Sermon – March 16, 2014
The Rev. Rebecca S. Myers, CSW
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Corbin, KY
Second Sunday in Lent
Nicodemus said to [Jesus], “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. John 3:4-5
Please be seated
In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus says we must be born of the spirit. Becoming a grandmother was a profound time of spiritual birth for me. Just before my 49th birthday, my son called me, saying “Hello Grandma.” Four months later, I was there during the sonogram, seeing my grandson, who was only 1 ounce, yet nearly fully formed. And in early June of 2005, I finally got the call and witnessed my grandson’s birth. I don’t think I’ve stopped smiling yet!
A couple of weeks later, I was at a training session. We were asked to introduce ourselves in a newspaper headline. Out popped, “Logan births grandma,” and then the resulting poem:
Logan Births Grandma
I was born on your birthday
even though I am nearly
1/2 century older than you
At the same time I was helping
to birth you
You were helping to birth me
Your gestation period of 9 months
was in your mother’s womb
where you grew eyes, ears, lungs
heart, arms, legs, brain and mouth
My gestation period took 48 years
in the womb of life
where I grew heart, soul, spirit
compassion, love, sorrow, grief
and maybe wisdom
We both are new to the world
We both have so much to learn
We both are teachers for each other
Your heart will give me new eyes
Your soul will give me new ears
Your spirit will give me new heart
Your compassion will give me new breath
Your love will give me new arms and legs
Your sorrow and grief will give me new mouth
Your wisdom will give me new brain
Together we will complete the circle of life
We grow spiritually throughout our lives. Various life events birth us spiritually. Our Gospel tells us part of the spiritual birth of Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee. (Paul was also a Pharisee.) Pharisees were a group of Jewish people with particular practices and understandings. Just like we have a variety of Christian denominations. One New Testament scholar says the Jewish people at the time of Jesus were divided into “mutually antagonistic parties.” [Writings of the New Testament, Luke Timothy Johnson, p. 43] I think we all understand that. Some groups wanted to overthrow the Roman rulers. Some groups wanted to be more cooperative. Some, like the Essenes of Qumran, totally removed themselves to the desert.
According to New Testament Scholar, Luke Timothy Johnson the Pharisees were mostly Judean, urban, and middle class. They lived by Torah (the first five books of the Bible); however, they were flexible in that they looked for how Torah, written many years before, applied to their current circumstances. To live within Torah and in their current context, they created Midrash or explanations, which sometimes included lengthy prescriptions about how to be sure you were being holy, for instance, or what constituted observance of the Sabbath. The strict adherence to these prescriptions is what Jesus challenges. How can healing a sick man on the Sabbath be against the law, Jesus asks?
It’s easy to relate to the Pharisees, isn’t it? There was a prescription about what was good and right. Yet, something about Jesus’ challenges captures Nicodemus. He has questions and wants answers, but to be seen publicly with Jesus would have been risky. Nicodemus obviously cannot let his questions go, so he takes the steps to come to Jesus at night.
My favorite painting of this scene is by Henry Ossawa Tanner, and shows Jesus sitting on a rooftop speaking with Nicodemus. Many rooftops in Jerusalem have these patios atop them to catch the cooling evening breezes. Nicodemus knows Jesus is from God, yet Jesus challenges how Nicodemus lives his life. Nicodemus is so confused and his confusion increases in this exchange with Jesus.
Spiritual birth is foreign to Nicodemus. Jesus says there is something more than following the rules. Rules are important AND they must be in balance with the spirit, with love. All reason and no spirit is not the way of life. We know spirit, but we cannot see it. We cannot reason ourselves to it.
Balancing spirit and reason means that we’ll take risks and not know the outcome. We’ll follow God’s leading, even when we feel some discomfort doing so. We’ll be vulnerable. We won’t be able to explain everything.
Yet this balance is so important… so necessary to our lives…to truly living that God sent his Son into the world to model this and teach this, knowing…knowing it would be so violently rejected that we would kill God’s only Son.
If I had to explain this balance, the best I can describe it is congruence between my body and my head – a peace or relaxation of physical body and mind. In my body, I’d experience this at my solar plexus or gut and in my head, there’d be calm rather than a lot of debate.
During our Lenten time, take a look at your spiritual growth. What does it look like? How are you doing?
We can infer that even after this confusing exchange, Nicodemus did indeed grow, because we find him again at the end of John’s Gospel, 19:38-42. Nicodemus helps Joseph of Arimathea lay Jesus in the tomb. Nicodemus is the one who brings the mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing about 100 pounds to put in the linen cloth that wraps Jesus’ body. The man who came in the middle of the night, takes a risk in lovingly caring for the body of Christ, a man who had been despised and scorned within the community and by the Roman authorities.
In Jesus’ exchange with Nicodemus, Jesus ends his teaching about the importance of spiritual growth by explaining the fruits. Jesus says, God so loved the world. God so loved us…that he gave his only Son, so that we may not perish, but have eternal life…we may have life eternal. God did not send Jesus as condemnation of the world we humans devise to live in. God sent Jesus to save us from ourselves…to give us life….