Saturday, March 11, 2017

What Is REAL? Reflections on John 3.1-16

What is REAL?
Reflections on John 3.1-17

RCL Lent 2A
12 March 2017

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

                  3.1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council.  2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.  For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
                  3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
                  4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked.  “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
                  5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.  6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.  7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’  8 The wind blows wherever it pleases.  You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.  So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
                  9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
                  10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?  11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.  12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?  13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.  14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
                  16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Prelude:  Loving the Questions
            In my first parish I was put in charge of confirmation preparation.  I looked at the materials that they had been using for some time and decided that I would change how we prepared our young people for this important event in their lives.  So, we used the questions of the baptismal covenant as the outline for our time together.  I encouraged the young people to go home and discuss these questions with their parents.

            After the first week the rector called me into his office.  He had received several telephone calls from parents who were unhappy at the new programme.  “Why?” I asked.  “You’re sending the kids home with questions their parents don’t know how to answer.”  “But my point is,” I said, “ that they learn to love the questions.  We’re going to spend all our lives trying to understand what they mean for us.  There might actually be several ‘answers’.”

What is REAL?
            “What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room.  “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
            “Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse.  “It’s a thing that happens to you.  When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
            “Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
            “Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful.  “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
            “Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
            “It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse.  “You become.  It takes a long time.  That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.  Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.  But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” [1]

Born from Above or Born Again?
            I admit to a great deal of sympathy for Nicodemus.  He’s come to Jesus at some personal risk to understand the message this itinerant rabbi from Nazareth is sharing with the people.  Instead of a satisfying and informative theological discussion about the coming of God’s kingdom, Jesus speaks in riddles and leaves Nicodemus holding a bagful of questions.  As if to add to Nicodemus’ confusion, Jesus even plays on the two meanings of the Greek word anothen --- we need to be born ‘again’ but we cannot unless we are born ‘from above’.  But I think I understand the play on words.
            When I was growing up in Colorado Springs at the foot of Pikes Peak, my perspective on my hometown was relatively flat.  To be sure, there were some hills around my house that my friends and I would climb as part of our adventures, but these did not really change my perspective on where I lived.  Then one day my Scout troop climbed Mount Manitou, one of the peaks that make up the massif of Pikes Peak.  When I reached the summit, I turned to the east and life was changed.

            From the summit I could see to the eastern horizon.  Looking from above, my hometown which I thought was immense was really a small area of trees and buildings and lakes hedged on the west by the massif and unbounded to the east by the Great Prairies that reach from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains.  I could the smaller towns that seemed so far from the ‘city’.

            I looked from above and I born again.  The change in perspective gained from the heights caused me to reconsider my entire view of the world in which I lived.  And I was born again.  I began the journey that we all are called to make, the journey to becoming ‘real’.

Being Born from Above
            As some of you know, I am a fan of detective stories, whether in book form or on television.  One of the key dimensions of solving the mystery is the accumulation of ‘witnesses’ or, as fits my sermon today, ‘perspectives’ on the events that are being investigated.  My service on a jury almost forty years ago and my experience of a daughter who is a Crown attorney has taught me to be reluctant to come to any conclusion on the basis of a single witness, a single ‘perspective’.

            To see the world as God sees it, to be ‘born from above’, requires a commitment on our part to seek out a variety of perspectives.  The most important perspectives come from the Scriptures where we hear the voices of Jewish and Christian people describe their experiences of the living God.  Although some folk focus on the similarities of their experiences, I often find the differences more intriguing and more illuminating that the similarities.  The differences reveal a tiny glimpse into God’s perspective as it is given expression by human experience and reflection.

            But the perspectives do not stop with the last book of the New Testament.  Over the centuries believers in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Moses and Jesus, have shared their experience of and reflection on the living God.  Right now I am reading Resident Aliens:  Life in the Christian Colony by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon.  First published more than twenty-five years ago it is enjoying a new popularity as Christians in North America struggle with how to be ‘a strange people in a strange land’.  I hope that you have found a companion to join you on your Lenten journey who can offer you her or his perspective of how God looks at our world. 

Being Born Again
            If the truth be told, every Christian who is serious about being a disciple of Jesus is born again --- and again --- and again --- and again.  I remember one of my friends who happened to be the rector of a small parish in a very conservative small town where Anglicans were a distinct and, I must say, distrusted minority telling the story of encountering one of the other local pastors in a coffee shop on a Sunday afternoon. 

            My friend had just come from celebrating a baptism.  The pastor approached him and said, ‘Forgive me for asking, but I am curious:  Have you been born again?’  My friend looked his colleague straight in the eye and said, ‘Yes.  About an hour ago.’  His colleague grasped my friend’s hand, shook it vigorously and said, ‘God be praised.’  When my friend told me the story, he added, ‘I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I thought that I might be born again the next day when I celebrated holy communion at a nursing home.  It would’ve confused him, I think.’

            Every time we gather as a community to hear the Scriptures proclaimed, to offer our intercessions, petitions and thanksgiving, to share in the bread broken and the wine poured, and then to be sent forth as Christ’s agents wherever God has placed us, we can be born again.  To be born again is to have a renewed sense of our place in God’s world and our role in bringing God’s promise closer to fulfillment.

Becoming Real
            My friends, I hope that this Lent brings you and I one step closer to becoming ‘real’.  We share Nicodemus’ search to become ‘real’ by asking questions of this enigmatic rabbi from Nazareth.  May we find companions who help us be born from above by offering us new perspectives on how God looks at this world.  May we find each eucharist an experience of being born again as Christ’s disciples.  I hope that Easter will find us less easy to break, with fewer sharp edges and less needy of careful keeping --- but definitely more real.

[1] Margery Williams Bianco, The Velveteen Rabbit or, How Toys Become Real (Kennebunkport ME:  Applesauce Press, 2012), 9-11.

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