Sermon preached by the Reverend Cindy Stravers
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Second Sunday of Lent – March 16, 2014
There are a few words I try never to say – two words that make me cringe when I hear them: should and ought. My reluctance to use these words stems from the frequency of which I heard them as a child….not in my home, but in my church. They are hard words, words that convey control, words based in judgment, words that, quite frankly, rarely do anything but instill fear.
Unfortunately, they were – and often are still – tied to a rigid doctrine of “salvation.” This kind of doctrine – one that makes a clear distinction between insiders and outsiders, sinners and saints – has been the fodder of religious arguments for millennia – and it is usually those in positions of power that have won the debates – declaring their understanding to be the Truth – capital “T.” “If you want to be saved, you should….” If you really believe in God, you ought to…”
Most unfortunately, the tie between salvation and these words – frequently includes part of the Gospel lesson that we just heard. You know it – you’ve seen it – pasted on highway billboards, strung along fences at televised baseball games – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
The story of Nicodemus brought back a decades-old memory. I was visiting an elderly woman who was dying. She was a faithful woman – born and raised in the church, active in ministry. She was kind and gracious, a good friend to many, a good mother and loyal wife. One of the last things she said to me was, “I’m so afraid. I don’t know if I’m saved.” She had no assurance of what was ahead, in part, I think, because she had heard the “should/ought” message that made her think she was responsible for her own salvation.
I get the feeling that Nicodemus was in a similar boat. Although he was a member of the religious elite – educated, wealthy, a man who kept the law – he, too, seems to have had questions that burned in his belly – some uneasiness about his spiritual state, perhaps some fear.
The undercover conversation starts with a rather confident Nicodemus: “Teacher, we know you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” One point for Nicodemus…..it’s always a good thing to bring a compliment to the table first.
Jesus responds to this statement with what could also be considered a compliment: “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Yes, Nicodemus, you’re right and you have seen what is true.
But then Nicodemus loses focus – his vision goes myopic – interpreting Jesus to say that one must literally be born again. Nicodemus loses sight of the big picture – contemplating the particular, questioning the impossible, seemingly unable or perhaps unwilling to recognize the reality of things beyond his control. And he gets stuck.
I hear Jesus stumbling over the words – trying to put the images of a new reality – a new way of life – into a package that Nicodemus might understand. His words are more like a poem or a parable that contains the truth but doesn’t demand literal interpretation in order to be understood.
All this talk about being born of the Spirit – the Spirit that blows when and where it will – the Spirit that cannot be controlled or tamed – the Spirit that invites – the Spirit that exchanges the words “should” and “ought” with “may” and “might.”
Nicodemus came to Jesus with a question, a hunger. Neither his strict adherence to the law nor his standing in the community provided him with the assurance he was after…just like the dying woman who wondered about her salvation.
Is there an answer? Yes! And it’s also included in our Gospel lesson today – at least three times.
First, it is included in the verse we’ve already considered – John 3:16 – the one you pass along the highway: “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 eternal life.” According to theologian Marcus Borg, the word “believe” in this text does not mean strict intellectual assent to propositions and claims, but rather, Jesus is speaking of belief as trust, as faithfulness – as something we are led into – the ability to say, “there’s something to this.”
Secondly, this gift of “eternal life” is way more than some future existence in a heavenly city with streets of gold and pearly gates. It starts now – it is an invitation to be a part of God’s life today – an invitation to see as God sees, to love as God loves.
Third, this gift is given by God – not as a reward for good behavior or sound doctrine, but as an act of divine, unbounded, abundant, unconditional love. I wish those signs along the interstates and the banners on the screens would include John 3:17: “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.”
The bottom line is that the work of salvation has already been done. There is nothing we should or ought to do to make that more real or true – it’s a done deal, it’s out of our hands. But is there more? Yes.
There are still the “mays” and the “mights.” We may want to go deeper; we might want to experience more. We may want to look at our attitudes or our behaviors and we might want to make a change. We may want to get to know God better and we might decide to spend more time seeking God’s presence – feeding our souls. We may want to learn to love as God loves – we might want to give as God gives – feeding the hungry in our city and in the world. We may want to get unstuck, giving up the belief that we are our own Savior. We might want to let go of trying to control what can’t be controlled and allow the Spirit to blow where and when it will. We may want to lean into the wonder of it all – letting go of our fear, resting in and blessedly assured of the love of God – seen most clearly, we believe, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
God loved the world so much that he gave himself, in the person of Jesus, to the world – that whoever believes – or whoever thinks there may be something to all of this – might live. Amen.