January 28, 2018
Scripture Lessons: Psalm 139:13-18
God be in my head, and in my understanding;
God be in mine eyes, and in my looking;
God be in my mouth, and in my speaking;
God be in my heart, and in my thinking;
God be at mine end, and at my departing.
This teaching is hard. I have had a hard time accepting it, because on more than one occasion, I have had John 3:3 or John 3:16 thrown in my face, not at all as Good News, but rather as the speaker’s proof that I am a heretic. Not a real Christian, in their view. We can do real harm when we treat certain passages as proof texts. These selective citations are often binary: they mean you’re in, or you’re out. They include or they exclude.
What do we know about Nicodemus:
- a Pharisee (group most focused on the purity laws)
- a leader of the Jews (perhaps a member of the Sanhedrin, the council led by the high priest)
- he came at night, under cover of darkness
- he gives his understanding of Jesus: “Rabbi, 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.’
I have to ask the question – when he hears Jesus’ core teaching, is he clueless or resistant? That is, does he not get Jesus’ metaphors, or is he testing Jesus? We see plenty of examples of both approaches in Scripture, and there are scholars who disagree on this point, but in this case, I’m going to give Nicodemus the benefit of the doubt. I think he is a tentative, worried, fearful man, who has heard about this Jesus fellow, and wants to talk to him in person. But because of his worldly position, he has to pay attention to the optics of the situation, and so sneaks over to Jesus’ place at night; seriously, what would the Council think if they heard he was hanging out with that rabble-rouser? But – sneak preview here – Nicodemus will grow and change; he will appear two more times in John’s gospel. He gives a somewhat tepid defense of Jesus to his fellow Pharisees in chapter 7, but more importantly, he joins Joseph of Arimathea in the burial of Jesus’ body. (Remember, victims of crucifixion were not normally given a burial; those two men had to go to Pilate and, as the hymn says, “beg his body.”)
However, at this stage of the game, Nicodemus, who comes seeking Jesus’ message, just doesn’t get it. He either will not or cannot (yet) see what Jesus is trying to show him. He is mired in literalism. Jesus gets this reaction ALL the time. Sigh.
Fr. Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation:
There is an especially telling passage in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus becomes angry with his disciples, who are unable to understand his clearly metaphorical language. He tells them to watch out for “the leaven” of the Pharisees and “the leaven” of Herod. Taking him literally, they began looking quizzically at one another because they did not have any bread (see Mark 8:14-16). Is Herod Bread a new brand that they had not heard about? Is Pharisee pumpernickel something to be avoided?
I can imagine Jesus responding with a bit of impatience and frustration: “Do you think I am talking about bread? You’re still not using your heads, are you? You still don’t get the point, do you? Though you have ears, you still don’t hear; though you have eyes, you still don’t see!” (see Mark 8:17-18). They do not yet know that the only way to talk about transcendent things is through metaphor!…
Rohr notes that we all start as literalists when we first examine a story or a text, but argues that:
…It takes inner experience of the Holy, and your own attempts to describe it, to finally move you toward a necessary reliance upon symbolic language.
Jesus consistently uses stories and images to describe spiritual things. Religion has always needed the language of metaphor, simile, symbol, and analogy to point to the Reign of God. Note how frequently Jesus begins teaching with the phrase: “The Kingdom of God is like. . . .” There is no other way to speak of the ineffable. Against conventional wisdom, this simple, seemingly childlike approach actually demands more of us—not just more of our thinking mind, but more of our heart and body’s attunement. Maybe that is why we so consistently avoid sacred story in favor of mere mechanical readings that we can limit and control.
A quick side note on the Reign or Kingdom of God: Rohr also reminded us this week that:
Jesus announced, lived, and inaugurated a new social order, an alternative to violence, exclusion, and separation. Jesus went so far as to promise us this alternate reality. It is no fantastical utopia, but a very real and achievable peace—by the grace of God. He called it the Reign or Kingdom of God. It is the subject of his inaugural address (Luke 4:14-30), his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), and most of his parables. Indeed, it is the guiding image of Jesus’ entire ministry. Most Christians glibly recite “Thy kingdom come,” but this means almost nothing until and unless they also say “My kingdom go.”
Many of scholars of the historical Jesus agree. John Dominic Crossan, in shorthand, defines the Realm of God as what this world would be like if God made the rules, not us humans; thus in Jesus’ view, it is a vision of our world where God is King, and not Caesar.
So it’s terribly important for us in reading these passages to keep that context in mind, knowing that Jesus’ was talking about a here-and-now Kingdom of God, not pie in the sky by and by.
The scholar Marcus Borg agrees on both counts, and shows a repeated pattern in Jesus’ arguments using metaphor that is not at first understood:
- Jesus makes a statement
- The hearer takes the words literally and misunderstands
- Jesus corrects their misunderstanding.
It happens in the Mark passage about leaven and bread that Rohr cites, and again in John with the raising of Lazarus. In today’s passage, there’s even an extra loop through the cycle:
- Jesus starts off ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’
- Nicodemus takes him literally ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’
- Jesus tells him that ‘you must be born of the Spirit.’
- Nicodemus persists, wondering out loud ‘‘How can these things be?’
- Jesus gets a little frustrated (‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?’), but then he takes a deep breath, and goes back to teaching and explaining – for another ten verses.
Now here comes my Universalist plug: let’s hear again the start of that famous line: For God so loved the world… The WORLD. Not just some, but all. Not just humans, but all beings. Not just beings, but all of God’s creation. In those six little words, I hear an assertion of the sacredness of the whole created world, of its direct connection with the God of Love. For some, the world is connected to worldliness, and thus is a set of traps and enticements that can lead us astray. This is the polar opposite of that view. The earth is God’s beloved and blessed creation; God is in it, and we are part of it.
Two Hebrew words are key to the metaphors that Jesus uses in this passage:
1) RUACH: wind, breath and Spirit
In this passage, Jesus had to use the same word in Hebrew for which we use two different words in English. I don’t know if that comes through in the original as layers on his metaphorical teaching, or as punning!
2) ANOTHEN: from above, from the beginning, anew
If we speak of Jesus’ teaching about being born anew, we had better think of the context that this requires: where there is birth, there is also by definition death. The Way of Jesus involves a metaphorical death and a metaphorical rebirth. Borg puts it this way: “… for John the way of path of Jesus is the path of death and resurrection understood as a metaphor for the religious life. That way – the path of dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being – is the only way to God.”
I find it encouraging that the clues in John to Nicodemus’ experience over time in the Jesus Movement indicate that he did find the Way, and was born of the Spirit. He certainly moved his actions out of the darkness and into the light! When they go to Pilate to get Jesus’ body for a decent burial, they are right out there, so Nicodemus, who started off asking questions tentatively in a secret meeting with Jesus ends up doing the work of the burial preparation in broad daylight. (The thread of darkness and light throughout John is a whole other message for another time, but do please note that these metaphors abound in this passage, too!)
My preferred translation of ANOTHEN would have to be ‘anew.’ Maybe ‘from above.’ But probably ‘anew.’ Just let me say that I don’t see this as a once-and-done proposition. Rather, we have to keep on being born ‘anew’ over and over and over, in our ongoing effort to die to the old way and to follow the new Way.
In a musical workshop Sue and I attended last week, we were offered a nice mental image for sustaining a long held note without wavering or losing pitch: it’s to hear repeatedly in your mind’s ear the note you are holding on every beat of every measure. You have to remind your brain and renew that correct pitch all through the held note.
That is the best illustration I’ve found yet for the metaphor of being born anew. I need to have the Spirit keep putting that “pitch” in my head, over and over and over again.
And now, here’s your pop quiz: can you tell me the full title of the grant program that we’ve just participated in?
The Lilly Endowment Grant for Clergy Renewal. (But as we know, the program clearly requires clergy and congregations to seek renewal together.)
We have been working on renewal, but I would say we’ve been working on being born anew as a congregation. We have been seeking the Spirit’s guidance, from above. We are poised and ready to keep on with our renewal work. May we keep listening for that steady, insistent pitch that will show us our Way. AMEN.