Sermon for March 20th 2011
The Revd. J. Michael Povey at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Punta Gorda, FL
Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4: 1-5, 13-17; John 3 1:17.
George Crane, Esq. came pedalling his bike up to me one Sunday afternoon as I was getting into my car on Allen Street in Pittsfield, MA.
He greeted me and then asked “what did you think of this morning’s sermon?”. The sermon had been given by a Congregational minister in a Methodist Church. It was one of those January “week of prayer for Christian unity” services.
To be truthful the sermon had been dreadful - it was filled with half hearted pabulum. But there is honour among thieves, so I was cautious in my judgement on my Congregational colleague.
“Let me tell you something”, said George. “You preachers are always telling us that God loves us, but when are you going to tell us what we are supposed to do about it?”
“Point well taken George!”. His words freed me from the fear that I would offend someone or another by my preaching. (That’s a besetting sin of many preachers).
From then on I chose to speak boldly and without half-truths. It got me into some trouble, but it also enabled many parishioners to breathe a sigh of relief as I broached questions which were in their minds – e.g.: war, hunger, women in the ordained ministry, welcoming lesbian and gay Christians, and questions about the Virgin birth, the miracles etc. – but which few preachers had ever addressed from the pulpit.
I was reminded of all this when earlier in the week I read today’s passages. I came upon a verse which had been drummed into me from my childhood. They are the words of the famous John 3:16 “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”.
For you see, I was raised in a Fundamentalist Church. And if I heard that verse once I heard it a thousand times. The message was always the same. “Believe what this verse says, and you will be saved”. Indeed I “gave my heart to the Lord Jesus” when I was about nine years old. My elders and teachers assured me that I was now saved.
Now there is nothing wrong in knowing that we are being saved by the grace of God. But when I was maybe 13 or 15 years old, I began to ask “but why am I saved”? It was an early form of George Crane’s later question “what are we supposed to do about it?”
The answer I received was “you are saved so that you can witness to your faith, then other people will be saved, then they will witness and yet more folks will be saved”. I thought “why?” "Is there no more than this, that our faith is a simple formula, to be repeated from one generation to the next?"
For, to be sure, those who encountered Jesus were never given a pat answer or a simple formula. Indeed, Jesus can sometimes be obtuse, as in today’s reading. Nicodemus is a good man. He begins a conversation with Jesus with a statement. “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”.
Was he anticipating the start of a pleasant conversation about religion? Or did his statement mask a question? Was he in fact asking “have you come from God, do you represent the presence of God?”
Jesus ignores the statement, and avoids the implicit question. He responds by speaking not about himself, but about the kingdom of God. “No one”, he says, “can see the kingdom of God without being born from above”, and then “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the spirit”.
Alongside Nicodemus we respond “how can these things be?”
Jesus does not give Nicodemus a simple formula, nor will he do so for us. At one level this is all very frustrating. How we wish that our Christian faith would be as simple as ABC.
David Howell puts it this way:
“Sometimes I think our congregations (we) are looking for a spiritual rule book, a kind of Christianity for Dummies, which would carry in it the logical steps from one to twelve that would lead to spiritual completion. In a society where the self-help section in the bookstore is one of the largest, most folks are looking for a simple way to organize their steps to spiritual mastery. The problem is that life is messy, challenges in life are complex, issues are not clear, and following Jesus is more a matter of following a way of life than following a set of rules.” (David Howell in Good Preacher.Com)
Howell “nails it”. To be a Christian is to engage in a way of life, not to follow a set of rules.
For you see, if it were a simple matter of following rules it wouldn’t be any easier. For each of us would try to find all those reasons why the rules do not apply in our cases, or to discover ways around the rules.
That’s why Jesus said to Nicodemus that “no one can see the Kingdom of God” without being born from above”. As John Petty puts it “It is a matter of revelation, not knowledge--a new vision of life, rather than merely understanding the old vision better”. (Website “Progressive Involvement”)
That new vision of life has to do with the Kingdom of God into which Jesus leads us. It is a way of life in which enemies are to loved; in which the last become first; in which wealth is seen as a false God; in which the hungry are to be fed; in which the poor are blessed.
It is impossible to think ourselves into this way of life. No amount of rules can get us there.
But if we come to Jesus in the night of our own pride, confusion, sinfulness and doubt then we shall open ourselves to the unpredictable wind of the Holy Spirit. That same Spirit will give us a new way of life - moving us way past rules into a scary and wonderful experience of eternal life - here and now!