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Monday, March 9, 2015

Lent 4B March 15, 2015

"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.

"As a small minority, the Johannine community did not have the power or influence to marginalize others or cause harm by excluding them. In the western world, Christianity has been the dominant religion for centuries, whether supported by the state or not, and it has the power to marginalize and exclude those who do not conform."

Commentary, John 3:14-21, Marilyn Salmon, Preaching This Week,WorkingPreacher.org, 2012.

"Whatever our own solution to the issues of inclusion and exclusion, John?s gospel asks us to recognise that to reject the love and light and truth we see in Jesus is to choose death ? wherever and whenever we do it, and to receive it means life, life our world which God still loves desperately needs."

"First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages in the Lectionary," Lent 4, William Loader, Murdoch University, Uniting Church in Australia.


General Resources for Sunday's Lessons

Prayer

God of mercy, who sent your Son into the world not to condemn it but to save it, open our eyes to behold Jesus lifted up on the cross and to see in those outstretched arms your abundant compassion.  Let the world's weary and wounded come to know that by your gracious gift we are saved and delivered, so immeasurable is the love with which you love the world.  We ask this through Christ, with whom you have raised us up in baptism, the Lord 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 B, Peter J. Scagnelli, LTP, 1992.


Some Thoughts on John 3:14-21







Raymond Brown wrote an article with advice for preaching John, he wrote in the article, "The Johannine World for Preachers," is the necessity to enter into the world of John and its symbolic universe. Brown advices, "Do not domesticate the Johannine Jesus. It is his style to say things that border on the offensive, be puzzled and even offended; but do not silence this Jesus by deciding what he should not have said and what your hearers should not hear." (Commentary, John 3:14-21, Marilyn Salmon)  With this in mind then, what are we to do with this passage?

So let us begin by remembering that these words come from a conversation that Jesus is having with the Pharisee Nicodemus.  He has come to believe in God and in Jesus because of the many signs.  Key to John's Gospel are not the signs themselves but the revelatory power of Jesus who happens to be performing them.  The purpose of the signs is belief in the Gospel.  So it is no wonder that Jesus in our passage has moved from a previous discourse about spirit to one about God's intentions: the salvation of the world.

Second, the passage we read today follows directly upon Jesus' teaching about being born again.  The baptismal conversation is important.  How it plays out sacramentally is one discussion that I will not go into; nevertheless, it seems that the basic idea here is that one is born both by the spirit and through water.  (Raymond Brown, John vol 1, p 142ff, has an excellent discussion of the details surrounding this particular piece of Johnanine liturature.)

What Nicodemus has heard so far is that while coming to believe through signs, entrance into the kingdom is not something humans can accomplish on their own.  In other words your faith does not save you, only God saves you.  Moreover, one is brought into the Kingdom of God through God's outpouring of the spirit.  We believe in the Episcopal Church that such an outpouring is measured in the sacrament of baptism.  Nicodemus then asks, "how does this happen?"  He fades into the background as we move into the monologue we have for today's passage.

We receive the Holy Spirit, we are are welcomed into the Kingdom of God, only through the power of Jesus' work on the cross (vs 14), his resurrection, and his ascension (vs 15).  Leaning on Isaac typology (Brown, 147) Jesus explains.  The purpose of not allowing death to be the final answer (just as Isaac's death was not required)  is for the gathering in of the world and its people.  God intends the embrace of God's people; and their freedom to live and be who they were created to be.  The creation story will be successful.  We enter the reign of God only through Jesus' work.  The incarnation and Jesus' presence in the world will necessarily create a decision point for individuals: to either live life following Jesus; or to live life not following Jesus - perhaps against him.

What is interesting here at this point (vs20-21) is what we typically do with this passage.  While Jesus is not here to condemn the world - we do.  Our human nature is to immediately divide up the world into working groups we can get our minds around.  That typically means we go to the save and the not saved. We move quickly to do the judging.  But it is (according to our Nicene Creed) Jesus in his second coming that will judge.  It doesn't seem to stop us, so we typically take what comes next to decide who is in and who is out.  I also think we do this in a way that automatically removes us from the sinning proposition and into the category of people who "do all kinds of good works."  Such a missionary mindset is hardly one I think Jesus would recognize.  Raymond Brown writes:

"...the purpose clauses which end vss. 20 -21 are not to be understood as giving the subjective reason why men come or do not come to the light, that is, a man does not really come to Jesus to have it confirmed that his deeds are good.  Rather, the idea is that Jesus brings out what a man really is and the real nature of his life.  Jesus is penetrating light that provokes judgment by making it apparent what a man is." (John, vol 1, 148-9)
Before the cross we are all judged.  And, instead of condemning we are to engage in a conversation not unlike the one between Jesus and Nicodemus. We are to let people come to the cross for their own judgment and make their own faithful pilgrim way into relationship with Jesus.

Our work is the invitation.  We are to invite people into this sacred relationship.  Not unlike Jesus, we are to make the Gospel message known:  "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."

As a Christian we believe that this is the only way to salvation.  To believe anything else is essentially to not be a Christian but to be a henothiest; that is believing there are many gods and many salvations.  We have one language and one cultural story to tell and that is of Jesus, his cross and his resurrection.  We are to engage the world in a conversation that allows people to be listened to, and invited into, a deeper profoundly transformational relationship with God in Christ Jesus.

The world will be drawn into this relationship not by condemning the world but by disciples living transformed lives.  Through the rebirth experienced in baptism, through the grace and mercy of God, and the empowering Holy Spirit, we are to live lives worthy of the cross and resurrection.  As we do this people will be drawn into life with Christ and may in turn be discipled.  They are drawn in by our example.  Subsequently, like our own, their lives are transformed by their own coming to terms with who Jesus is and his work.

When we as a church community move away from this singular proposition we are apt to argue over all manner of condemnations: sex, structure, liturgy, and polity.  When we begin with this singular proposition (that we are saved by grace alone) then we may all find ourselves truly transformed as we come to the foot of the cross together.  



Some Thoughts on Ephesians 2:1-10




Resources for Sunday's Epistle

"Even Jesus? name, as theologian William Placher reminds us, means 'the Lord saves.'"


"Just As I Am," Thomas G. Long, The Christian Century, 2006.

"To be a Christian, says the text, is to be crucified with Jesus, to die with him, to be buried with him, to be raised with him, to be enthroned with him. Spiritual? Yes. Mystical? Perhaps. Subjective? Partially. Will-o'-the wisp? Never. Experiential but inseparable from history? Always."

"From God, to God," Fred Craddock, The Christian Century 2003.

"And how long was the whole great circus to last? Paul said, why, until we all become human beings at last, until we all 'come to maturity,' as he put it; and then, since there had been only one really human being since the world began, until we all make it to where we're like him, he said - 'to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ' (Ephesians 4:13). Christs to each other, Christs to God. All of us. Finally. It was just as easy, and just as hard, as that."

"Paul," sermon discussion from Frederick Buechner, Frederick Buechner Blog.

"The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn't have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It's for you I created the universe. I love you."

"Grace," sermon discussion from Frederick Buechner, Frederick Buechner Blog.


Paul begins by speaking about those who received their faith, baptism and the Holy Spirit. He prays that they will receive wisdom and revelation as they continue their journey.

The reality is that the following of Jesus is a journey, a process, by which people come to understand more and more their inherited faith.

I always feel Paul is buttering them up for the one-two punch. And, here he goes...he reminds them of their life before faith. You must remember that the world in which they live is diverse and filled with a plurality of beliefs and different religions. He reminds them that this faith is typically a faith which is self-centered and focused upon their own needs - their own life.

He uses powerful language about being spiritually dead and living apart from God and under the wrath of God. This language reminds me in my time that Paul is correct that living a life focused upon my needs is to live a life oriented around a god of my own making. When I focus on my needs as the primary directing power of life not only am I the god at the center of my universe - I worship other gods in order to control my world - money, sex, social standing, pleasing others, and many many more.

Then we get the grace! Even though we were far off God loved us. A fellow blogger, Chris Haslam, Anglican Diocese of Montreal, wrote:

God loved us greatly, so greatly that he brought us life together, raised us together and enthroned us together – "with Christ". Christians have been given a new status, a new life, and new freedom, in order that, by living in this way, we may be channels through whom God shows his gifts to us to the world. We are saved by God’s freely given inestimable gift of love (“grace”, 2:7). Our salvation is already happening through the medium of our “faith” (2:8), but even “this” (salvation) is a gift from God, rather than a result of our efforts (“works”, 2:9). God’s plan has always included making Christians what we are: “created in Christ ... for good works” (2:10): being saved, we do “good works”.
I once learned that when emotions are deep and high it is easier to get angry than it is to get sad, or feel the pain of loss, and suffering. Sadness, loss, and suffering can be so painful that avoiding them with a bit of anger is an easier way to go. 

Sometimes when we get to a passage like this we are tempted to do the same kind of avoidance. We will find it easier to focus on how we were far off and worshiping other gods, etc, and etc. "Let's have a shame fest" is always an easier answer...even better with a touch of anger. We can go to anger rather than to a place of reality where we recognize, name, and honor our deeper selves, our deeper emotions, and our deeper pain. We have tremendous guilt for what we have done and left undone. Shaming people for being beyond hope will never give them the hope they are looking for now.

I dream of a church that is preaching, teaching, and living a grace filled life. I dream of a church that is hopeful and redemptive. I hope for a church that can be honest about the pain most people are sitting in, their hopelessness, and sense that everything they experience now is "as good as it gets". The message Paul is trying to communicate is one worth communicating today: even when we were far off God loved us. Even when we are far off God loves us. We are given freedom to write a new story. Everyday we are surrounded by grace and given the opportunity to move beyond our sadness, loss, and suffering. We are offered through the continuous recreative work of god the opportunity to put behind us the guilt of things done and undone. This is Good News indeed - we have a new life, even our failures are redeemed, and our loss honored with an opportunity of redemption. WE are forgiven, we are saved, we are resurrected, and enthroned with Christ Jesus.




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