I want to talk to Nicodemus

John 3:1-17
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.
He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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 answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”
Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
If we all read Greek, the way John wrote it, this passage might be more accessible.  But we’re not all theologians.  Or are we? According to one of my sources, we are all theologians. Professor Karoline Lewis defines a theologian as anyone who goes through life expecting to find God at work.
Where do we start looking?  Why not the Bible?  You do not have to be a theologian to understand what this collection of books is saying.  Yes, it helps to read Hebrew and Greek to better understand some passages.  I depend on articles that explain the Greek and Hebrew to me.  But besides Greek and Hebrew, the Bible is full of people, who, even though they lived in a different time and place, are very much like you and me.

Today, we read about Nicodemus.

Nicodemus was successful.  He was one of the priests who set policy, who promoted and protected the sanctity of Judaism, who had enough power to live safely and comfortably.  Yet, being safe and comfortable is not enough if your mind is troubled.

Power and security did not protect Nicodemus from the shocking, amazing words of Jesus.  Nicodemus, a good man in every way possible, knows, in his heart, that Jesus is important, not because Jesus is popular, but because Jesus is speaking a bigger truth than anyone else in existence.

I’d like to talk to Nicodemus.  He was a man between a rock and a hard place.  He worked for a government that often expected him to go against what he believed as a man of faith.

He, along with the Pharisees and priests, worked for the Romans to keep peace for the Jews.  His boss was Pilate, a mean and selfish man who had no thought for anything but his own status and comfort.  His king, Herod, was cut from the same cloth. He answered to Caiphas, the high priest, who answered to Herod, who answered to Pilate.  Nicodemus was lucky to be part of the Jewish judicatory that was on the good side of the Roman government.  Yet he was troubled by the words of Jesus, upset, spiritually, and emotionally turned upside down by what he was hearing from Jesus.

I’d like to talk to Nicodemus.  I’d like to ask him, “Nicodemus, what exactly did Jesus say or do that made you seek him out? What did you hear?  Nicodemus, were you in the temple when Jesus was preaching?”

I’d like to talk to Nicodemus.  “Nicodemus, why were your colleagues afraid of Jesus? How could He possibly threaten a well-established Temple hierarchy and hundreds of years of tradition?

I’d like to talk to Nicodemus. He told Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” If the Jewish authorities thought Jesus came from God, why didn’t they support him?  Why didn’t they welcome him? Why didn’t they invite him to make his headquarters at the Temple?

I’d ask Nicodemus why the High Priest would reject the very Messiah he’d been praying for his whole life.

I think Nicodemus might explain to me that while personal faith and beliefs and family and tradition and heritage are all important, there are earthly powers that will not tolerate any aberration, any different idea, any belief that threatens the power and authority of that earthly power, whether it be a government or a corporation or an organization.  Once a group of people organize to maintain order, they have to work hard to make sure no one disrupts that order.  If the circumstances of a few are worsened by mandates of the organization, the few must change, not the government.

For an organization to run smoothly and efficiently, whether it be government or business or the Lions Club, most of the decision making has to be in the hands of a few people.  That’s why we elect officers in our organizations, why we elect legislators to write our laws.  If we all reported to to Des Moines or Washington, thousands of people trying to make themselves heard would results in a cacophonous chaos.

As Nicodemus knew, that smaller group could lose sight of the bigger picture and become insulated from the people they served.  Their concern devolved to keeping their own status, businesses and families secure. They became unaware of the possibility that what is helpful to one might be harmful to another. The priests were given   responsibility for the entire Jewish population, but they had neither the means nor the need to consider the individual lives of those people who followed Jesus, whose life experience was very different from theirs.  They didn’t ignore the poor, exactly.  There were laws that addressed the widow, the orphan, the foreigner.  But the laws didn’t address economic injustice or political oppression.

I’d like to ask Nicodemus, “What is your opinion of the Roman government? Do you feel safe?  Do you think the Jewish nation is safe?”

One reason for the Jewish authorities to cooperate with the Roman government was to be able to practice the 513 rules handed down in the Torah, those by-laws of the ten commandments. Otherwise, there would be no temple, no worship, no Sabbath.

Ironically, forty years later, the Temple was destroyed because enough Jewish freedom fighters arose to fight Rome—-and lost.  And yet, the faith continued.  The Jewish nation continued, though persecuted to this day. If you think Jews are accepted today, then you’ve never heard a joke about a Jew, you’ve never “jew’d anyone down,” you’ve never blamed the farm crises on Jewish bankers.

Two millennia later, the church that claims that Messiah, has its own complicity with the government.  In our time, we are seeing Christianity, like Judaism before it, claim to support the government, claim to be a political force, aiming to force its own agenda on all citizens.  Just as the Temple authorities chose to protect themselves by collaborating, so are some of our Christian brothers and sisters are choosing power and protection for themselves over “love God and love your neighbor.”

You don’t have to go to seminary to be a theologian. A theologian is anyone who goes through life expecting to find God at work.

Do you expect to find God at work somewhere?  I think, more than ever, we need to be looking for evidence of God.  And, even more importantly, we ourselves need to be that evidence through our own witnessing.

Professor Lewis says:
Every single person sitting in your pews is a theologian. They need to know this. Now more than ever. They need to be affirmed in their ability to give witness to the God in which they believe. They need to be empowered in making sense of their world through the lens of God. They need to know that they can indeed testify to the God they know, even in the face of those who profess a God they might not recognize. Not for the sake of argument. Not for the sake of winning some biblical war. Can’t we be over that already? But for the sake of invested exchange and understanding. For the sake of dialogue and learning. For the sake of real conversations about faith.

I can’t talk to Nicodemus.  I can talk to you.  Nicodemus had the privilege of talking to Jesus.  We have the privilege of talking about Jesus, about what we do as followers of Jesus.  We claim that we want to be a presence in our community. We claim to follow Jesus.  Jesus was anti-establishment—-remember that phrase from the sixties?  The Jesus I follow is still anti-establishment, counter-cultural.

Nicodemus came to Jesus in the dark of night, when no one could see him.  He wanted to follow Jesus without anybody else knowing. How do you feel about being a Christian?  Do you want anyone to know?  Do you want everyone to know?  It’s easy enough to claim Jesus when we’re standing around the dessert table at the fish fry or when we attend a funeral and recite the Lord’s prayer with the rest of the crowd.

I’m not going to give you any examples of times when you might make your claim as a Christian a little more obvious.  But I want you to think about times when you were glad Jesus wasn’t in the room or at the next table or behind you in the bleachers.

Are you only going to follow Jesus in the privacy of your home or when everybody else is?  Or are you going to acknowledge Jesus in the ordinary routine, the workplace, the family gathering?  You might be surprised: your witness may enable someone else to see God in the moment.

Nicodemus, what do you want us to know?  Nicodemus, how did you vote when the other priests wanted to turn Jesus over to Pilate? Did you call in sick that day or did you argue to invite Jesus into the sanctity of Temple life?  Nicodemus, did anyone every see you in broad daylight walking with Jesus?

Jumping through Hoops

When we have something precious, we guard it. I have two precious tablecloths, each with twelve matching napkins. One belonged to my husband’s grandmother and one belonged to my grandmother. One has beautiful insertion work and the other was lovingly embroidered by my grandmother’s best friend with the initial “S,” for my grandmother’s married name.  I use them on very special occasions and I send them to the dry cleaner’s afterward, so that they remain in good condition. Maybe your special possession is a vintage car, which you drive only on paved roads when the weather is perfect.
When we guard our precious possession, we also protect it from other people. We only let special people dine at our table or ride in our car.  If someone asked to borrow either of my tablecloths, I would have to think about it.  And if I asked to drive your vintage car, I’m pretty sure I know the answer.

The new converts in Galatia had a precious possession.  It was their Jewish faith and heritage. Their faith had taken a new twist when they heard the good news of salvation offered by Jesus Christ.   They had accepted that the Messiah had arrived in the form of Jesus Christ.  Paul had brought them this good news and his sincerity and passion and experience had convinced them that belief in Jesus was a natural extension of their faithful practice.

However, they had a hard time welcoming any who were not Jewish into this new way of life without making them jump through the hoops of Mosaic Law.  Those hoops included circumcision and following Kosher food laws.

The church has always struggled with or even delighted in making its converts jump through hoops.

Traditionally, hell has been the threat that makes us run toward Jesus.  Because, as human beings, we are not able to grasp how great and all-encompassing God’s salvation really is, we assume that we have to do something to assure our salvation and prevent our going to hell. The church of the middle ages acquiesced to this weakness by giving people “extra credit” for good deeds. This extra credit was called by an “indulgence.” By saying extra prayers or doing good deeds, one might get a little closer to heaven and a little further from hell.  However, by the thirteenth century,  one could buy an indulgence, a piece of forgiveness, by paying a church official a handsome sum of money. This was one of the practices that Martin Luther protested and in our protestant tradition, we claim that indulgences, good deeds, and special actions have nothing to do with our salvation.  Our salvation is guaranteed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not though our own power.

All we have to do is believe that Jesus is our Savior.  We have two rules that go with that belief: Love God.  Love your neighbor.

On the other hand, every church that exists has added more rules.

Every church I can think of welcomes visitors.  However, when those visitors start to act like members, they are shot down.  When Bill was nominated to be on the council at Toronto, he joyfully accepted.  He was given a set of by-laws and he took them home and read them.  How many church members have ever read the by-laws?  Bill was passionate about church and when he read the by-laws,  to his dismay, he found out that he was not eligible to be on the council because he had never been confirmed.

We took care of that.  I brought a red carnation to church the next Sunday, pinned it on his lapel, and we repeated the words of confirmation from the Book of Worship.  At Big Rock, we ran into the same love of rules.  As we gained new members, we welcomed them and their contributions to our worship and our building. But when it came time to exercise the power of voting, we protected our power by again falling back on our own rules and declaring these newcomers were not real members.  Again, we pulled out the Book of Worship, repeated the necessary words, and power was shared.

The fact that there is a big black book with all these services underlines the fact that we crave rules, we crave ways to make our selves special, to make our groups exclusive.

This is what Paul was railing against in his letter to the Galatians.

I spent most of Friday with a group of forty pastors and lay people going over a binder this thick full of rules. These rules pertain only to who and who may not serve as a pastor in any of the churches of my denomination.

Now, for the flip side.  If we do not have these rules, what happens in our churches.  For instance, what if you call a pastor who wants to go back to Old Testament practices?  What could possibly go wrong?  The Old Testament is part of our Bible.  We swear by it, we read it, we pray from it, we study it, we believe it.  By what if that pastor focused specifically on the rules about animal sacrifice.  What if I required each of you to bring an animal to sacrifice on this altar? Those of you living strictly on Social Security could get buy with a couple birds. If you had a larger income, you’d be wrestling a goat or a bull, down the aisle. And that animal would not be the runt, but the best of your flock or herd.

So, imagine, if you will, each of you, three times a year, hauling in some birds or livestock and imagine me having to slice each creature’s throat on this altar.
It’s in the Bible, so we should do it, right?

So, yes, we have rules and rules and rules.  But we must be careful about what we are protecting.  Are we protecting a culture, a way of life, a building, a tradition?  Or are we protecting the Holy Word of God as revealed through Jesus Christ?  Are we promoting our own comfort or are we promoting the Kingdom of God?

I know too many churchgoers whose only vision is to see the church return to what it was in the sixties.  What was the church in the sixties?  It was full of worshippers and Sunday School kids and there were twelve kids in every confirmation class and there were church suppers attended by hundreds of people.

It is not possible to get the vision back, nor is it desirable. Churches were also strongholds of segregation and cultural norms.   If we were to return to the sixties, we would have to embrace sixties’ medicine, sixties’ technology, and be satisfied with three television channels.

In our defense, change is very hard.  So we protect the one thing we count on not to change: the church.  You could lose your job tomorrow, Congress could slash your Social Security benefit, your car could blow up, herbicide drift from your neighbor’s cornfield could kill your garden.  The church is the one thing we can count on.  But we have to remind ourselves that the church exists in many forms.  Friday, I learned that church exists more often outside the walls of any specific building.  The church is thriving where it is most needed, in communities, among the poor and disenfranchised, the neglected.  The people who are following in Jesus’ footsteps do not spend time in an exclusive group, serving themselves. They walk among those who need a loving presence, who need shelter, who need affirmation.

The Galatians wanted to make sure all males were circumcised

The Galatians wanted to make sure all women maintained Kosher kitchens.

Equally painful choices, in my opinion.

Paul claims that Jesus did not come to promote circumcision or Kosher kitchens. Jesus came to save the people He loved, the people He called brothers and sisters. Jesus invited His brothers and sisters–that is, each of us, to walk with Him, loving God and loving our neighbors. Jesus did not say, come sit on my lap and be comfortable.  Even though I believe that we should rip out some of our pews and put in recliners and couches, I know that comfort is not one of Jesus’ rules. His rule is to love God, and to love our neighbors.

What does that look like? We know in part that we love God by worshipping and that we love our neighbors by our friendliness and by our contributions to the wider community.  But sometimes loving God, loving our neighbors is more than following rules. Sometimes, walking with Jesus is like walking barefooted on the gravel. You get there, but it’s not much fun. Sometimes walking with Jesus is ignoring the rules we make for ourselves.

Just when we count on the Church to be the one predictable thing in our lives, Jesus steps in and says, Well, done, good and faithful servant.  Now, I want you to do this instead.  Amen.