A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 16, 2014 (II Lent, Year A)
Did you notice it? Maybe it’s not as recognizable without the guy in the rainbow-colored wig holding up a big sign but this is his day! We just read John 3:16 — the verse popularized by that guy in the wig who always seemed to have the best seats at sporting events in the 1970s and 80s. I always thought of him as a sort of evangelical Zelig. He’d be sitting behind the plate at the World Series or at the 50 yard line at the Super Bowl or court-side during the NBA finals holding up his sign whenever the camera was on him, which was often.
I have to admit, it worked on me. As a kid I went and memorized the verse — something young Episcopalians are not exactly known for doing. “And God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” I must have been watching TV in a hotel room and picked up the ubiquitous Gideon’s Bible because I wouldn’t normally have turned to the King James Version.
But of course our gospel reading this morning isn’t about a single verse of Scripture. We always read the Bible within a broader context. That’s the problem with focusing on one particular verse, no matter how compelling or inspiring as it may be. And this morning our context is a conversation between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus, who is identified as a leader in the Jewish community. Granted holding up a sign that says John 3:1-17 isn’t exactly a great marketing ploy. I certainly wasn’t going to run off and memorize 17 verses of the Bible.
On the surface of things, Nicodemus and Jesus are having a conversation about faith. But they’re really having a parallel interaction because Nicodemus has no idea what Jesus is talking about. It’s as if they’re speaking completely different languages. And they are. Nicodemus came to Jesus by cover of darkness (which is why I once heard Bishop Michael Curry of North Carolina refer to him as “Nic at Night”).
Now this is an important detail; John’s always playing with imagery of dark and light and so it’s important to pay attention to the time of day when reading his gospel. Yes, there was a practical reason for Nicodemus to be skulking around at night — to be seen with this Jesus whom many of his peers deemed a dangerous, rabble-rousing heretic would be scandalous. But more importantly, in the spiritual sense, Nicodemus is very much still in the dark. He has drawn close to the source of all light but he remains blinded.
And this initial conversation between the two sounds absurd. Jesus is talking on a spiritual plane and Nicodemus is stuck on the literal. Jesus tells him that, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” To which Nicodemus replies, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Well, that’s ridiculous obviously; an image that reminds me a lot of another comical image in Scripture, when Jesus says it’s “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”
It’s easy to use this text to mock those who take the Bible literally. I mean, Nicodemus comes across as a bit of a buffoon here, lacking any sense of nuance — something we might accuse “born again” Christians of. But tread carefully here. Because I think there’s more of Nicodemus in us than we might care to admit. Not in the literalism but in the partial understanding. Nicodemus is truly stumped here — he’s not playing dumb or purposefully misinterpreting Jesus’ words. He really doesn’t understand this new understanding of relationship with God and his head’s about to explode (metaphorically, not literally, just to be clear).
Sometimes I think Jesus must have the patience of a saint in dealing with us — well, I know he does. We don’t get it, we fall away, we don’t listen to his words or follow his actions. And I picture him just shaking his head as he gently calls us back again and again to the path of righteousness. We all do and say some things that must look and sound pretty foolish to Jesus. Things that must sound at least as nonsensical as Nicodemus’ response to Jesus.
Like Nicodemus we struggle with meaning, with what’s knowable and what’s not. Faith is hard work. Belief is hard work. It would be easy to skip over the struggle and go sit with rainbow man in his choice seats. Taking John 3:16 in isolation, as beloved a verse as it may be, glosses over the hard work of being in relationship with the living Christ. To do so ignores the struggle and God is very much right in the midst of our spiritual yearning and wrestling. A mature faith demands interaction rather than passivity.
Last week we heard about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, as we always do on the First Sunday in Lent, and Anne pointed out that Jesus’ own struggle with temptation doesn’t really get the treatment it deserves. He goes back and forth with the devil quoting Scripture faster than a Baptist preacher after a triple shot of espresso in an amazing display of spiritual repartee. But those were short interactions and he was out in the wilderness for 40 long days and 40 long nights. That would have left plenty of time to wrestle with his very human doubts and questions about how his ministry would actually unfold. He figured it out, of course, and left the wilderness to begin his public ministry, but I doubt it was easy.
The broader question is, how can we receive that which we don’t fully understand? When it comes to the question of faith and mystery and understanding, I’m always brought back to the Eucharist. Every week we reach out our hands and hearts and souls to receive the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood. Yet, if I had a brief quiz up at the communion rail and asked people to describe precisely what was happening and why before handing over a wafer, no one would be receiving communion — including me. There is mystery involved in faith. And there are also things that we will never understand, at least on this side of the Resurrection. All will one day be revealed but not now. Not yet. And some of faith is becoming comfortable in the uncertainty, in the questions, in the mystery.
Unlike Rainbow Man who may well have had a unique calling — though I googled him yesterday and learned that he’s currently in jail on kidnapping charges — Nicodemus is ultimately a figure of hope for us. Despite his confusion and astonishment at Jesus’ words, later in John’s gospel, at the time of Jesus’ arrest we hear Nicodemus referred to as “one of them,” meaning a disciple of Jesus. And after the crucifixion he joins Joseph of Arimathea this time, significantly, in the daytime — in the light — to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. So between the lines we see spiritual growth happening right before our eyes. Which is precisely what we’re all invited to enter into during this continuing season of Lent.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck