Who Can See? – John 9.1-41

March 30, 2014 – 4th Sunday in Lent

Most Sundays we have two readings. This morning, we’ll have one reading from the gospel and the psalm will be sung by the choir as the anthem.

The gospel reading comes again this Sunday in Lent from the gospel of John. It is an expertly crafted story with the hallmarks of the writer of John. Watch and listen for who can truly see and who is unknowingly blind. The story contrasts physical sight and spiritual sight and it’s not always what the characters in the story expect. Just like in the story about Jesus and Nicodemus and Jesus and the Woman at the Well, Jesus is often talking about one reality while the other person thinks Jesus is talking about something else. Pay attention to the ways in this story that people are confused and scared and limited in their ability to see. Notice also where the truth begins to emerge and how it finds its way through the story.

This is John 9.1-41. Listen for the Word of God. [dramatic reading with six voices]

 

On Friday night, we went to see “The Christians” at Actors Theatre. I saw a number of Presbyterians there. The play is about how we Christians know what is true. Or what we believe to be true. And what happens when what we believe to be true changes because we believe God has told us something new.

It’s the story that’s we’ve seen played out in the news a number of times in recent years when a pastor has a transforming experience and that person’s mind is changed about what is true and what God thinks about the world and the dividing lines that we Christians have typically kept in place. Dividing lines that we’ve believed were God’s intention and God’s will.

The play does a good job of highlighting the intense consequences that follow when a religious leader comes to believe something different than what they have believed–and proclaimed to their congregation–in the past. Not just the consequences of people leaving the congregation, taking their money and energy elsewhere. But also the relationship consequences. People begin to mistrust each other. They feel betrayed. They fear the spiritual consequences of one another’s beliefs.

In the play at Actors, the belief in question is whether a person has to believe Jesus is the Son of God in order to be with God eternally and if there is a hell where all the people go who haven’t believed in Jesus.

But the play could be about any number of theological or social or political issues about which Christians disagree. The play could have just as easily been about a new person in town who has power to heal people. Many people are drawn to him. The newspaper has been running stories about a man who claims he was physically healed. Many of the established pastors in town believe the new guy is a charlatan and don’t like the way he is distracting their church members.

This story in John’s gospel alongside “The Christians” at Actors Theatre invites us to think about how we know what we know. And what happens to us and to those around us when we believe God has revealed–has told us–something different. And what happens when what we believe God has told us to be true is in direct opposition to what someone else believes God has told them–especially someone else whom we love and who loves us.

And you don’t have to be a religious leader to have experienced this kind of change and disruption. I know that many of you have gone through this with family and friends, neighbors and other congregations.

How do we know we’re right? How do we know what we believe is true? Can any of us know?

If we believe we’ve been given light–in the form of truth–by God, how do we use that light? To shine in someone’s eyes (and blind them by our light)? Or to illuminate an area–perhaps a path–around ourselves and others?

Can we be open to something we don’t yet know? Something that will change us in ways we can’t anticipate? What if that new truth–that we believe is revealed by God–means we will find ourselves alone? That our family and friends and community will leave us? That’s what happens to the man in John’s story and to the pastor in the play.

In the play, this is where it ends. The pastor is alone with only the hope that the answers will be made known at some future time.

In John 9, the man is found by Jesus. And Jesus reveals himself to the man. The man does not discover a text with all the answers or go to school to learn how to refute his critics. The man is found by a person. By the presence of God made known through Jesus. Jesus: the One “who bridges the distance between heaven and earth.”[1]

“Jesus,” writes seminary professor Deborah Kapp, “is the only one the man can trust…It is Jesus who transforms. It is Jesus who heals. It is Jesus who stands with the man in his final isolation.” And whatever our experience of isolation may be, “he stands with us too.”[2]

* * *

[1] Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” New Interpreters Bible, vol. IX, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 532.
[2] Deborah J. Kapp, “Pastoral Perspective – John 9.1-41” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p120.

The Faith of Nicodemus – John 3.1-17

March 16, 2014 – 2nd Sunday in Lent

As Mark said last Sunday, we are preaching from the gospels during the season of Lent. Beginning this Sunday we will hear stories from John’s gospel. This morning’s story is of Nicodemus who goes to visit Jesus at night. Next week we hear the story of the Samaritan woman who talks with Jesus beside a well. The following week is the story of the man who was born blind and who is given sight by Jesus. The week after that we hear the story of Lazarus who Jesus calls back to life after he has been dead.

In each of these stories there is a progressing plot line of belief and trust in Jesus. It starts hesitantly and ambiguously with Nicodemus and it ends with a full-throated confession by Lazarus’ sister, Martha, who names Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world from God. (11.27)

Today we begin with Nicodemus. “Nicodemus is a respected, educated theologian, well schooled in religious matters.”[1] He and his theological colleagues have been talking about this new rabbi in town. “We know you are a teacher who has come from God” he says. It sounds like they’ve been talking in the lunch room about Jesus–some of Nicodemus’ colleagues are probably skeptical and dismissive; some curious; some puzzled. I read this story about Nicodemus as about a person who is seeking. Intrigued. Curious. Wondering. Maybe in hearing about Jesus–or maybe he’s heard him speak in person–Nicodemus felt his heart strangely warmed (to use that phrase from John Wesley) but he didn’t know what to do about it or what it might mean.

So he goes to talk to Jesus himself. But not out in the open for fear of what others would think. He goes at night.

The writer of John’s gospel loves to use words that have multiple meanings–words that we can hear in different ways. Words that are confusing to the people in the story and to us because in English we only hear one meaning so it makes it a little harder for us to understand what’s going on.

“No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” Jesus says. That phrase “born from above” also means “born anew” and it means “born again.” It means all of that in the one Greek word anōthen. Born again, born anew, born from above. Only when you hear the biblical reading and the translator choose “born anew” as the NRSV does, you think that’s the real meaning of the word. In the NIV translation, which I used in college, the translators chose “born again” which makes you think that’s the real meaning of the word. If you were a Greek speaker and heard Jesus say “You must be born anōthen” you would hear the multiplicity of meanings at the same time. English doesn’t allow that so we need to hold all three meanings at the same time. Imagine holding three good sized oranges in one hand–trying to keep them all in your hand without any one falling out. That’s what we’ve got to do when we hear this story. Jesus tells Nicodemus to see the realm of God–to know the time of God’s reign–one must be born again, born anew, born from above.

Nicodemus latches on to the physical impossibility of being born again. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” It doesn’t make any sense to him.

Jesus only makes it more confusing. “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” Which doesn’t really clear up anything for Nicodemus. Water could still be about physical birth–the breaking waters being a sign of a birth about to happen. Today, we might hear back into Jesus’s words aspects of baptism: water and the Spirit.

Finally, Nicodemus simply says, “How can these things be?” Which sounds like another way of saying, “I have no idea what in the world you are talking about.”

To which, Jesus gently chides Nicodemus. “You are a teacher of Israel–a scholar, a dedicated student of the scripture–and yet you do not understand these things?” Jesus seems to be saying, “Can’t you see beyond yourself and beyond what is immediately in front of you? Don’t look for the physical signs. Look for the Spirit. Listen for the wind. You know so much but you don’t really know.”

Nicodemus was hoping—I suspect—to have some insight to take back to theology on tap after work the next day and, instead, ends up having no idea what Jesus is talking about.

And then Nicodemus disappears from the story and Jesus turns his gaze to us. He draws on a story from Hebrew scripture where Moses and the Hebrew people are in the wilderness and poisonous serpents were biting and killing them. God told Moses to make an image of a serpent, elevate it on a pole and when someone was bitten, they would look at the elevated serpents and they would live. Only now, Jesus transfigures the story to be about himself. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”

In the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, “Son of Man” (or we could say “the Human One”) is a title associated with Jesus’ suffering and death, and future coming. But in John’s Gospel, “the Son of Man[–the Human One–] is the one who bridges the distance between heaven and earth.”[2] The Human One goes between heaven and earth and connects the two. Like a thin place, as the Celts talk about. A place where the veil between heaven and earth is pulled back and you see what is real—only it’s not a place but a person—Jesus.

In John’s gospel, remember Jesus doesn’t start on earth and then ascend to heaven. Jesus starts in heaven and descends to earth. Think back to the first chapter of John–the passage that is read on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day–In the beginning was the Word and the Word became flesh and lived among us. Or as Eugene Peterson says it in The Message, “The Word became flesh and came to live in the neighborhood.” The Word, the Light, the Truth, the Human One, has come from God to make God known to the world.

So the Human One must be lifted up “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that God gave the only Begotten Son, so that everyone who believes may not die, but have eternal life.”

And now we’re at another word in John that has double meaning that we lose because we’re not Greek speakers. That word we translate “believe” also means “entrust” or “trust.” We have grown used to hearing “whosoever believes” will have eternal life but it is also “whosoever trusts” will have eternal life. Trusting and believing. They present as different actions in English but in the words of Jesus in John’s Gospel they are parts of the same whole.

And contrary to popular culture, “eternal life” in John’s gospel does not mean some idyllic life in heaven after we die. What this gospel means by eternal life is the change that happens because of faith in Jesus. “To have eternal life is to be given life as a child of God” which is what God gives to all of us. It is life “lived in the unending presence of God”[3] which is a present reality. We can live in the unending presence of God now–and that is eternal life. Now.

We don’t know from this story what Nicodemus took back to work the next day. We don’t know if he told his colleagues about his confusing conversation with Jesus. We don’t know if he continued to seek Jesus out. But later on in the gospel, when some of the religious leaders want to have Jesus arrested, Nicodemus spoke up, “Our Law doesn’t judge someone without first hearing him, does it?” (7.51) At the very least, Jesus deserves a fair trial, Nicodemus says. The only other place Nicodemus shows up in this gospel is after Jesus has been killed. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea take the broken body of Jesus off the cross and reverently and lovingly prepare it for burial. (19.39)

That’s not a lot to build a case on but it does make me wonder about what Nicodemus was seeking and the ways the life and ministry of Jesus continued to work on him—and in him.

And it makes me wonder about the ways that God meets us in Jesus–the one in whom God is made known to God’s people–made known to us.

This season of Lent that we are in–is a season of the Christian year that invites us to do things–to give up, to take on, to pray, to give our money, to abstain from whatever it is that we use to fill our deepest longings–longings that can only be filled by God. Lent is a season for looking honestly at our lives and our life with God. It can seem like a season of heavy lifting on our part.

But it’s not all about our efforts. Before us, with us and after us, God so loved the world as to give the Only Begotten One–to make God’s self known to us–so that we might have eternal life–so that we might have life with God as God’s beloved children. Not in some galaxy far, far away, but now.

That we might live our lives “reshaped and redefined by the love of God in Jesus.”[4] Not because we’ve got it all figured out or know all the answers or don’t have any questions or don’t have any doubts. But because God first loves us–loves the world–so much.

A love that brings life and power, brings peace and love to us and to the world.

* * *

[1] Frances Taylor Gench, Encounter with Jesus (Studies in the Gospel of John), Louisville: Westminster John Knox press, 2007, p25.
[2] Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” New Interpreters Bible, vol. IX, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 532.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., p555.