Sunday, March 12, 2017

Saying Yes


Lent Two - John 3:1-17

Speaking the Creed together is the traditional saying yes part of the baptism service; it is an optional part of the worship service every Sunday. Those who love to speak the Creeds might love it because it ties us to a long tradition of people trying to sift out what we believe about God, asking questions and trying to answer them. Was Jesus really God? Well, then, was Jesus really human? How could those both be true at once? We’re not quite sure but somehow… We say “yes” to both. Those who love the Creeds might love them because they are ancient, because they are unifying, because they are mysterious.

Those who don’t love the Creeds might not appreciate how these statements of faith grew more rigid in times when people were forced to say them at the blade of a sword or the barrel of a gun. I’m pretty sure that not one of us gathered here today would want to force anyone into faith (but we know that’s not true, unfortunately, for all people who call themselves Christians); we want people to know that God gives free will, God invites and does not bully people into faith… but for some of us, the words of the creeds kind of stick in our throats. If we don’t really love to say the Creeds, it might be because we are cynics or because our lives are so full of words, words, words…

But the reason the church holds onto these Creeds, I suspect, even as our church and culture are become less about intellectual assent to systems of belief and more about belonging, more about wrestling with the questions than establishing absolute truths, are that they are some of our most ancient, shared ways of saying yes.

In the night, in the darkness, a liminal time just like the wilderness is a liminal space, Nicodemus comes to get to know Jesus better. He’s been curious but clearly, there’s not a place in the daytime crowds, surrounded by his disapproving colleagues to get answers to his most persistent questions. Day after day, night after night, though, he’s wondered about what this Jesus is saying and doing… because who could do these things apart from the presence of God?

And after Nicodemus greets Jesus, with those words, Jesus points out that it’s a gift to be able to see where power comes from—you can only see God’s work and God’s presence through being born from above, or born again, or born of the Spirit! What does this mean? Well, it means the wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes… that’s what it’s like to be in God’s presence and know God’s activity in the world. You can’t control it, but maybe you can be changed by it.

Nicodemus asks “How can these things be?” In response, Jesus wonders aloud why it is so hard to teach even the most believing among us, why we don’t receive what God has to offer, why we find it so hard to trust in the God who loved the world so much that God placed God’s Beloved Jesus in the middle of our life to give us a glimpse of eternal life. “Indeed,” Jesus says, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

This is not the last we’ll hear of Nicodemus. He shows up again in John’s gospel after this life-changing conversation. He speaks up for Jesus[1] when the leaders are looking for a reason to kill him, and after Jesus is crucified, Nicodemus goes with Joseph of Arimathea to remove Jesus body from the cross. Nicodemus brings about 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes to anoint his body as they wrapped it in linen cloths.[2] It is way beyond an extravagant amount.

This is what happens, I think, when we actually encounter the Living God. No matter how challenging the words, no matter how able or unable we are to understand or respond or fulfill them, we are changed by the encounter… it might mean that when it’s most needed, we are able to speak up in the face of injustice, or to pour out our love and resources extravagantly in the face of loss, grief, tragedy.

At the Acts Bible Study both this week and last, we remembered what Luther said in his explanation to the third article of the Creed. That’s the part where we say, “I believe in the Holy Spirit…” and here is how Luther explains that, “I believe that by my own understanding or effort I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth…”[3]

It’s not my good actions (or failures) that make me right (or wrong) with God. It’s not because of our abilities, not because of what we do well… the fate of the world is not in our hands but in God’s hands… and that is just as hard for us to grasp in the morning as it was for Nicodemus to grasp at night. Yet… through the power of the Holy Spirit, that breathes through this place as unpredictably as wind… and as reliably as the air that fills our lungs right now… through the power of the Holy Spirit, we have the opportunity to say yes to God over and over and over.

Saint Patrick, who was a slave in Ireland before he went back to share the love of Christ there, taught a beautiful hymn of saying yes to the God we know in at least three ways—through the Creator and the whole creation; through Christ, the Word made flesh; and through the Spirit.

In the middle of the gorgeous verses of I Bind unto Myself Today[4] is verse four—a series of prayers that read like an ancient rune:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.[5]

This is who we are invited to have at the very center of our lives—not ourselves, not our own good deeds, not our tremendous efforts, not our rules and boundaries about who’s in or who’s out—at the center of us, Christ. And we are invited to saying yes to Christ, receiving, recognizing, practicing trust in Christ, and as do, we being made new by the Living God.

Faith isn’t about getting everything right… and we don’t…
As a community, there are plenty of us who don’t believe, plenty who have trouble with trust (that’s right, you are not the only one)… but the core, the central thing is God’s saying yes to us. Belovedness is spreading, and that seemed impossible… but here we are. In life, in death, in life beyond death, what is most ancient and yet new is emerging, and we hear God’s repeated invitations to life.

[1] “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” John 7:51

[2] John 19:39-40

[3] Small Catechism, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, page 1162

[4] I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity by invocation of the same, the Three in One and One in Three
 I bind this day to me forever, by pow’r of faith, Christ’s incarnation, his baptism in the Jordan River, his cross of death for my salvation, his bursting from the spiced tomb, his riding up the heav’nly way, his coming at the day of doom, I bind unto myself today.
I bind unto myself today the virtues of the starlit heaven, the glorious sun’s life-giving ray, the whiteness of the moon and even, the flashing of the lightning free, the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks, the stable earth, the deep salt sea, around the old eternal rocks.

[5] I Bind unto Myself Today, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 450. Images in this hymn are also similar to those in Madeline L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet, in which she quotes Patrick’s Rune, whose origins are much more ancient (11th century, Gaelic, “The Book of Hymns.”)

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