Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | June 19, 2022
When we speak of spiritual things, we are talking about mysteries. Not the Agatha Christie kind of mystery in which an inspector Poirot deduces the solution based on a series of clues. But the kind of mystery for which there is no solution; the kind of mystery that must be experienced and appreciated.
One way to wring the life out of something spiritual, is to place it within a formula; write doctrines about it; create codes and dogma. Then we are left with a thing we can hold and grasp and solve; but ultimately, a lifeless entity.
Many years ago, before my son Elliott started school, he would spend most days with me. Sometimes if I had to make visits, I would drop him off at the baby-sitter. Otherwise he was with me. I set up a little desk in my office and gave him paper and crayons to play with.
One highlight of his day was mail call. We always received a lot of junk mail and it was his job to open it. Sometimes there were hidden treasures. Inside one mailing he found a coin-sized wooden disk. On one side of it there was a cross with a heart shape around it. On the other side was a motto. He asked me to read it. It said something like,
“I carry this cross in my pocket as a reminder that I am a Christian.”
He asked if he could have it. Sure. Then he asked, “Dad, what’s a Christian?” A simple question, calling for a simple answer. Like the time he asked, “Are you the boss of the church?”
I said, “A Christian is a person who believes in Jesus.”
He said, “I’m a Christian.”
“You are?” I said. “Why is that?”
“Because Jesus lives in my heart.”
“Are you a Christian?”
Jesus once said that in order to enter the realm of God, one must receive it like a little child. There is wisdom in that; unconventional wisdom. Unconventional in that Jesus said things in a way that always challenged his listener’s assumptions about life, God and religion.
People said he spoke with authority. He didn’t talk “about” God, life and religion in a secondhand way, as in “thus says the Lord.” He spoke these things from his own personal experience, as in “thus says me.” He talked about a God he knew firsthand. Because the Spirit of God was alive in him, he brought God to life for other people. That was the whole point of his brief ministry; to bring people and God together; to give people firsthand knowledge of God. To think that nearly two thousand years later, a young child would say of him, “Jesus lives in my heart,” shows not only the power of his message, but also the reality of the Spirit he brought to life.
Jesus still speaks unconventional wisdom. Maybe it’s just human nature to want to enfold him into our culture and make him over in our own image. We could enfold him into the values of conventional wisdom, making him stand for whatever we think is important; whatever our current cultural norms might be.
People have been doing that to him since the beginning, with limited success. We might succeed in building a thriving institution or a potent religious empire. We can hang a nameplate on the door that says “church.” Whether Christ is in or not remains to be seen.
Is your knowledge of God firsthand or secondhand? Do you believe things about God, or do you believe in the Spirit of God who lives in your heart?
The story is told of how Nicodemus the Pharisee and Jesus the prophet met for conversation. We may have some assumptions about this story and what it means. If we can set them aside and view the story through the lens of unconventional wisdom, we may see something completely new.
The gospel of John was written toward the end of the first century. It presents a portrait of Jesus that is well developed. He is the Messiah, the risen Lord. The gospel is filled with symbolism. Rather than a verbatim report of Jesus, it presents more of a commentary on his life and ministry.
As the story unfolds a Pharisee named Nicodemus came to see Jesus. Pharisees weren’t all the bad guys we make them out to be. To Jesus’ audience they were the good guys. They kept the traditions of Israel alive through the generations. But, by the time of Jesus the dominant form of Judaism had developed in a religion of purity codes. If one lived by the codes, then one pleased God.
Nicodemus told Jesus, “We all know you’re a teacher straight from God. No one could do all the God-pointing, God-revealing acts you do if God weren’t in on it.”
“Jesus answers by saying, “Unless a person is born from above, it’s not possible to see what I’m pointing to—to God’s kingdom.”
“How,” he asked, “can that be? Does one enter a second time into the mother’s womb?”
“You enter the kingdom of God,” said Jesus, “be being born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus recognized the mystery of what Jesus was telling him. How can a person be “born of God?” The author uses an image from the Exodus. When the people were going through the wilderness, they went through an area filled with poisonous snakes. Moses put a snake on his staff and lifted it up. It was a gesture saying, “God is leading us through the wilderness to freedom and safety. God is with us in the journey.”
In essence, that was the message Jesus brought to a people bound up in a religion of purity codes. God is with us in the journey. God is alive in us. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent to point the way, I, said Jesus, am pointing the way to God.
“Whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Believe means simply to “give your heart to.” For some people that may be childlike faith. For some it might be a moment of profound clarity.
Then of course we reach that commentary on the story where the writer says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.”
Conventional religious wisdom has twisted this verse down to a warped theology of heaven and hell. Accept Christ and go to heaven when you die, reject Christ and go to hell when you die. The gospel is not about death. The gospel is about life. The threat of hell conjures up an angry, petty, vengeful God. Who would want to give their hearts to a deity who would force his own Son to die in order to satisfy divine justice? And if we refuse his offer, we spend an eternity suffering in flames?
For God so loved the world.
But just what does “perish” mean? It means two things. One meaning is to lose your life in circumstances beyond your control. Jesus announces that there are no victims in God’s realm. Your life is secure in God’s hands. God invites us to realm where the forces that deny and destroy life have been themselves denied and ultimately destroyed.
The second meaning of “perish” is to trifle away your life. To let it dribble out in pursuits that may seem worthy, like power, affluence and appearance, but which are ultimately trivial pursuits. Jesus brings us into connection with authentic life, or “eternal” life. Eternal does not mean “going to heaven when you die.” It does not mean, “living forever and ever.” Eternal is a word that means, simply, “In the presence of God.” Life in the presence of God, now and always.
Now, here is where we face the mystery. What did any of us have to do with our own birth, other than to take our first breath? Your mother gave birth to you. Your birth was her achievement. God gives birth to your spirit. You being born of God is God’s achievement. It takes the idea of control out of our hands. We reminded that God is the author of salvation and that in life and in death, we belong to God.
You cannot keep life down. The Spirit of God will not remain in check. Especially when the Spirit is alive in us. Living in the realm of God is like letting go. Letting go is risky, uncomfortable, and even dangerous. Letting God be God is to live not with the certainty of answers, but with the mystery of faith.
Like Nicodemus we may ask, “How can this be? How does it happen?”
I like the way that the poet Jean Ingelow describes it in the hymn, “I Sought the Lord.”
“I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek him, seeking me.
It was not I that found, O savior true,
No, I was found of thee.
Thou didst reach forth thy hand and mine enfold;
I walked and sank not on the storm-vexed sea,
Twas not so much that I on thee took hold,
As thou, dear Lord, on me.
I find, I walk, I love, but, O the whole
Of love is but my answer, Lord to thee:
For thou wert long beforehand with my soul,
Always thou lovedst me.”
So, if there is a task at hand, it is to unfurl the sails of our heart and soul, to catch the winds of God. Amen.