2 Lent Year A: Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17
St. John’s Episcopal Church Montgomery, AL
Sunday, March 12, 2017
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
The Roman Catholic Church is big on penance. As a child growing up in that tradition, I was taught that in the season of Lent, I should give up something as penance for my sinful nature. And maybe giving up Coca-Cola or chocolate was helpful in setting this season apart and reminding me through abnegation that there was something more important to my faith than simply the words, I believe. In a lot of ways, I think this is still a true and helpful way to engage in the practice of observing Lent, especially as a child or as a newbie Christian”denying ourselves is good for us and often teaches us something about our faith and ourselves. But, as we mature spiritually and begin to wrestle with who we are and how we live a daily Christian life, a transactional approach to faith”giving or giving up something in order to gain a reward”becomes less fulfilling, less enriching, and less nourishing to our spiritual growth.
If we continue to follow a transactional line of faith, we discover that our faith becomes stagnate”we go to church, but we don’t get that much out of the worship, pretty soon our attendance begins to slip off because its not enriching our spiritual development; or, we say our prayers more out of habit or obligation and less from a place of conviction resulting in a prayer life that is more rote than rite.; or, we hear the stories of the Bible and accept them for the traditional understanding that has always been attributed them instead of wrestling with them to find inspiration.
We have allowed our faith to become tired, true only in our acclamation of it, and stagnate in its transactional status. But what if our faith could mean more? What if it could enliven us and invigorate us? What if instead of simply giving up or taking on something for Lent we started replacing things in our life, challenging our understanding of the world? What if we gave up our cars and rode bikes or the bus? Sure it might be a bit inconvenient, but maybe it also opens our eyes to a new world of opportunity or understanding in how other’s who have to take the bus, actually live. What if we stopped emailing or Facebooking and sent a note by snail mail instead? Or how about giving up that smartphone even if just for a day and using an old fashioned telephone or a set of encyclopedias”how different would life be? The point is not to tell you what to do or not do in observance of this Lenten season, but to begin to shine a light on how the practices of our daily life can reinforce our limited understanding of the world.
We all have our own understanding of the world, our faith, and our community. And we rarely honestly question those understandings”accepting them for the truths we have long associated with them. But every so often something happens that begins to crack open a door to a new way of being. That’s what happens to Nicodemus today”something has made him curious about Jesus and cracked open a door that can lead to transformation.
Nicodemus is well versed in his faith, he knows the Torah, he is a Pharisee, he has authority and wisdom. His whole life has been spent in pursuit of his belief in God and yet this conversation with Jesus floors him. Though Jesus asks him, Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? It is not fair of us to judge him as ignorant nor do I think does Jesus. Instead, I think Jesus is showing compassion for the limitations that knowledge clamps down on our faith. Jesus is throwing out some challenging theology”an approach to faith that has never been understood before. We hear this passage two thousand years later and immediately think of baptism or being born again and though we are not caught off guard as Nicodemus is in this conversation, I think we might suffer from the same offense as Nicodemus in this conversation.
Thinking about baptism and being born again is the equivalent of Nicodemus’s questions regarding being born after growing old or reentering the mother’s womb. We have limited this passage to our own understanding of our faith. Jesus says nothing about being born again, he talks about being born from above. We might associate that with baptism, but next week when we hear the story of the woman at the well, we might find we are better off reflecting on being born of water and Spirit as living water, not limited to that found in our fount.
When we think we understand our faith or even when we think in terms of possessing faith, we become stagnate”filtering everything through one way of being, one way of understanding. This is the uncertainty of Nicodemus, he has only one filter”the law. But he is beginning to question his filter, which is why he has come to Jesus at night.
To break free of that filter, to begin to allow our faith to be engaged and wrestle with what we were taught as children in Sunday School, to approach faith from different perspectives and not place a value of rightness or wrongness challenges us to let the wind blow where it chooses. That is an exciting and active approach to faith, one that caught Nicodemus attention and began to transform him. It is, after all, Nicodemus who will step into the light and speak up for Jesus against the Pharisees when they want to arrest him in a few chapters. And, after Jesus’s death, it is Nicodemus who will bring the spices to anoint his body.
I’m not sure that Nicodemus ever understood this being born from above thing. I’m not sure we do either. We, like Nicodemus, get stuck in thinking about being born again and I’m not sure that’s quite the same thing or even what Jesus is talking about. But that’s the rub, to be able to admit that we don’t know what Jesus is talking about is a step closer to faith”to ask questions is to recognize that there might be more out there for us to explore”and that is the kind of faith that is active, alive, and seeking.
We need to be more curious about our faith”asking like Nicodemus, how are these things to be rather than accepting them because this is what we’ve been told all our lives. Acceptance makes us passive Christians and our faith becomes tepid. To question and wrestle with what we believe about God is to begin to enter into a dynamic and active faith”one that breathes and lives and moves us into being.
We talk about having faith as if it is a possession and assume that is all we need”to possess faith. But faith is not a possession, not something that one has, it is something that one does. It is much better understood as a verb rather than a noun. Faith is more than an acquisition. We, as Christians, must think less about our faith as transactional”a one time purchase”and more about our faith as transformational. To be born again is a daily decision to choose living water, to actively choose Jesus, to become alive to the Holy Spirit, to be willing to partner with God in doing his work of redemption in the world.