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Friday, March 18, 2011

Second Sunday In Lent, Year A

"Two nativities of Christ are understood: one divine, the other human: one, that by which we were to be made; the other, that by which we were to be made anew: both marvellous; that without mother, this without father."

from Augustine's Tractate XII on John 3:6-21

John 3:1-17
3Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He 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.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus 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?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The 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.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11“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. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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. 17“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.

A Little Bit for Everyone
Oremus Online NRSV Text

Textweek General Resources

Textweek Resources For Sunday's Gospel from John

Some interesting articles on this passage:

William Loader's "First Thoughts"

Working Preacher thoughts on each lesson appointed for today

Chris Haslaam's Clippings Site


O Lord, who hast mercy upon all,
take away from me my sins,
and mercifully kindle in me
the fire of thy Holy Spirit.
Take away from me the heart of stone,
and give me a heart of flesh,
a heart to love and adore Thee,
a heart to delight in Thee,
to follow and enjoy Thee, for Christ's sake, Amen
St. Ambrose of Milan (AD 339-397)

Click here for more Lenten collects and prayers.

Some thoughts...
So we begin our Gospel lesson today with Nicodemus. We know that he is only mentioned in the Johannine account and appears later in the story insisting on a trial and annointing Jesus' body for burial.  WE are told he is a leader of the Jews.

Much is made of him arriving at night. Perhaps he came in the darkness because he was fearful of people seeing him, or perhaps he came at night because he was a devoted teacher and studied always.  (Chris Haslam offers this latter connect based upon the Qumran Community Rule of life).  Heavy too is the symbology of light and dark in this particular Gospel and we may be given this reference to illustrate the teachings of Jesus over and against the pharisees.

Immediately, as in the other parts of the Gospel of John, Jesus is recognized, proclaimed as being from God.  Nicodemus a little less humble also recognizes Jesus as a teacher on par with himself.

Jesus then offers him the vision of God's reign/kingdom where in individuals are brought in not by moral achievenment but by the transformation of God.  There is a scholarly argument about the translation "born from above" and "born anew." I like both. They give that true sense that our ability of living in the kingdom of God comes from God, and is made possible through God's providence and grace.  Such an understanding about the potential of life being transformed is not something that comes from our ancient roots in Israel but is more in keeping with the emerging thought of hellenism.  Nevertheless, Jesus' revelation is clear.  People are transformed by God and God's spirit.  They are transformed and have the potential of living new life.  People have the opportunity to be different, act different, live in community in a different manner - if they are but opened to the inner workings of the Holy Spirit.

Chris Haslam puts these two pieces together for verses 5 and 6:

Verse 5: “born of water”: 1:33 says “... John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit’”. See also Ephesians 5:26. [NOAB]

Verse 6: “Spirit”: In Ezekiel 36:25-27, Yahweh promises through the prophet: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances”. See also Titus 3:5. In Jubilees 1:23, cleansing by the Spirit is associated with the coming of the Messianic Age. [NJBC]

Verse 6: See also 1:12-13: “... to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”
Now what is also happening is that Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus in the plural.  So we get the sense that Jesus is speaking not only to the man before him but also to the whole of the the religious establisment of the day...perhaps even to our religious insititutions today.

Jesus says, "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.” I am sure much of this historic meaning may be lost; it sounds very much like a common saying here used to describe the Holy.  It does that very well and I think challenges those who lead to be present to the spirit's work in the moment.  How often do we worry about where something is coming from and where it might lead. We try not to discern God's invitation in the moment but figure out how to control God's spirit for our own ends.  Is this not perhaps what Jesus perceives Nicodemus is doing?  Perhaps he is challenging the pharisees to stop their machinations about who Jesus is and what he is up to and to see that God is moving in that very moment and inviting even them into a transformational moment.

As a church (a denomination, diocese, and individual churches) we have spent the last two decades attempting to control political events in and around our communities.  In the midst of this we have completely lost our sense of mission.  We have some how become so discerning that we have lost the ability to present for one another and those who come to us in the dark night of their own spiritual journey. 

Following this Jesus and Nicodemus' relationship seems to change.  It is as if Nicodemus' eyes are opened and he is transformed.  We can read that the conversation continues with Jesus doing as he hopes we shall all do, meet one another on our journey and be transformed by the Spirits presence in our midst. Jesus meets and helps Nicodemus discover what he has been looking for... Some small part of that is Jesus' own recognition of the goodness that is in Nicodemus and a willingness to engage with him.

I am always struck by the conversation that is taking place.  On the one hand Jesus is treated as an equal by Nicodemus. But Jesus does not correct him.  On the other hand the more important lesson may be that Jesus treats Nicodemus as an equal and so the engaging converstation is able to lead to transformation.  What would it be like if we as church people were so very comfortable in our own faith and understanding of God that we could treat all those who come to us as Jesus treats Nicodemus?

The last part of our Gospel is an assumed continuation of the conversation, though Jesus is the only one speaking.  It is a vision of the future of God's work through Jesus. It is the Gospel in miniature as Martin Luther once said.  It is powerful foreshadowing of the cross and the Christian call to follow.
I think too there is an important distinction being made in the Gospel of John about the resounding impact of God's work through Jesus.  First is that "eternal life" and the "kingdom of God" synonomous.  I don't want to get into a debate about "realized eschatology."  I am merely pointing out that when a disciple of Jesus begins to make real the kingdom of God by participating in the life of the Holy Spirit that disciple is participating in eternal life.  Transformation in this world is very real and that health and vitality of community life is dependent upon the individual transformation that is taking place.  The kingdom is made real as people are transformed by it. 

Furthermore, there is a distinction we might often miss by reading the Gospel in the lectionary.  They synoptic Gospels speak of this transformaton more through a lens of eschatological theology; that is they think of this work of the kingdom as urgent work prior to the end times and fulfillment of God's creation.  John sees this as ontological or being work.  In other words it is the individual change which serves as the lens.  It is the Holy Spirit's moving in the live of the individual and thus the community of the faithful (always a communal view) that leads to the reign of God emerging in the creation. 

This means that today as we look at the work that God is doing in the world we cannot separate the transformation of the faithful community from the work in the world. 

I might say, if we are only concerned with social justice and are not transformed and changed and deeply rooted in the study of scripture we are only a social service agency.  We do the work in the world around us because we believe in our individual and corporate change; and we believe that we are called through proclamation of word and deed to be about our father's work to transform the structures and communities around us into the riegn of God through the partnership of the Holy Spirit. 

We are, as we follow Jesus, reorienting our understanding of the way things are to be and to whom we belong.  In our transformation (which comes from Jesus who himself claims us, and the Holy Spirit who baptizes us) we are no longer the head of the family but members of God's family.

The blogger Chris Haslaam has this great way of looking at it: "Whereas in Matthew, Mark and Luke, the Spirit descends from heaven onto Jesus; in John, it is Jesus himself, the Son of Man, who has descended from and ascends into heaven. (Verse 3:13)"

We are transformed as Nicodemus is transformed by being welcomed and accepted so that we may welcome and accept others into the very real and very present kingdom of God.  That we might experience life eternal here on heave and along our pilrimage and not only at the pilgrim's rest.

David Ewart, a blogger, captures this well when he writes:
...And so, salvation lies in being born anew; in being born from above - in re-defining one's "family of origin." John really means that we become God's off-spring, children of God, and in that way we receive from God the same honour and character that God has; and owe God the same loyalty that blood relations show one another (or ought to)."
David Ewart summarizes the overall text with these words:
1. The Son is sent.
2. Those who trust and bond with the son, become part of the Son's family (being born anew from above), and as equal status siblings,
3. Become heirs to the family estate: heaven, Spirit, light, truth, love, salvation and eternal life.
4. Those who don't trust and bond with the Son, don't become part of the family, and don't becomes heirs.

To be more clear. The logic of John is NOT: If you believe, then God will love you and save you. God's salvation is not a reward for belief. Nor does God withhold God's love, forgiveness and salvation until we believe.

On the other hand, since love is not coercive, we do have to accept the invitation in order to actually be part of the family.
I would conclude that being apart of the family means traveling in the light of day and not the dark of night as did Nicodemus.  And, that it is intentionally about glorifying God. John's Gospel is nothing if not clear that the work of the family of God is to glorify God.  God does not withold his love, forgiveness, and salvation.  Once the invitation to become members of the family is accepted one works with the family to receive others and to make the world (with Jesus) reflect the beauty and Holiness which is God's alone.

There is a lot of meat in this passage and I would think the most difficult part will be preaching one message and to not overwhelm the listener with too much material.

The Lambeth Bible Study Method

This Bible study method was introduced by the African Delegation to the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Church. It is known by both names: "Lambeth" and "African." This method is derived from the practice of Lectio Divina. The entire process should take about 30 minutes.

Question #5: "Briefly identify where this passage touches their life today," can change based upon the lesson. Find lesson oriented questions at this website:

Opening Prayer: O Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scripture to be written for our learning. Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them that we may embrace and hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

1. One person reads passage. This person then invites a member of the group to begin the process.

2. Each person briefly identifies the word or phrase that catches their attention then invites another person to share.

3. Each shares the word or phrase until all have shared or passed using the same invitation method.

4. The passage is read a second time, preferably from a different translation. The reader then invites a person in the group to begin the process.

5. Each person briefly identifies where this passage touches their life today, and then invites someone who has not shared yet.

6. The passage is read a third time, also from another translation, and the reader invites a person to start the process.

7. Each person responds to the questions, "What does God want me to do, to be or to change?"

8. The group stands up in a circle and holds hands. One person initiates the prayer “I thank God today for …” and “I ask God today for…” The prayer goes around the circle by squeezing the hand to your right.

9. When the circle is fulfilled, the person who initiated the prayer starts the Lord’s Prayer, “Our father..."

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