Sunday, February 17, 2008

A: Lent II (17 February 2008)

John 3:1-17

Genesis 12:1-8

At St Alban's Chapel, on the campus of Louisiana State University, on the wall of the office, was—when I lived in that area—a very peculiar framed poster. In beautiful calligraphy and vivid colors, it contains the sixteenth verse of the third chapter of every book in the Bible that has a sixteenth verse of a third chapter. It is, of course, a humorous attempt to recognize the special status of the sixteenth verse of the third chapter of St John's gospel.

John 3:16.

There was a time in the not too distant past when it was difficult to attend a major sporting event and not see at least one large placard with that biblical reference on it. Martin Luther called this one verse of scripture, “the gospel in miniature.” Many of us learned it by heart before we were old enough to read. In the language of the King James Version, which is how I learned it, “...God so loved the world...that he gave his only begotten Son...that whosoever believeth in him should not perish...but have everlasting life.” This verse is the climax of the gospel reading for today's liturgy. I think it's safe to say, though, that the context in which John 3:16 occurs is somewhat less universally familiar than the verse itself. It's part of a curious conversation between Jesus and a gentleman named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Jewish religious establishment in Jerusalem.

He came to Jesus at night, as if wanting to avoid the public spotlight. We're not given very many details, but it seems reasonable to speculate that Nicodemus came to Jesus in response to a deeply-felt personal need to find out for himself just who Jesus was, to find out whether Jesus might be the one who could relieve the deep spiritual ache, the deep spiritual hunger, which he experienced ... but which his prominent position kept him from discussing openly. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus reads between the lines and understands Nicodemus to be asking, “How can I get in on whatever it is you have? How can I enter the kingdom of God?”

This is just one version of a universal question, perhaps the primal human concern. In the sixteenth chapter of Acts, the Philippian jailer, speaking to St Paul, puts it, “What must I do to be saved?” Others have said, “How can I find the meaning of life?”, or “How should I behave?”, or “What happens after I die, and is there anything I can do to affect my fate?”. There are as many versions of this question as there have been inhabitants of this planet, but they're really all the same question. How can I enter the kingdom of God?

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and the Pharisees, as we know, were avid students of the Law of Moses. A Pharisee would be inclined to believe that one enters the kingdom of God through a kind of moral perfection...that can be attained by carefully studying and learning what God requires of us and by persistent striving to live by these requirements.

This approach is not unique to the Pharisees, of course. It represents a broad popular consensus, among many professing Christians, as well as among Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and the adherents of most of the world's religions, from the most sophisticated to the most primitive. It reminds me of an experience from my childhood. I was eleven or twelve, probably, and saw an ad in Boys Life or some such magazine. It proclaimed a golden opportunity to earn a new bicycle, or camping equipment, or something else that would appeal to a twelve-year old boy, an opportunity that could be fulfilled simply by sending away for some attractive boxes of Christmas cards which you could take around to your friends and neighbors, who would eagerly purchase them. Well, it sounded great to me, and I promptly talked my mother into allowing me to send away for the Christmas cards. I was sure I could do it, and wouldn't have let anyone tell me otherwise. Those of you who have ever been or ever had a pre-adolescent child can probably identify with some aspect of this experience. The majority of the time, though, there never is any new bike or camping equipment. In my case, the only one who bought any Christmas cards... was my mother, who bought the whole lot of them—at wholesale, of course—to get me off the hook with my supplier.

Such youthful financial plans are guaranteed to go awry most of the time. But any plan to enter the kingdom of God by means of human moral perfection is guaranteed to go awry all the time. We cannot do it. We're doomed from the start. St Paul tells us in the third chapter of Romans that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” We will never be able to sell enough Christmas cards to earn ourselves a place in the kingdom of God. Yet, at times, particularly in the late Middle Ages, it has seemed to the Christian faithful as though the Church indeed teaches that we earn our way, we qualify, for Heaven on the basis of our good works. So, in the great turmoil that we now call the Protestant Reformation, there was a quite justifiable reaction against this notion. The Reformers condemned the idea of “salvation by works” as a distortion of the gospel. The real good news, they claimed, is that God offers us salvation freely, on His own initiative. He invites us into His kingdom, not because we earn it, but because He loves us. God is like my mother, who purchased my freedom from the Christmas card company by buying up the cards.

This reminds me another childhood experience. There was a rather short-lived television show from the late '50s or early '60s called The Millionaire. Every week a handsome fellow named Michael Anthony would be summoned into the office of his anonymous employer, who would present him with an envelope and instructions on whom to deliver it to. The envelope always contained a certified check for one million dollars — (which was actually serious money back then!). Mr Anthony would then travel far and wide to deliver the check to its unsuspecting payee, someone who had neither asked for it nor earned it, but always someone who badly needed it. All they had to do was accept the check. They didn't have to pass a test or remember a password, or promise to change their ways or endorse a line of athletic shoes or even verify a winning number at the lottery office. It was all done for them.

It's an idea that might have made for entertaining television, but it's not very good theology. It's one thing to sing, as we did on Ash Wednesday, that God accepts me “just as I am.” But it's quite another to suggest that God is content to leave me there, just as I am. “How I am” is the problem! “How I am” is what led Nicodemus to interrogate Jesus about entrance into the kingdom of God. God accepts us just as we are, but He's not interested in letting us remain in that state. To believe that those who enter the kingdom of God are the passive recipients of God's universal and non-discriminatory acceptance distorts what the Protestant Reformers were trying to say. It is tantamount to belief in what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” It's a kind of salvation that certainly has no need for the Son of God to die on a cross.

So, if salvation is based neither on our activity —qualifying by obeying a set of rules, nor on our passivity —simply accepting a gift with no strings attached, the question remains: How does one enter the kingdom of God?

The first clue that today's liturgy supplies us with is found in the Old Testament character of Abraham. Abraham was living quite happily and prosperously and, as far as we can tell, inconspicuously, in the land of his birth, minding his own business, when the Lord “said” to him, in whatever way the Lord says things, “Abraham, I want you to fold up your tent and pack up all your belongings and gather up your household and move —about 500 miles to the southwest, to a place called Canaan. In that land, I am going to make of your descendants a great nation, a nation which I will bless, and through which all the nations of the world will themselves be blessed.”

Now, in no place are we told that Abraham was particularly qualified for this honor. Nowhere are we told that God was paying Abraham back for some good deed, or even alot of good deeds, that he had done. God simply chose Abraham for God's own reasons. But neither was Abraham passive, like a puppet on a string. Abraham responded to the Lord with trusting faith, trusting faith, moreover, that was demonstrated by concrete behavior: he indeed did pick up and move to Canaan. He obeyed God. And in the process of obeying God, Abraham was changed. As a result of his obedient faith, Abraham was transformed in his inner being. St Paul says that this faith was “reckoned” to him—credited to his account, so to speak—as righteousness, as being just, as being in proper relation to God. From our New Testament vantage point, we would say that Abraham was granted entrance into the Kingdom of God.

In today's passage from St John's gospel, we get another clue, another insight into this whole mystery. Jesus says to Nicodemus, “You've got to be born from above, born anew, born all over again, get a fresh start. You've got to receive from the Holy Spirit a new lease on your life with God. You've got to turn your eyes to the Son of Man lifted up—lifted up on the cross, lifted up in resurrection from the dead, and lifted up in ascension to the right hand of the Father. In a word, Nicodemus, you've got to be transformed. God does the transforming, but it happens in you, and you've got to let it happen.”

This is my own parable now: The kingdom of God is like a limestone quarry, from which the materials are being dug for the construction of a great cathedral. One piece of limestone is taken and left just as it is, because it's going to rest in an obscure corner of the foundation where it will never see the light of day or feel the admiring gaze of a human eye. The piece next to it, identical in every respect, is chosen to form the intricately carved crucifix that will be set in the reredos behind the high altar. This second piece of stone did nothing to earn or deserve such a glorious destiny, but before it can take its prominent and honored position, it must be born again. It must be transformed through submission to the skilled and patient chisel of the master stone mason. God so loved the world—that is, every person in the world—that he gave his only begotten Son—which is to say, his very being, his very self—that whoever believes in him—whoever responds to him with the obedient faith of which Abraham is an example—should not perish, but be transformed within by being born again by water and the Holy Spirit, and thereby have eternal life, which is to say, entrance into the kingdom of God. Amen.

No comments: