Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, March 12, 2017: Second Sunday in Lent

Texts: Genesis 12:1-4a  +  Psalm 121  +  Romans 4:1-5, 13-17  +  John 3:1-17

 

Pádraig

Pádraig Ó Tuama

“You are the place I stand on the day when my feet are sore.” That’s the English translation for an old Irish saying I recently heard on an episode of “OnBeing,” offered by Pádraig Ó Tuama — poet, theologian, and leader of the Corrymeela community in Northern Ireland. Founded in the 1960s to promote peace and reconciliation during “the Troubles,” that period of violent ethnic and religious conflict in Ireland, today Corrymeela continues to welcome guests from around the world who long for reconciliation with neighbors and fellow citizens in moments when such peace seems hopelessly naïve; moments like the one so many of us feel we ourselves are trapped inside as a nation, when it’s not just our feet that are sore from so many marches, but our hearts and our souls.

“You are the place I stand on the day when my feet are sore.” It’s awfully romantic, don’t you think? The kind of sentiment that seems more at home in a do-it-yourself wedding vow than in a sermon on the doctrine of salvation. But let me ask you this: what do you think a sermon on the doctrine of salvation ought to sound like? Should it be terribly complicated? Should there be lots of Greek and Hebrew words rendered into alternate English translations? Should there be rules, clearly laid out; structures of belief to be agreed with (or not)? What were you taught about “salvation,” and how, and who taught you? Is it the reward for a life well lived? Is it conditional, reserved for only a few? Is it a gift bestowed on the righteous, or the product of their efforts? Are there people who are most certainly saved? Are there people who most certainly are not?

 

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Study for “Nicodemus Visiting Jesus” by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1899)

 

These questions lead us down late-night roads with no lamp posts. If we follow them too far, we can get lost in the dark and may struggle to find our way back. That seems to have been the case with Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night with questions about the new life that comes by water and the spirit in the reign of God. He was a religious person who’d given plenty of thought to questions of who was chosen, who was saved, and what that all meant. Jesus, however, wanted to talk instead about love.

“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 God 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.” (John 3:14-17)

It’s not hard to see how we worked our way back around to legalism all over again. It’s right there in the text, “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” It seems clear: the key to eternal life is belief in Jesus. Slow down though, and keep asking those questions. What is belief? And, what is eternal life? And, if God is not interested in condemning the world, then why such an oddly specific criterion for salvation as belief in a pretty unbelievable story?

Here’s the prerequisite Greek word study, in case that happened to be on your checklist earlier. When we think about salvation, we often get stuck worrying about what we have to believe in order to be saved — because of this very verse and how it’s been explained. But the verb in Greek which we translate into “believe” in English doesn’t mean “to give credence to a belief or an idea.” Instead, it’s the verb form of the noun (pistis) which means, “faith.” English doesn’t have a verb form of the noun “faith.” We can either say “have faith” — which is a problem because it implies that faith is an object we can possess — or we have to find another verb that comes close to the idea of “faith-ing.” So we’ve said “believe,” though we might just as well have said, “trust.”

It makes more sense when you imagine the kind of conversation in which one person might say to another in a moment of tension, or decision, “I need you to believe in me.” What are they saying? That they need you to agree that they exist? Or that they need you to trust them, to remember something about your shared past, your history, your relationship.

This is what Jesus finally tells Nicodemus, who has gotten lost in the dark, in his questions about being “born again.” Jesus points to the evidence of a loving God, a God who is trustworthy, a God who brought the people through the wilderness, a God who stayed faithful through the exodus and the exile, a God who brought them into a new land and worked with them as they fell into each and every trap that comes with the the problem of being a nation. Salvation is not our reward for having the right answers to the wrong questions. Salvation is God’s work, God’s nature, God’s love.

Why doesn’t that ever feel like enough of an answer? Why do we insist on turning God’s love into a prize rather than accepting it as a gift, a birthright even? How would our lives change if we knew in every cell of our bodies that God is for us? That God longs to be the place we stand on the days when our feet are sore, so much so that God created all the soil and all the earth, so that there is no place we can go where we are not standing in God’s presence. Even when God sends us out from the places we have called home, even when God sets before us challenges that call us into moments and relationships that feel alienating. We are always standing in the loving presence of God.

If we are always already in the presence of God, and we believe — we trust — that God’s love for us is real and true, then what else do we need to experience this thing Jesus calls “eternal life”? What is missing from this picture that is so bad it has us all longing for salvation?

The question the Irish had to face wasn’t whether or not God could love the Catholics and the Protestants. The question was, could they love each other? The question is always: can we love each other? Can the left love the center and the right? Can the winners love the losers, and vice versa. Can we love our enemies? Because, where there is no love, we might as well call it hell, wouldn’t you say?

So, as we continue the practice of holding silence after the sermon for reflections, both spoken and silent, I invite you to consider the following questions as starting points for a conversation with your own spirit that may last well beyond this morning’s worship. If you feel so led, you might offer a few words about where these questions are taking you this morning:

How has love saved you?

Or

How could love save us?

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, March 16, 2014: Second Sunday in Lent

Texts:  Genesis 12:1-4a  +  Psalm 121  +  Romans 4:1-5,13-17  +  John 3:1-17

We finished our second session in a six-week series in Adult Education titled “Making Sense of the Cross” this morning, focusing today on how each of the four gospels presents the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection a little differently (or a lot) because of the particular confession of faith each author was trying to make in response to the needs of very different communities.

For example the gospel of Matthew, from which we’ve been reading since the beginning of Advent, was very likely written to a community of believers who were mostly Jewish in their background and therefore more familiar with the sacred texts of Hebrew scripture which we often call the Old Testament. We see evidence of this in the number of times that the author offers an explanation for powerful events from Jesus’ life by saying something like, “this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled” (Matt. 26:56).

This morning we move from Matthew’s gospel to the gospel of John, from which we’ll be reading through the rest of the Sundays in Lent until Palm Sunday.  The gospel of John was written about twenty years later than Matthew to a different community facing very different circumstances.  Like Matthew’s gospel, John is believed to have been written to a community of Jewish believers, but ones who had experienced significant conflict with the rest of the Jewish community, perhaps having been removed from the synagogue for their conviction that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah.

You can often hear in both gospels subtle or outright hostility toward people labeled “the Jews,” though we should understand in both cases that the author and the intended audience were also Jews, at least by birth, and would have been treated as such by the rest of the Roman-occupied world.  The anger and conflict we hear behind the words of both gospels are less like the violent forms of anti-Semitism that led to pogroms across Europe and eventually the horrors of the Second World War (though passages from these scriptures were used to fuel those campaigns), and more like the kinds of conflicts that tear churches apart — conflict between family members who know each other only too well.

Nicodemus helping to take down Jesus' body from the cross, Michelangelo Pieta.

Nicodemus helping to take down Jesus’ body from the cross, Michelangelo Pieta.

So this morning we are introduced to a character with a name, Nicodemus, who is identified as “a leader of the Jews,” and you can almost hear the casting notes to the director of this drama: “pick someone to play this part who is a little too full of himself, make sure to dress him in fine robes and give him a prop — maybe glasses — to indicate his education. It will make his ignorance all the funnier.”

Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of night, confessing that Jesus’ acts of power of signs of God’s presence and trying to understand what this means.  Jesus responds to his honest curiosity with a cryptic statement, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:3).

If any of you come from one of the many “born again” traditions of Christianity, then this is probably a familiar passage of scripture.  Over the centuries it has been used to justify the practice of adult baptism as a response to Nicodemus’ question, “how can anyone be born after having grown old?” (3:4)  Our response as Lutherans to our sisters and brothers who ask, “have you been born again?” has never been very satisfying to them, since we understand the process somewhat differently.  We say, along with Martin Luther, “yes, I’m born again every morning as I rise to wash my face and remember that I was baptized.”  Our practice, and the theology that arises from it, is rooted less in Nicodemus’ question and more in Jesus’ answer: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (3:5).

This conflict between Christians over who to baptize, how to baptize, and what age to baptize has, over the centuries, gotten quite heated.  In this modern day of laissez-faire religion and spirituality, in which individual choice and preference are valued above all else, it can be hard to understand that in previous times and, in some places, to this day there is deep disagreement over the meaning and practice of baptism — so deep that some Christians refuse to recognize each other as such if their baptism was not performed in the ways each considers acceptable.  This, ironically, is exactly the kind of intra-religious conflict that we overhear going on in Matthew and John’s gospels when they speak disparagingly of “the Jews.”  It is more like the way you might hear some Christians talking about others as “bible-bangers” or “fundamentalists.”

But what is even more ironic is that this kind of intra-religious conflict reveals a tendency in us all to lose sight of what Jesus is actually trying to communicate, which is that God is not in the business of taking sides in our self-righteousness projects. Rather, in Christ Jesus, God is showing us God’s love for the whole world, those we agree with and those we disagree with, our friends and our enemies, the “good” and the “evil.” All of us. Everyone.

This is the point Paul is making in his letter to the Romans.

If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void (Rom. 4:14).

In other words, when we turn our faith in God into a set of rules and practices about God that must be followed in order to get to God, then we have taken faith — which we might also call loving-trust or loving-reliance — out of the picture altogether and have turned grace into a scorecard.

This is what Jesus tells Nicodemus, who is still trying to figure how to be born from above. “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:13).  No one gets themselves into heaven. Faith is not a competition sport. Or a New Year’s resolution. Or a fitness routine. Or a self-help book. Or a retreat. Faith is not something that practice perfects. “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”

Paul puts it this way,

But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness (Rom. 4:5).

We might put it like this:  God is not looking for evidence that you get it right, or even that you get it at all.  Remember that fruit from the Tree of Knowledge?  The food that left us thinking we knew the difference between good and evil?  The one God told us to stay away from?  Yeah, we’re back to that.  We get caught in the trap of thinking we know who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s good and who’s evil.  We get stuck in our fights between the good Christians and the bad ones. We start labeling one another “the fundamentalists,” “the conservatives,” “the old guard,” “the establishment,” just like Matthew and John called their sisters and brothers, “the Jews.”

Paul suggests that even the act of sorting out who has the right set of beliefs can itself become a kind of works righteousness. “Abraham believed God,” — not Abraham believed in God, but “Abraham believed God.”  It makes all the difference.  It is the difference between “Abraham held the right set of thoughts and ideas” and “Abraham trusted that God is faithful” — “and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3).

And all this talk of Abraham begins with a story that calls each of our allegiances to religion, nation, politics and land into question. God says to Abram (whose name has yet to be changed), “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Gen. 12:1).

The church, the nations that have emerged in the shadow of the church, and we ourselves have often been more interested in the second part of that story, the idea that we belong to a great nation — be that religious or secular — and that we exist as a blessing for others, a slippery slope that too often has led to all kinds of colonial disasters.  But what about the first part of that story, the deep faith that enabled Abraham to leave everyone and everything he knew behind: his country, his family, his good name.  Stripped down, almost as naked as Adam and Eve in the garden, left with only his trust that God was for him and would not forsake him.

Are we ready to take that trip? Honestly, I doubt it.  Like Nicodemus, we see the power of God at work in Jesus, but we trust in our own abilities, our own beliefs, to get us closer to God. Thankfully, God is taking a trip as well, crossing every barrier that divides heaven and earth to be with us, to be for us. “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” (John 3:17).

Amen.

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