March 16, 2014

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

John 3: 1-17

Every Time I Feel the Spirit

Today our scripture includes the famous Bible verse John 3:16 —“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (KJV). Not everybody knows the story of Nicodemus, but many people learn this Bible verse. We Christians carry it with us like a key chain.

I remember first learning this verse while playing a Bible trivia board game. It was printed on a cross in the center of the board, where you put your piece to start and where you land to win, the beginning and the end, the alpha and omega of the game. I mean here we’re playing an entire game with questions on different Bible verses, but this is the verse printed on the middle of the board.

I think we all can understand the appeal in trying to sum up our faith in a single verse. When people ask, “What do you believe?” It is handy to have a sentence on the tip of your tongue. And if you’re going to choose a Bible verse to quote, you could do a whole lot worse than “For God so loved the world…”

This verse is alluring in its poetic simplicity, and it gives us something to do: Believe in Jesus, then you will not perish, you will have eternal life. Amen.

Of course, ask anybody that’s ever tried and they’ll tell you believing in Jesus is not so simple. Even leaving aside matters of translation and context, we twenty-first century English-speakers mean different things when we talk about believing in. You could believe in the existence of an allegedly mythical creature like Bigfoot. Which is different from believing in a seventh grader who’s struggling to learn algebra. This is different from believing in any kind of ism like creationism or pacifism. Once Mark Twain was asked, “Do you believe in infant baptism?” To which he replied, “Believe in it? Hell, I’ve seen it!”[1] So there you go.

John 3:16 is a Bible verse that holds a whole messy world, a mystery we can barely pronounce much less get our minds around, and yet. Who among us does not appreciate its eloquent clarity, its gentle invitation. Who among us has never prayed the prayer that goes, “Come on God, just tell me what to do and I’ll do it!” I have prayed that prayer. Maybe you have too. If you have ever bargained, “Look, I just want to understand this. I just want to know what to do…” then we can understand where Nicodemus is coming from.

The story tells us Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a teacher of the law, and the action begins when he comes to see Jesus at night. Now the writer of the Gospel of John is not so subtle with symbolism. Understand that Nicodemus is in the dark. He just doesn’t get it, and honestly we can relate. He is trying to get to know Jesus, and honestly we can relate.

Right away, he approaches Jesus with great respect. “Rabbi, you must come from God. No one could perform these signs apart from God.” Now Jesus does not say, “Why yes, Nicodemus. Thank you for noticing. Here, let me show you how I do the water to wine party trick. It’s pretty nifty.” What Jesus says is, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born anew.”

Look just tell me what to do and I’ll do it, and your answer is, “Be born anew”? Surely Jesus you don’t mean for us to get physically re-born!

Jesus tells Nicodemus, “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is Spirit… The Spirit (or the wind) blows where it chooses. You hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (3:6 and 8).

Maybe he’s intrigued or maybe he’s annoyed, but Nicodemus isn’t ready to give up. “Okay, I don’t quite get this Jesus; how can this be?” Then it’s Jesus who seems to get snarky. “Come on Nicodemus, if I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” This is where I’d like to interrupt Jesus and tell him how the earthly and the heavenly are not so distinct.

But Nicodemus doesn’t interrupt him. And Jesus goes on to tell him that the Son of Man descends from heaven and gets lifted up on the cross, lifted up in resurrection. For God loved the world like this. God gave us Jesus and everyone who believes in him has eternal life. See if you’re going to believe in Jesus and participate in life outside of time, if you want to see the kingdom of God, you must be born again. If you want to claim the keychain bible verse of John 3:16, you must be born again.

Seems to me, this is not the quick answer or the clear direction Nicodemus was looking for. After Jesus gives this speech, I wonder if Nicodemus crossed his arms and gave a long sigh. I wonder how felt when he walked home very early in the morning, when it was still dark.

Again and again, we must find our way into new life. Again and again, we are born anew. Poet E.E. Cummings says it like this, “We can never be born enough.”[2] Of course, this means we will change. And you know what they say, they say the problem is we don’t like change. We like what we like, thank you very much. We want things to stay the same, is what they are saying, and that makes sense to me.

But I’ve gotta tell you, this is not what I see. I see us choosing to change all the time. People who have spent their lives drinking choose to get sober, and they have to make this choice every day. People who have held onto old prejudices take them out one afternoon, and set them in the sunshine, and let them go. People find new communities of faith, and learn to speak new languages, and decide it’s not too late to take up the piano.

If you ask me, the problem is not change —we’re always changing. The problem comes when we’re not in control of the change. When you consider the experiences in your own life that have been most transformative, I’m guessing some of these happened to you without your consent. This is the problem with being born of the Spirit. On a good day we can hear the sound of it, but we are not in charge of where it comes from or where it goes.

We cannot make ourselves be born again. We cannot force ourselves to believe, no matter how hard we try. But we don’t have to cross our arms and give a long sigh. We don’t have to give up and go home —not when grace is already here, when the Spirit of God pours through the very breath in our body, and we can give our consent to its compassion. We can look and say yes…

Next Sunday our congregation will hold the event Planting Your Seeds for Our Garden of Goals. As Molly explained, this is when we will fill out the shape and color of these fourteen provocative proposals before we vote on our top choices. In this, we will discern the identity and direction for our church. This will only work if the people of Church of Peace show up and help out. And oh my goodness, you are a people who show up and help out.

Now we could come to this gathering the same way Nicodemus approached Jesus. We could arrive charged up ready to work and say to each other, “Just tell me what I need to do, and I’ll do it. Let’s get this done.” This is not bad, but please understand. There’s more to this than getting it done, and we’re not in charge of all the change.

This week I am asking for your prayers for God’s vision for our church. You might pray for these proposals and listen for the quiet groaning of God’s grace ready to break loose. Out of the corner of your eye, you might catch a glimpse of new life already in bloom. The Holy Spirit is up to something around here. You can believe in that.

This kind of noticing-listening prayer is the spiritual practice of discernment. And when it comes to discerning the vision for our church, we need everybody’s help, even if you’re visiting our church for the first time today, even if you’re not going to be here next week.

Sometimes theatre people will play the game of improv freeze tag. Usually it goes like this. A few people begin acting out a scene that they are making up as they go along. Then someone watching waits for the right moment to yell “freeze!” and enter the scene. This person might keep the same scene going or they might shift the story entirely, but the very best thing you can do is say “Yes And…” Yes, I accept your premise. And now see what happens! Yes, I’m your fourth grade teacher. And look our classroom has been teleported to Jupiter.[3]

Discerning the Holy is just like improv. The great teachers of discernment will tell you to pay attention to your resistance, because God’s call provokes our protest. And this is good. But please do this too. Please pay attention to your joy. Feel the breath of God pour through your body, the Spirit movin’ in your heart. Watch for the right moment to jump into the scene and see how the story unfolds.

I don’t know how Nicodemus felt when he left Jesus and walked home in the dark. A little later in the fourth gospel, Nicodemus is named as one who kinda-sorta speaks up in Jesus’ defense (John 7: 51). Which is interesting. When Jesus is killed, it is Nicodemus who joins Joseph of Arimathea in attending to Jesus’ body, wrapping Christ in linen cloths and spices (John 19:39). Heaven brought down to earth. And we’re all born again and again.

The good news is we don’t have to make ourselves believe —not when grace is already here, when the Spirit of God pours through the very breath in our body. We can give our consent to its compassion. We can look and say “Yes And…”

For God so loved the world he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life. Our God loves the world like this: she gives us Jesus Christ, and see all life is made new. See we are all made new, even our church. Amen.

[1] Brueggemann, Walter. The Covenanted Self: Explorations in Law and Covenant. Augsburg Fortress: Minneapolis, 1999. p. 90.

[2] special thanks to Rev. Robert Hardies at All Souls Church, Unitarian in Washington, DC. He introduced me to this idea and this quote in his sermon “Born Again and Again”

[3] For a fantastic discussion on the rules of improv, see Tina Fey’s description in Bossypants. Little Stranger Inc: New York, 2011. pages 84-85.

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