Sunday, October 10, 2004

Two Births

Asbury First Methodist Church

Text: John 3:1-16

“These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn 20:31).

This year we will scale a great promontory, the highest peak in the Bible, which is the Gospel of John. With every cut-back trail, at every rest point, atop every lookout, with every majestic view, this spiritual gospel will address you with the choice of freedom, with the ongoing need to choose, and in choosing to find the life of belonging and meaning, personal identity and global imagination.

The interpretation of the Gospel of John is a dangerous job. Luther recalled most carefully what the church has realized most generally, which is that for the Bible to be rightly heard, for the preacher to handle the word of truth, one first needs some understanding of what the passage meant in its first hearing. What did its writer mean to say, and what did its hearers or readers first hear or read? To the extent that we have some handle on this first incarnation of truth, we may be able to apply the meaning of the Bible to our own time and place.

It helps us to understand the prophets of Israel to learn the history through which they lived. We can appreciate the wisdom books when we know a little about their background. The first three gospels become meaningful to us, as we come to grips with their historical struggles. The letters of Paul take existential shape for us when we know something about his life, his missionary journeys, his relationships with others.

John’s history is in many ways the toughest for us to understand.

Two primary theories have been advanced in the last hundred years, and I am an interpretative child of both. One emphasizes Judaism, one Hellenism. One emphasized Gnosticism, one apocalypticism. One emphasizes space, one time. How are we to judge? This year I propose we use them both and hope for the best.

Grace During Dislocation

Nicodemus is a ruler of Israel. He has stayed by the mother tongue, the mother tradition, the mother religion. He has stayed in the womb. He never left home. But you cannot become yourself if you never leave home. To become who you are you have to go somewhere else. Not always geographically. Jesus never traveled more than fifty miles from Bethlehem.

Nicodemus is a teacher, a religious leader.

John is concerned with Spirit, not speculation, with the artistry of the everyday, not with Armageddon, with the church not with calamity.

You have already learned the heart of this text: that Nicodemus and Jesus are representative types of religion—past and future, law and liberty; that the word for Spirit and wind is the same word and that John can and does mean both; that the command to be born from above is plural, you all, or as they say in the south, “all you all”.

John turns his gaze now away from inherited religion, to focus on culture, away from Judaism to address the Gnostics, who wanted fervently to be saved by knowing “whence we come from and whither we are going”. Says Jesus…the Spirit where it wills…

Cultural religion says, “You know whence you came”. Spirit says, You do not.

A pre-Christian culture says, “You know where you are going”. John says, not so: Those who are born of the spirit, of them you do not know whence or whither.

John’s neighbors affirm: we know whence and whither. John replies: not so of those born of the spirit. You are left with confusing liberty, the assorted decisions of a complex life. You are free. In Christ, you are set free. In Spirit, you do not know….you believe…

Here stands Nicodemus, a man in full. A religious leader, really a representative of the best in spiritual inheritance. He ventures out at night, choking from the challenge of truth, new truth, full truth. Where he has been will not take him where he needs to go. He is a person on the edge of a great dislocation: he is about to make up his mind to change his mind about something that really matters.

Some years ago the Christian Century ran a series of articles by nominally great religious leaders, titled, “How my mind has changed”. A disappointing series. One found really little significant change of mind in any of them. Typical of preachers—stubborn, self-assured; it takes one to know one.

But here stand Nicodemus, a courageous soul. He is facing the great heartache of maturity. You face it too. He is facing out over a great ravine, a great gorge, a great precipice. On a matter of mortal meaning, he is making up his mind whether to change his mind. That takes real courage.

Benjamin Franklin found this courage when he left behind his beloved Europe and his confidence in diplomacy to take up arms with his fellow colonists. Abraham Lincoln found this courage when he finally moved to side fully with the abolitionists. Robert F Kennedy, then the junior Senator from the Empire State, found this same courage when he left the cold war mind of his own past and of his dear brother, to oppose the war in Vietnam. Sometimes you get to a point where you have to make up your mind whether to change your mind. To face facts, as Nicodemus courageously faced the works, signs, deeds of Jesus the Christ. It takes great courage to change your mind about something of mortal significance. In fact, it may not even be humanly possible. Apart from Grace. It means admitting error. We would sooner be proven sinful than stupid. John takes us to higher ground. We have an easier time receiving forgiveness for sin than we do receiving Grace for change.

Yet did not Samson finally see the error of his ways with Delilah? Did not David finally see his mistake with Bathsheba? Did not Peter break down and weep on the understanding of betrayal? Did not Paul find the courage, in earshot of unmistakable evidence, to cease persecution, and in fact, to suffer it, for Christ’s sake? The Gospel of Jesus Christ is one of persistent failure, of persistence through failure, and of the grace to make up one’s mind to change one’s mind.

We can all chuckle at Ralph Cramden, constitutionally loveable a constitutionally unable to admit his error. We can all laugh with the ‘Fonz’ at his inability to pronounce the word “wrong”. But the good news finds entry, on this passage, where meek souls will receive it still.


Freedom Following Disappointment

The author of John had to drink the bitter cup of disappointment in its most bitter form. His form of hope collapsed. His dream died. It is hard to have a dream die. A dream deferred is like a raisin in the sun…

While every life carries secret sorrows, there are serious and lasting disappointments that can shake the foundations of life, heart, and soul. It is one thing to have your favorite team lose in the World Series, or to have your chosen candidate lose at the polls. It is another to face the lasting hurt of a dream deferred. What has happened has happened. And the way out of this disappointment is the way through marked by the road signs of freedom. Man is born to disappointment as the sparks fly upward.

Faced with hard news, individuals and groups may respond in one of three ways: blame, deny, ignore. Who is at fault? It cannot be true. True it is, but it does not matter. “This is her fault.” “Things are fine, you are mistaken.” “Oh, that doesn’t matter”.

Yet this Gospel offers freedom following disappointment. Freedom in emotion and confidence and vision.

Have you looked recently at your emotional life? Spelunking in among the damp stalactites and dank stalagmites of the visceral cave of emotion can bring exhilarating freedom. Have you shown a flashlight on anger, fear, sorrow, or joy lately? Emotion fires freedom.

So does confidence. What you lose in Christ in certainty, you more than recover in confidence. Confidence is born of obedience, the obedience of faith.

One of our greatest lasting disappointments is the hard truth that the past is immutable. What is done is done.

My cyclist friend went over his handlebars head first at 20 miles an hour. As he tumbled forward into bone breaking pain he thought: “this cannot be happening. Where is the rewind button on this tape?”

But facts are stubborn things, as John Adams said.

One man begins his group meeting by bowing his head and saying softly, “I always wanted a better past”. After a moment, he raises his head and affirms: “Now I have a better past, one day at a time”.

You cannot change the past and all its disappointment. But you can live in freedom from the past, by honestly facing it, and moving on.

Here is good news! John faced disappointment and so can we. John admitted disappointment and so can we. John replaced disappointment over the past with the freedom to decide for a new future. John had the courage fully to face the delay in Christ’s return, the disappointment of the earliest church’s highest hope. That same courage became the heart of his gospel: the courage to be, in freedom. This same courage can become yours as well.

A global village needs this for salvation: a global village green, full of grace and freedom.


Here is the point of John’s plundering of the Gnostics: the Gnostic dualism of fate has become a dualism of decision.

Faith’s freedom from the world is the decision, the choice, the selection, the predilection, the preferential option to love.

These things are spoken that you may believe that Jesus in the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.

This week you can choose to grow in faith, and so find a fuller part of your second identity. This week you can choose to grow in love, and so open a fuller part of the world’s imagination.

Faith is personal commitment to an unverifiable truth. It involves a leap.

Faith is an objective uncertainty grasped with subjective certainty. It involves a leap.

Faith is the way to salvation, a real identity and a rich imagination. But it does involve a leap. Now is the time to jump.

Love is faith’s freedom in the world.

Love is faith’s freedom from the world.

Love is faith’s freedom to transform the world

All of us are better when we are loved.

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