30 March 2014

Lord, Give Us New Eyes

John 9: 1-41

Fourth Sunday in Lent/ 30th March 2014

Jesus said to the man born blind, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind” (John 9:39).  Sounds harsh, doesn’t it?  Born to judge; born for judgment.

What do you hear in these words?  What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear or read the word “judgment”?  My guess is that our thoughts go to a courtroom scene, a trial, a judge, the accused, and a verdict.  With the word judgment we think “condemnation.”  For many, this is the image of Jesus, the image of God they carry within them: God/Jesus as judge, before whom one is always guilty.  “I came into this world for judgment….”

            We might be tempted to ignore this verse altogether.  Can’t we just read over the part about judgment? Let’s focus instead on the positive aspects of the story, the healing, giving sight to a made born blind.  That’s the image of Jesus you might prefer: Jesus as healer.

        Yes, the text is about healing; but it’s not really about healing. 
Yes, the Pharisees get upset with Jesus healing on their Sabbath; but it’s not really the healing that troubles them. 
Yes, it’s about a man born blind; but it’s not really about physical blindness.
It is, but not completely. 

His blindness and his healing are metaphors for something else.  His blindness and healing and the reaction of those around him, those who knew him one way and had trouble recognizing him or accepting him another way, is at the heart of this text.  This man’s condition becomes the occasion for something to be discovered about God, “that God’s work might be revealed in him” (John 9:3), as Jesus said.

            This is a story about seeing—seeing God’s work in the world, discerning the movement of God; it’s about honestly acknowledging what we can see and honestly admitting what we cannot see, what we’re blind to, what we simply won’t see.

            That’s why I think we need to start with Jesus’ words about judgment in John 9:39.  The Greek here is krima.  Even though it’s the root for our English word “crime” or “criminal” it doesn’t always have a negative association in Greek, it doesn’t always mean condemnation.  Krima is related to another Greek word krisis, both words can be translated as “decision, choice, selection, verdict, interpretation, a dispute, an event,” a time when something is decided.  It’s a moment of decision, discernment, a kind piercing through to the truth of the matter, to know what is and is not true.  We might say it means “to get real.”   Jesus came into the world so that we might get real, so that those who are not real may become so and those who think they are already real may learn that they’re not.  And the metaphors used to describe our perception of the real are sight, seeing, moving from blindness to sight or sight to blindness.

            In order to see the real—to see who Jesus really is, to see what God is doing in the world, to see what God is doing in our lives…all these require radical vision.  A kind of reframing is required, a refocusing, a change of some kind is needed.  Without “new eyes” we can’t see what’s in front of our eyes.  And all of us need help seeing what’s right in front of us.

            I was reminded of this last week.  I turned 50 last Sunday.  When I arrived at my study I was greeted by fifty, large, gold balloons.  They were everywhere (mostly stacked high in the bathroom). There were streamers suspended on a string through the center of the room.   There was a large basket on the doorknob with a message in it. The message contained directions to a scavenger hunt.  Fifty clues corresponded to fifty items that were placed throughout my study. If I return all fifty items, in the basket, they will be exchanged for a birthday gift.  So, this week I’ve been following the clues and trying to find the fifty items.  It’s remarkable what we see and what we don’t see, even when it’s staring at us.  Such as, the jar of olives placed on a cup holder beside the bathroom sink.  I didn’t see a jar of olives because I wasn’t looking for it.  Or the can of sardines I eventually discovered tucked between two books.  Or the bag of party mix for Angus, my cat, propped on top of a bookcase.  I didn’t see them because I didn’t expect to see them there.  Or magnets on a light switch plate that I walked past all week, but didn’t notice until Wednesday.  I found another magnet on my desk lamp on Thursday afternoon while working on this sermon—it was staring at me all week, but I didn’t see it because I didn’t expect to see it.

            It’s similar to what happened at the Pool of Siloam.  The man who had been blind from birth, who was there daily to beg, looking for help, waiting for a miracle to occur, the man who was a fixture there at the pool becomes unrecognizable because they expect to see a man who is blind and cannot see the man who now can see. They only knew him as a blind man; they couldn’t “see” him as a man with sight.  The man was blind to them.  “That can’t be him,” they said, “he’s blindThis man can see. It must be someone who looks like him.”  But the former blind man has to keep saying, “No, I am the man.  I am the man.”  But how, they want to know.  Their incredulity prevents them from seeing what’s right before their eyes.

            So they find him and then go to the Pharisees.  Instead of rejoicing over this man’s newfound sight, their piety and religious observances hinder them from seeing the work of God.  They, too, only see what they’re looking for—they’re out to find, looking for those breaking the Law, violating the Sabbath.  That’s what they want to see and that’s all they see, they can’t see the miracle before their eyes.

            And then they get involved in a theological argument.  Rationality hinders them from seeing.  He was originally born blind. How can he now see? We need proof. The Pharisees go to his parents, but they’re feeling intimidated by these theologians.  “He’s of age; ask him [yourselves],” his parents say.  So they interrogate the man a second time and figure that all of this has something to do with sin: what faithful follower of Moses would violate the Sabbath?  And you were born in sin, how can you teach us?  And so it goes and so it goes. We see what we want to see.  What we see is what we get.

            The Jewish theologian Martin Buber (1878-1965) told this tale:  “Rabbi Mendel once boasted to his teacher Rabbi Elimelekh that evenings he saw the angel who rolls around the light before darkness, and mornings the angel who rolls away the darkness before the light. ‘Yes,’ said Rabbie Elimelkh, ‘in my youth I saw that too.  Later on you don’t see these things any more.’”[1] 

            We might think we have pretty good vision, that we’re observant, pay attention to detail, but there are things we can’t see, because we don’t expect to see them.  Sometimes we don’t have a framework to give sense to what we are seeing.  Often our frameworks of meaning, our perspectives are just wrong; sometimes our frameworks of meaning, our perspectives are not big enough to make sense of our lives, therefore they hinder us from seeing.  Our expectations, our assumptions, our preconceived images about things, people, even God, get in the way of our seeing things and people and even God. Indeed, this is the role of a prophet, who has a different set of eyes, who invites us to see things we’re blind to.  This is also why the prophets are rejected, even crucified, because we don’t always see what we need to see. 

We all have blind spots and until we incorporate them into what we see, by remembering that we can’t see everything, that we don’t know everything, until we acknowledge that we all see in a mirror dimly (1 Cor. 13: 12), we remain in darkness.  This means that we can have sight but be blind; it also means we can be in the dark, but have sight.   Those who are blind, who recognize they need help seeing, that they need the light in order to see, are the ones who can really see.  What’s needed is discernment. We need to know: are we blind or can we see? We need to judge, we need to discern: are we blind or can we see?

            In Annie Dillard’s Pulitzer-prizing winning book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she dedicates an entire chapter to the art of seeing. So much of being a seeker, being a pilgrim, being a prophet is about seeing. Dillard is an extremely wise teacher regarding what it takes to really see the world, to see its beauty, the mystery in the face of one’s neighbor, to see divinity pouring through creation.  This book had a profound influence on me right after college and it changed the way I see the world, and myself, and helped me to sense the presence of the Holy that fills creation.

Dillard quotes at length from a fascinating book by Marius von Senden, called Space and Sight.[2]  It’s the story of what happened after Western surgeons discovered how to perform safe cataract operations.  These are stories of people of all ages who had been blinded by cataracts since birth.  Prior to surgery they had no sense of space; form, distance, size were meaningless.  “Those who are blind from birth…have no real concept of height or distance,” she writes.  “A house that is a mile away is thought of as nearby, but requiring the taking of a lot of steps. …The elevator that whizzes him up and down gives no more sense of vertical distance than does the train of horizontal.” Some are so disturbed by what they see they prefer to walk with their eyes closed.  What they see oppresses them because they have no way to frame it with meaning.[3]

            One girl, a twenty-one year old was “dazzled by the world’s brightness and kept her eyes shut for two weeks.  When at the end of that time she opened her eyes again, she did not recognize the objects [around her], but, ‘the more she now directed her gaze upon everything around her, the more it could be seen how an expression of gratification and astonishment overspread her features: she repeatedly exclaimed: ‘O God! How beautiful!’”[4]

            Toward the end of the essay Annie Dillard writes, “…there is [a]…kind of seeing that involves a letting go.”[5] Every form of seeing requires this.  The blind man had to let go of his blindness.  His friends couldn’t let go of their perceptions of him. The Pharisees couldn’t let go of their expectations of what God could or could not do.  To see the real means that we have to let go of the unreal, the not-real, the false assumptions, the illusions, and fantasies that so often fill our lives. 

“The secret of seeing,” Dillard says, “is, then, the pearl of great price.”[6]  We may pursue after it, but in the end it’s always a gift. And when it happens we discover that we’re standing, like Moses, on holy ground.  That’s what David Whyte is describing in his poem “The Opening of Eyes,” that moment, “It is the opening of eyes long closed.”[7]

            “How did he open your eyes?”  That’s what they asked the man born blind. That’s what everyone wants to know, especially those who can’t see or won’t see or who want to “use” Jesus’ magic for their own ends. 

            “As long as I am in the world,” Jesus said, “I am the light of the world” (John 9:5).  By the power of the Holy Spirit, he’s still in the world.  He’s still opening eyes.  How did he open yours?  What’s your relationship to Christ as light? What is he showing you?

            Dillard shared, “I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.”[8] That’s the most that any of us can do.

[1] Cited in Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (HarperPerennial, 1974), 32.
[2] Marius von Senden, Space and Sight: The Perception of Space & Shape in the Congenitally Blind Before & After Operation (New York: Methuen Books, 1960).
[3] Dillard, 38.
[4] Dillard, 31. Emphasis added.
[5] Dillard, 33.
[6] Dillard, 35.
[7] David Whyte, Songs for Coming Home (1984).
[8] Dillard, 35.

23 March 2014

Our Thirst for Living Water

John 4: 5-30

Third Sunday in Lent/ 23rd March 2014

Every day was relentlessly the same, a trip to the well with an empty water jar and home again.  She went alone.  It was about noon, the hottest hour of the day.  It was probably the only time she felt safe to go.  There were fewer people around.  They all knew who she was even if they didn’t know her name.  The city of Sychar wasn’t as big as some of the other cities in the region. Yes, they knew who she was.  And she knew the looks.  She knew about the gossip. She knew that people could be cruel.  She felt the shame of the community. That’s why it was safer to go at noon. She wouldn’t have to meet anyone.  She could just get to the well, fill her water jar, and then be on her way home.  Home—if that’s what you want to call it.  It wasn’t much of a home life.  It certainly wasn’t conventional.  She was married once—then again, and again, and again, and again.  Maybe she wanted the neighbors to think she was married because she’s going home to someone.  But he’s not her husband.  The shame she carried was great.

            That journey to and from the well summed up the monotony of her life: every day, going to the same old well with empty jars. Going to the same old well, empty. Tired and empty.

            One day, which seemed like every other, she went to the well with her empty jar.  He was waiting for her.  Just sitting there.  He was exhausted, tired from his journey.  He was sitting on the edge of the well in the heat of the day.  Seeing a strange man at the well, a well that belonged to their ancestor Jacob, and no doubt nervous, she approached with caution.  She could tell he was a Jew.  And that added to her concern. She knew that Jews considered Samaritans as unclean, subhuman, and she could only imagine what he thought of her as a Samaritan and as a woman, a woman like her, full of shame, unclean.

            He was alone.  His friends went to buy food.  He stayed there to rest.  But he was thirsty. 

            Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink” (John 4:7).  Not even, “Please. ” Did you notice that?  No, “Would you mind giving me a drink?”  Not very polite.  She was probably used to people talking that way to her.  We can’t blame Jesus too much, though.  He had to be direct, to the point.  Jews didn’t talk to Samaritans and certainly not to Samaritan women in public.  She was puzzled by this request.  Was it a trick?  “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a Samaritan?” (Jn 4:9), she said.  A Jew could not even touch something that had been handled by a Samaritan; they could not share anything.  Nothing.

            Jesus replied, in a cryptic way, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him [,that is, for a drink] and he would have given you living water” (Jn 4:10).  If you knew what I had to give, you would be asking me for water.

            Very confused at this point, she says, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” (Jn 4:11).  She’s right.  Jacob’s Well was about 100 feet deep, fed by a fresh spring. He had no way to retrieve water from that well on his own, no bucket, nothing, nothing clean that is.  And then she became defensive, “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” (Jn 4:12).

            Then Jesus said, mysteriously, “Every one who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.  The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (Jn 4:13-14).

            Never thirsty again.  The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water” (Jn 4:13). Never again, she says to herself, will I have to come to this blasted well, lugging a heavy jar of water.  Never again will have I have to subject myself to the shame and humiliation of coming to this well.

            Then, from out of nowhere, Jesus said, “Go, call your husband, and come back” (Jn 4:16).  “I have no husband,” she said.  “You’re right, you don’t.  The one you do have is certainly not your husband.” How did he know such things about her?  A prophet? 

            Now the conversation deepens. They move from talking about practical things to even really practical things, such as theology!  She begins to like him, but wonders why his people treat her with so much disrespect.  “Where we worship on Mt. Gerizim is not good enough for you, because it’s not Jerusalem?”  And then she really becomes confused when he says, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountaintop nor in Jerusalem….the hour is coming, and now is here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:20-24).  She knows he’s talking about a future time.  The Samaritans, too, are waiting for the coming of the Messiah. “When he comes,” she says, “he will proclaim all things to us,” (Jn 4:25), he’ll settle our differences, he will tell us what is true.

            Then, Jesus said, “I am he, the one who speaking to you” (Jn 4:26).

            “Just then” his disciples return with the food, shocked to see him talking to her. No one dared to question him.  Then, leaving the water jar behind, she slipped away from the men and ran off into the city, proclaiming, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!  He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (Jn 4:29).

            That day the endless, monotonous daily routine came to a surprising end.  She didn’t return home, instead, she ran into the city, without a desire to be isolated, cut-off from the community; she didn’t care what people thought of her—in fact, she had become an evangelist.  She didn’t return home with a jug of water, instead, she left the clay jar back at the well —as the text says, one has to pay attention to every detail in John’s Gospel—and she ran into the city to tell others what she discovered about this man—and about herself.

            Sadly, we’re never told her name.  And, yet this nameless Samaritan woman is the first person in John’s Gospel to spread the news that the Messiah has come.  Christian tradition later gave her a name: St. Photine of Samaria. Photine means “enlightened one.” That works. 

            While respectful of the tradition I think we could imagine other names for her.

How about Desire?  Not, Desiree, which means to be desired, but Desire (which was a favorite name among the Puritans, by the way).  Desire reflects her deep—deeper than Jacob’s Well—yearning for a different life, something more. When she heard that there was another water source that meant she wouldn’t have to go to the well, she said right away, “Sir, give me this water….”  That’s desire for something more. It says something about the state of her life on that day.  She goes to the well to satisfy her thirst. But all the water in the world won’t slake the deeper thirst of her soul that cries out for something else, a life beyond the shame and humiliation.  Jesus knows her, knows what she needs, and in order for her to receive what he has to offer he has to take her out of one frame of reference into another.  His cryptic responses do that.  They throw her into confusion.  A statement from Jesus yields a question from Desire and then another response from Jesus.  Jesus is trying to see what she really desires. He’s trying to get her to see what she’s really thirsty for.  Jesus is intentionally stirring the water, as it were.

            So, I guess, Desire works, but perhaps a better name might be Zoe.  Why Zoe?  In Greek there are two words that can be translated as “life.”  There’s bios (from which we get biology, biography), which means natural life, the period or course of life, the extension or length of natural life.  It’s functional life; existing, but not really living.

            The Greek work for really living is zōē (ζωὴ).  Zōē refers to vitality, that which animates life.  Zōē is abundant life, full-life, a life overflowing with meaning, purpose, love, and light. It’s “authentic existence.”[1] It’s vigorous life.  It’s life that yields more life, not just sustains it.  Zōē is one of John’s favorite words; he uses it 32 times in the Gospel.  We find it right at the beginning of the Gospel in the Prologue. Speaking about Jesus, John says, “What has come into being in him was life (zōē), and the zōē was the light of all people” (John 1:4). When Jesus says that he’s “the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6),” the Greek reads zōē.  Jesus said, “I have come that you have zōē and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).  When Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life,” he’s talking about zōē.  “I am the resurrection and the zōē.”  When Jesus says that he can offer the Samaritan woman “living water,” it’s zōē that’s behind that word.   It’s overflowing life, Life with a capital “L” that cannot be contained in ordinary life.  “The water that I will give,” Jesus said, “will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”  In them—in us—within the heart or soul or psyche, within our lives this new life will flow.  And when Jesus talks about “eternal life” here in John’s Gospel he’s not talking about life in heaven, but life, here and now.[2]  Jesus is talking about true life, zōē, which is touched by eternity, life with a touch of divinity, that is God’s life, God’s zōē, welling up within us, gushing up within us.  Later in John’s Gospel we find Jesus saying, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37).

            That’s the kind of life, with a capital “L”, that Jesus came to offer, came to give, the kind of life Jesus still offers, still gives.  It’s so easy for us to get caught in our routine lives and fail to see that Jesus is trying to give us something more.  The woman at the well is so stuck in a day-to-day routine, so literal-minded, I sense despair, that it’s difficult for her to imagine a different way, an alternate life, something more.  The poet T. S. Eliot (1888-1964) once asked the question: “Where is the Life we have lost in our living?”[3] It’s a question that often haunts me.  For I believe that this is exactly what Jesus came to offer her—Life—and he will not relent until the scales on her eyes are washed away and she’s allowed to see him and see herself.  He offers her more, offers greater life, true life, meaningful life, God’s life.  That’s what Jesus is always extending out to you and me.  Always more Life.  Always.

            However, there’s something within us that causes us to forget this or is fearful around this.  Christian Wiman reminds us that we’re always trying to bring God down to our level. Wiman is one of the leading intellectuals of our age; he was the former editor of the esteemed Poetry journal.  He was raised in the faith, grew up in the church, moved away from it, then came back to it just around the time he fell in love and got married and then diagnosed with a very rare form of cancer.  He has written extensively about his experience and the depth of his faith.  In his memoir, My Bright Abyss, Wiman, says, “Our minds are constantly trying to bring God down to our level rather than letting him lift us into levels of which we were not previously capable.  This is as true in life as it is in art.”  When I read this recently, I thought of Desire or Zoe, our Samaritan woman at the well.  She’s stuck at one level and can’t quite connect with what Jesus is saying to her.  She responds to Jesus from within her immediate frame of reference.  Wiman continues, “Thus we love within the lines that experience has drawn for us, we create out of impulses that are familiar and, if we were honest with ourselves, exhausted.”[4]   We stay within the confines of the familiar, we allow our past to limit what the future can be, we stay close to home, keep up the routine and we end up exhausted because we’re trying to keep things as they are, trying to bring God down into our world, into our lives, trying to fit God into our experience, our expectations. 

            But Wiman then wonders, “What might it mean to be drawn into meanings that, in some profound and necessary sense, shatter us?  This is what it means to love,” he says.[5]  That’s what love does.  Love shatters old ways—ways that do not, can no longer give us life—in order to open us up to a “still more excellent way (1 Corinthians 12:31),” which is exactly what Jesus offered the woman at the well.  It’s all given in deep, profound love.  “Unceasing love, surpassing all we know.”[6]

            And so she discovered something new flowing within her soul, a new life stirring, bubbling up within her.  She is now fully known, she is recognized, she is understood by him. He knows her through and through, he knows her past—all of it—but without a word of judgment lifts her up and calls her forward into to a new way of life.  And so she leaves the water jar behind.  That clay jar and all that it represents for her no longer has to “contain” her life. It had become a symbol of her life, but she didn’t need it any more.  In leaving the jar behind she’s leaving the rest of her life behind too.  Love calls her forward.  Her body, her heart, her soul, together, now become the container for new life, the zōē-life of God gushing forth within her.  

            I like to think that when she left that jar behind, she tossed it away and when it landed on the ground it cracked. 

            Or, better…she tossed it away and when it landed on the ground it—shattered. 

            Thanks be to God.

[1] John Macquarrie, An Existentialist Theology: A Comparison of Heidegger and Bultmann (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1955), 135ff. 
[2] Macquarrie, 138: “Such life, understood not as a natural phenomenon but as man’s authentic God-given existence, is eternal or everlasting life, because, being the opposite of death, the concomitant of sin, it is therefore immune from death.  Thus the believer has even now eternal life.” See also John 3:16, 5:24; 6:47; 17:3.
[3] T. S. Eliot, Choruses from “The Rock” (1934).
[4] Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a ModernBeliever (New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 49-50.
[5] Wiman, 50.
[6] Michael Dennis Browne, from the text of Stephen Paulus’ anthem Pilgrim’s Hymn. 

16 March 2014

The Search

John 3:1-17

Second Sunday in Lent/ 16th March 2014

A recording of the sermon may be found here.

He arrived in the dark seeking light.  He arrived at night afraid of the light, worried what others might think if seen in the light of day.  He came searching for insight, for wisdom, for some answers, for truth.  He’s heard rumors about what this man could do: signs and wonders, imbuing the presence of God. 

            He’s not new to the world of the spirit, to the religious life.  He’s well educated, raised in the faith; he rose up through the ranks, sits as a religious leader among the people. He’s a powerful man, commanding respect, a man of influence, with authority, which makes his appearance—at night—all the more mysterious. 

            And Jesus knows why.  Jesus knows his heart.  Jesus knows his thoughts.  Jesus knows the stirrings of his soul.  Jesus knows he’s searching for something.  He’s a religious professional, he knows the stories of his people, he grew up in community, went to Sabbath school. He was religious by nature and by practice.  He worshipped Yahweh on the Sabbath, observed Torah, and made sure others did the same.  But then he goes to Jesus with a seeker’s heart, a spirit of curiosity, and the hunger for something, undercover at night, so no one else would see. 

Here’s the truth, Nicodemus.  I’m going to level with you and cut to the chase.  I know you’re looking for the kingdom of God.  I know you’re searching for a world shaped by God’s justice and righteousness.  I know you’re looking for something more, for a better a world, for a deeper connection to your soul.  I know your faith and your religious practices are growing tired, I know they don’t speak to you anymore.  Here’s the truth, Nicodemus: no one can see the kingdom of God without being re-educated, re-newed, re-born.

            “Reborn”  “Born-again.”  “Born from above.”  Whichever way you want to say it—and any of these would be correct, it’s the same in Greek—the point is one has to start again.  You have to go back to school.  You have to unlearn some things in order to learn new things, kingdom things, about God, yourself, and the world.  This way of God does not come naturally.  You don’t reach the kingdom through a developmental process or evolution.  All the human wisdom and reason in the world can’t lead you there.  All the religious wisdom of the world can’t lead you to that place—some religious ideas might even stand in the way.

            “How can this be?” Nicodemus said.  “I don’t understand.” 

            Being a literalist, he misses the point—as literalists often do, trying to be, well, literal, choking truth with the facts. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” 

            To which Jesus says, a second time:  

Here’s the truth, Nicodemus.  Listen to me.  You won’t find what you’re looking for if you don’t open your eyes to what you cannot see.  You can’t enter into the kingdom, you won’t see the world as I see it, live in it the way I live in it, love it the way I love it, without becoming a child of the Spirit who wants to birth something new in you.  If you want to live in the natural world, be a materialist, focus on only the things you see—that’s what I mean by ‘flesh’ natural—that’s what you’ll get.  If you want to be a materialist, that’s fine, but that’s what you’ll get. If you want to see what you cannot see, if you want to live in the world of God’s Spirit, and be a part of something infinite and wondrous and beautiful and holy, then you need help, you need the Spirit. You will find what you’re searching for.  But what are you searching for—or better, whom are you searching for?

           Stunned.  Nicodemus tries to collect himself, shocked by what he heard.  Jesus knows what he’s doing. Jesus knows he’s dismantling the foundations of Nicodemus’ life and world.  Jesus is intentionally throwing him into deep existential conflict—because that is how we learn and come to life.[1] That’s what the Holy Spirit often does, throws us into conflict.  Jesus doesn’t let up, but drives the point home; he drives Nicodemus deeper into the conflict, deeper into himself.  “Do not be astonished, Nicodemus,” that I said, “You must be born from above.  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 is goes. That’s what it’s like for everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:7-8)—open to something wild and wondrous and completely beyond your control.

            “But how can these things be?” Nick objects.  “You say you’re a teacher,” Jesus replies, “and yet you do not understanding these things?” 

            And so for a third time, Jesus “verily” says: 

Here’s the God’s honest truth, Nicodemus.  Listen to me.  How can you ‘get it’ if you’re not being open to what I have to say?  I have to explain how the wind works, how are you going understand how the Spirit works?  I have come to bring you the way of the Spirit, the way of heaven, the way of God’s kingdom.  I have been sent to show you, to teach you, to love you into the kingdom.

            In order to see it, Jesus says to Nicodemus, you have to look at me, keep your eyes fixed on me.  “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 the life of God.  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 the life of God.  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).

            That’s what Nicodemus needed to see.  That’s also, I suspect, what Nicodemus was also searching for.  “Seek and you will find” (Matthew 7:7).  It’s been said that to begin the search for God means at some level we have already been found by God.  The search itself says something about what we really desire in our hearts.  The desire itself tells what we’re searching for and who’s searching for us.  To search, to go off on that journey, even if it’s in the middle of the night, maybe especially then, is what matters. It’s the search that matters.  As the novelist Walker Percy (1919-2009) once said, “The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.  To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something.  Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”[2]  We want to be “onto something,” we want to go on that search for God. The soul longs for this.

            In 1945, in a garbage dump in Egypt, scholars tripped over a copy of the Gospel of Thomas.  Scholars have known about this Gospel for centuries, but no one had seen a complete copy of it until 1945.  The Gospel dates from as early as 40 AD or as late as 140 AD.   In the Gospel of Thomas we find this saying of Jesus: “If you are searching, you must not stop until you find.  When you find, however, you will be troubled. [But] Your confusion will give way to wonder.  In wonder you will reign over all things.”[3]

            See and you will find.  Nicodemus found what he was searching for. The next time Nicodemus shows up in John’s Gospel, is on the Friday of Jesus’ crucifixion.  “Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night,” John tells us, “also came,”—now in full light for all to see—“bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.  They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths…” (John 19: 39, 40).  By this time Nicodemus is a follower and a believer, open to the movement of the Spirit, a witness to the crucifixion, who saw the Son of Man lifted up; with eyes transfixed upon him, high and lifted up, Nicodemus saw the love of God descending through him and through him to a world, not to condemn, but to save. 

            And here’s the point: to see what’s happening through this man lifted up on a tree, on a cross, to “see” what’s really going on in him, to see what God is doing in him, to see what God is achieving on the cross, to be caught up in God’s movement in the life of Jesus is to be born from above and so born again, reborn, reeducated by the Spirit, transformed. To know this is to be born again and again and again.  Shouldn’t this, then, be true of every follower of Christ?

           The focus here, throughout John 3, is renewal, transformation, what it takes to experience being born again or from above.  It’s about life, new life, God’s life. The text also identifies those things that hinder life, new life, God’s life.  Here’s the rub:  the tough truth we need to face is that there’s a part of us that resists renewal and transformation, which resists being born again or born from above.  To stand there with Nicodemus, though, means we acknowledge that at some deep level, we still haven’t found what we’re looking for, it means that we have to admit that our lives are in need of change, that we are like Nicodemus searching for light in the darkness, we need help—all of us.  To be born again means that the life we have from the first or original birth was and is insufficient; or to be born from above means that the natural life that we have is insufficient.  Something else is required to help us see.  A new form of birth is required.  Something new has to be given. Something new has to be experienced.  For all of us.

            This is why it’s unfortunate and, to be honest, very frustrating that the term “born-again” has become so theologically and even politically loaded these days. A Presbyterian minister and friend, Roy Howard, recently expressed his frustration over the use, even misuse of the designation “born-again.”  I share his frustration.  To experience grace means that one has been born again and every time we encounter that grace we are born again.  I have no problem claiming this label.  Roy says, “It bothers me when mainline Christians (of which I am one) say ‘I’m not one of those born again types’ meaning not a fundamentalist.”  I’m not one of those types, I’m not one of those types of Christians.  I’m Christian but not like them. “I get that,” Roy says, “but if you are not a ‘born again type’ then just what ‘type’ are you and what experience of the living God has occurred in your life that compels you to be a disciple?”  To which I reply, simply: “Amen!” 

            As we journey through Lent, as we search after Jesus, this is a good question for us:  what type are you?  What type are we as a church? Have we experienced that grace?  Where have you had an experience of the living God? What compels you to be a disciple?

[1] See the work of James E. Loder, The Transforming MomentDescription: http://www.assoc-amazon.com/e/ir?t=hermeneia-20&l=btl&camp=213689&creative=392969&o=1&a=0939443171, 2nd edition, (Colorado Springs, CO:  Helmers & Howard, 1989), who identifies conflictual experiences as integral if not essential to the process of transformation and growth. See also Kenneth E. Kovacs, The RelationalTheology of James E. Loder:  Encounterand Conviction (New York:  Peter Lang, 2011).
[2] Walker Percy, TheMoviegoer (1961).
[3] Logion 2, The Gospel of Thomas: Wisdom of the Twin – A Dynamic Translation, Lynn Bauman, trans.  (Ashland: White Cloud Press, 2004), 8.