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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Lent 2A March 12, 2017

Quotes That Make Me Think

"Nicodemus had heard enough about what Jesus was up to in Jerusalem to make him think he ought to
pay him a visit and find out more. On the other hand, as a VIP with a big theological reputation to uphold, he decided it might be just as well to pay it at night. Better to be at least fairly safe than to be sorry, he thought, so he waited till he thought his neighbors were all asleep."

"Nicodemus," sermon discussion from Frederick Buechner, Frederick Buechner Blog. "Born Again," from Beyond Words.

"When we become too sure of what we know about Jesus (or indeed the Trinity on this particular Sunday), when we believe that we have grasped him at last, that is when we can perhaps expect to be undone like Nicodemus."

Commentary, John 3:1-17, Meda Stamper,, 2012.

General Resources for Sunday's Lessons from


To Abraham and Sarah you called out, O God of mystery, inviting them to journey to a land of promise.  To us also you call out, inviting us to pass through Lent to Easter's glory.  Open our ears, therefore, to listen to Jesus, the Beloved Son in whom you are well pleased, so that, embracing the mystery of the cross, we may come to the holy mountain, to immortal life, and a share in Christ's transfigured glory.  We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.

From Prayers for Sunday and Seasons, Year A, Peter J. Scagnelli, LTP, 1992.

Some Thoughts on John 3:1-17
[Some lectionaries may have Matthew's transfiguration - 17:1-9. Please see last Epiphany A for this text commentary]

Oremus Online NRSV Gospel Text

Resources for Sunday's Gospel

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 anointing 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 Haslaam 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 achievement 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 un-cleanliness, 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 establishment of the day...perhaps even to our religious institutions 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 conversation 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" synonymous. 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.

The 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 life 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 reign 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 pilgrimage 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 withhold 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.

Some Thoughts on Romans 4:1-17

Resources for Sunday's Epistle

"Lent is a time to 'LOOK RIGHT'. It is a time to look for the amazing "things that do not exist" in our lives; those throw-you-to-the-ground, awe-filled moments that God is offering us every day."

Commentary, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, Lucy Lind Hogan, Preaching This Week,, 2011.

"God did not and does not wait for us to become a people. 'While we were yet sinners,' as Paul will say later in this letter, God brought us into relationship, gave us the gift of the Spirit, showed mercy, and in all that acted faithfully to the promises long made and never forgotten."

Commentary, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, Sarah Henrich, Preaching This Week,, 2008.

"The nature of justifying faith must be seen as a wholehearted confidence in God which manifests itself in ongoing obedient trust in God's promises of a future 'most complete cure' of all the remnants of sin which so afflict us in this life...This is 'faith working itself out in love' -- a faith which counts on God for everything, from initial justification through spiritual healing to final glorification."

"Justification as Healing: The Little-Known Luther," Ted M Dorman, PhD.Quodlibet Online Journal, 2000.

Here is the key idea to this passage: God is and has always been a God of grace.  This is true in the proclamation of Jesus as it was for the prophets before him.  It is true in the Torah as it is true in the letters of Paul.

So he turns his attention to Abraham.  Abraham believed and was faithful. He is determined righteous by God not by what he does but by the faith that is in him.  It is not because he was circumcised or because he was part of a particular family.  These were simply signs of God's grace working in him.

The ultimate purpose of the Gospel and it proclamation is to make ancestors of faith.  The promise God made to Abraham was to be faithful and it is God's faith that works in him and is even now working its purpose out in creation.  It is God's faithfulness that makes one a member of the family.

Paul says that what is also true today was true then as well, "If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation."

"For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, for it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) —in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist."

In this final statement Paul insures that all understand that we are given the inheritance of Abraham, and grace counts us faithful participants in the family of God.

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