of New Hope). The following blog post is that sermon. The scripture passage is John 3:1-21
Jesus said, “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born anothen.’ 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.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” ~The Gospel of John 3: 7-9
Look around you, friends.
You may just be sitting next to a Nicodemus. Or the person next to you may be!
Nicodemus is one of my favorite people in scripture—maybe because I feel like I know him so well. He’s like family!
He’s a man who has official status in his community—well respected, sincere. He’s a learned man—a man who knows his stuff. And he’s a man who knows he still has questions.
There’s something generous about Nicodemus—there’s an openness to him that I really appreciate. There something endearing about a person who knows a whole lot, but who knows there is more to learn.
Why Nicodemus sounds like a fine upstanding Presbyterian!
He’s a faithful man seeking understanding—and even though that famous phrase was uttered by Anselm in the 11th century, centuries before the Reformation period, “faith seeking understanding” is a phrase that defines us as Reformed believers.
But, even with all his faithfulness, and with all his earnestness, there are still some things about Nicodemus that are frustrating, too.
He’s at least a little fearful. And we can’t blame him. There’s a lot to lose when you’ve got a stable place in the community—when you know where you fit and you have what you need.
Nicodemus is a little tentative—not sure how to satisfy his curiosity, not sure how to find answers for his nagging questions. Not sure he is ready to lose things, to let go of the way he sees things.
He goes to see Jesus in the night—we’re not sure exactly why, but it may well be that he was afraid of being seen. Afraid people would question why he was talking to Jesus, why he was cozying up with this guy who some people were wary of, especially people like Nicodemus.
Nicodemus goes in the night. Just maybe that took more courage—going in the night.
I wonder if you or I would go and see Jesus in the dark of night—when we are the most vulnerable, when things look the worst, when we feel alone, hopeless, and insignificant. The night has a way of making things seem so daunting—would you or I have the courage to face our fears and go to see this Jesus?
Maybe Nicodemus is fearful and maybe he is courageous—maybe he is ready for something new. Maybe he’s ready to venture into the shadows and find God there.
Nicodemus, the Presbyterian-like part of him, begins with appreciative comments when he gets to Jesus. He says he knows Jesus is from God. He says he knows that because Jesus brings signs.
If you are a close reader of scripture then you know that just a few verses earlier in John’s gospel Jesus said those who think they know him because of signs really don’t know him at all.
So, right away, Nicodemus shows us he is not really seeing Jesus clearly.
And, there but by the grace of God go each and every one of us.
We want to understand, we want to be Jesus-followers. Can we see him for who he truly is?
Nicodemus wants and needs things to make sense. We can’t fault him for that. We want the same things, right? Especially when things get messy, when there’s tension and conflict, and upheaval. We want things to make sense, for there to be a reason why things happen the way they happen, for the path we’re supposed to take to be clear.
Nicodemus has ideas about how the world works, about how God works, about how prophets work. He is looking for a way to put Jesus in the filing system he already has in place. And Jesus just won’t fit.
Jesus just won’t fit.
What do we do when Jesus just won’t fit? Can we trust a God who just won’t fit?
Right out the gate Jesus tells Nicodemus the truth—you won’t be able to recognize the Kingdom of God unless you are born anothen—that’s the Greek word that we really can’t figure out how to translate very well into English—and it seems Nicodemus had trouble with the word, too.
The Greek Lexicon tells us that anothen is “purposely ambiguous”—it means both “from above” (like from heaven; from a divine source) and “again or anew” (like something different/a change, a rebirth). This word is a both/and word—choosing one meaning doesn’t do it justice.
The NRSV chooses to have “from above” in the translation and then puts “or again” in a footnote. And NIV chooses to do the opposite—it puts “again” in the translation, and puts “from above” in its footnote. Both have left us with too clean a translation—it’s too easy to feel like we are supposed to and have permission to choose one meaning over the other.
An either/or world can be easier to navigate—it’s easier to know where we fit in an either/or world, who we can trust, and who we can judge.
My dad likes to tell the story of being at a lunch years ago given by the Gideons in Crossett, Arkansas that was being held at the Presbyterian church where he had his first call. When he sat down next to one of the Gideons at the lunch my dad introduced himself. The gentleman asked my dad “Are you saved?” My dad told him, who had just introduced himself as a Presbyterian minister, said, “Yes, why do you ask?” The gentleman looked at him and said: “I have been the means of bringing several Presbyterian ministers to Christ.”
Being a Presbyterian minister didn’t answer his question. In fact it may have even raised more. Are you born again? or from above? What kind of Christian are you? One of us? Or one of them?
What if it’s both/and? What if Jesus was purposely ambiguous?
What if it’s both/and—and we’re so busy trying to make it either/or that we can’t see Jesus for who he really is? And if we can’t see Him for who he truly is, how can we see ourselves for who we are supposed to be—after all we’re the Body of Christ in the world, right?
There’s a lot of either/or talk in our world these days—after all, election season is coming. Either/or talk is a way of life.
And there’s been a lot of either/or talk in the church, too. Lines are being drawn, boundaries set. The church, some would say, has lost its way if it is not an either/or force in this anything goes world.
I use to be one of those either/or people. Funny, I use to think I would go into politics, too!
I use to think there was a right and a wrong on pretty much every social issue and theological issue—and if everyone could just get on the same page (and that would be the page that I was on!), then we could really change the world. The world made sense to me that way—and it gave my life purpose, too.
Honestly, life seemed more livable that way—that either/or way. But, this whole following Jesus thing—well He’s taken me down a different path.
God didn’t let me rest comfortably in an either/or world. And it wasn’t just Divinity School or a PhD program or being pastors in churches that Jesus used to show me a both/and world. One of the clearest ways Jesus has used who helped me be born anothen started with a little 11-year old boy from Charlotte, North Carolina.
That little eleven-year old boy just turned 28 last month. For years our godson, Chris, has been a part of our lives. He’s was a troubled little boy from the projects in Charlotte when we met him—he was about to be the first kid kicked out of our church’s afterschool program because he was such a behavior problem. As a last ditch effort to minister to Chris, the church asked my husband, John, who was coaching for the Panthers at the time, to come and read with Chris once a week. They thought an NFL coach might be someone this little boy might want to listen to.
John fell in love with Chris quickly and so did I, and almost as quickly the realities of Chris’ tumultuous life came crashing into our world. I can remember coming home sometimes from taking him home and locking doors and closing all the blinds—I just wanted it to all go away. It was more than I wanted to know so up close.
We thought we were enlightened about poverty, about race, about injustice, about abuse. And we thought we could help him see who he could be. We never imagined how much he would help us see who we could be.
Loving him has showed us the ambiguity in life that cannot be tidied up. So much is not fair; so much cannot be remedied. There is no way to go back and give him the things he didn’t get when he was little. And finding ways to live a healthy, happy life today can be excruciating when so much was lost so long ago.
And there are times when I can see so clearly God’s unique power to transform, to redeem. And I am in awe of what can happen when we love one another over the long haul.
The only consistency we have in our relationship is our love for Chris and his for us. —and he’s taught me more about race and injustice and what it means to be white than anything else in my life. Loving him, listening to him, walking along with him—it is unsettling and it is a blessing; it is sad and it is delightful; it is frustrating and it is humbling.
Sometimes I want it to be either/or—but I accepted a long time ago, that Chris helps me see what’s really true about walking with Jesus—we’re called to be both/and people in an either/or world.
If you really take that in, it is a chilling reality AND it gives us freedom like nothing else can.
It’s hard to imagine that both can be true—a blood chilling truth and a life-giving freedom. How can these things be?
The divide today in our denomination, the divide today in religion in America—and in politics, in communities, in churches—it just may come down to this stubborn need we humans have for things to be either this way or that way. We like either/or—both/and feels impossible, chaotic, and undisciplined. We’re afraid we’ll get lost in a both/and world –its sound like anything goes, like everything is relative.
Jesus is trying to get us to see something altogether different than moral chaos—he’s talking about living close enough to him that we “are not astonished” by the way the Spirit moves—he says the wind blows where it will—you might hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes.
Spirit and wind—pneuma, we can’t pick and choose our meaning—we must abide in the complexity of God who can be perceived, like wind, but not exactly understood. We cannot completely understand or control what this new birth, this birth anothen will mean for us.
Trusting God may be the thing we need the most practice at doing—trusting that God’s healing and God’s eternity is something we can be close to, that we can touch and drink in and breathe in even in a world where violence and death surround us.
How can these things be?
Jesus’ only answer is “come closer.”
Come closer—he says you have to know him up close.
You see Jesus is a both/and savior—human and divine; strong and weak; compassionate and just; patient and angry; loving and truthful; suffering and powerful.
He can trouble the water and calm the storm.
He can heal your wounds and disrupt your comfort.
Jesus is a both/and savior in an either/or world.
The irony is that one of the passages Christians have used to prop up an either/or mentality is right here in this Nicodemus story—John 3:16 “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone believes in him many not perish but have eternal life.”
We’ve used it like a carrot to determine is people are in or out. We’ve made it an either/or statement.
Here’s where Jesus comes in—and here’s where Jesus wants to touch you and me.
The closer we get to Jesus the more this both/and world comes into focus.
You are being born, he says. You are being born into a way of being that is new and different—a both/and world where there is concreteness and mystery. You have a divine spark in you and you are broken. Life has suffering and redemption—pain and promise.
You and I came here today—faithful people seeking understanding, holding all these contradictions, all this ambiguity, this confounding and confusing way that God made us.
We came here seeking community—and seeking God’s hopes for us.
You want to grow, to learn, to know more about what following Jesus is all about. Like Nicodemus, we fine upstanding Presbyterians, have some questions about how these things can be.
How can God expect churches to do ministry when we’re so strapped for funds? How does God call us to reach out into the world? How can we be good stewards of the earth? What does it mean to be a good leader? How can we best teach our kids about Jesus? Is there a right way and a wrong way to worship? What in the world is nFog?
Brothers and sisters, you may be sitting next to Nicodemus—or the person next to you may be. Or you just might be listening to a Nicodemus preach a sermon this morning. I’ll admit it—I have lots of questions these days—and I am not sure I want anyone to know just what those questions are—I lie awake at night and look for Jesus, sometimes I wonder where he is anymore. I can have a hard time recognizing him.
Truth be told, brothers and sisters, I don’t always know how to follow Jesus and be whatever it is to be a good Presbyterian at the same time.
How can these things be? How can you and I really be born anothen—remade, reborn, changed, transformed? How can we trust a God who doesn’t always fit, a both/and savior in an either/or world?
If it weren’t for Jesus, I’d have given up a long time ago. He says to follow him—and I say we keep trying—keep asking our questions, especially the ones that haunt us in the night. Maybe trusting a both/and savior—this Jesus who heals and troubles, guides and hopes we will find our way, this both/and savior in an either/or world– maybe he’ll be what saves us after all.
Thanks be to God.