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Sunday, February 17, 2008

How Can These Things Be?

A sermon for II Lent
John 3:1-17 - February 17, 2008
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham, NJ
(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton rector and pastor

I don’t know about you, but I was always taught, “Say what you mean and mean what you say.”

I suspect Nicodemus had similar instruction in his household. Which, I suppose, is the reason my ears are tuned to hear his frustration at the response he gets from Jesus.

You have to know this about the Pharisees. They were one of several groups that made up the Hasidim (“the pious”). The word 'Pharisee' comes from the Hebrew word prushim, meaning ‘separated’ as in ‘set apart for a life of purity’. Depending on the time, the Pharisees were a political party, a social movement, and a school of thought. They happened to be enjoying a period of prosperity and influence in the time of Jesus.

That explains the reason Nicodemus comes to Jesus ‘by night.’ Clearly, he’s taking a risk in coming to see Jesus at all. He doesn’t want to be seen talking to this upstart Rabbi who is breaking all the rules – healing on the Sabbath, eating with sinners, not keeping strict Kosher and even talking about resurrection, something over which the Pharisees disagreed with the Sadducees. It would cost Nicodemus a great deal of political capital if he were to be seen with Jesus.

Nicodemus begins his conversation with high praise, acknowledging Jesus as a Rabbi with a divine vocation. To which Jesus responds, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”

Say what? How did we get from introductions and pleasantries to talk about being born again?

“How can these things be?” asks a befuddled Nicodemus.

I get it. I ‘m neither a Pharisee nor a Sadducee, and I’m no stranger to subtlety and nuance, but even I get the bewildered mystification expressed by Nicodemus. I want to say, “Look, I came to you in the middle of the night, at no small personal expense. I haven’t even begun to ask my question and you’re talking riddles about ‘The Spirit blows where it will????”

I get where Jesus is coming from, as well. Jesus seems to know that the 'burning question' Nicodemus has come to ask even before he asks it. Not a big guess. It's the hot topic of the day: eternal life and resurrection. Jesus wants to frame the discussion, and he is wise to do so.

Jesus says, “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” Jesus is talking about matters of faith verses matters of reason, and that makes sense. In many ways, faith is not reasonable. It often doesn't make much sense.

In that way, faith is very much like love, which, as St. Paul writes, never fails. Love is even greater than faith or hope. As he writes to the ancient church in Corinth: “These three remain: faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.” (I Corinthians 13:1-13)

Anyone who has ever been in love can tell you that love is unreasonable. Love can change your perception of the world and allow you to believe in possibility. And, it can break your heart with disappointment. Love makes no sense. Anyone who has ever loved knows that love is illogical.

We love our children, but they can drive us to distraction and sometimes despair. And yet, we continue to take the risk of love. By some strange magic, the more you love, the more you are capable of love.

So it is with faith. The more you believe, the more faith you have. Which can have it's plusses and minuses, but that's a topic for another sermon.

But the Sadducees and Pharisees were not about faith or love. They were about purity and laws. And, politics. A deadly combination, to be sure.

In many ways, the current trouble in the church is a mirror reflection of this conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus. The issue is the tension between ‘the law’ vs. ‘the prophets.’

It’s about illusions of safety and the nature of freedom. It’s about the state of Christians to be simultaneously bound by law and freed by grace.

The latest manifestation of this debate is not about sexuality but rather, about ‘open communion’. As I said, it's the 'latest manifestation.' The issue is still the same: Who's in, who's out? Who's worthy, who's not?

I suppose we've gotten bored with sex so we've moved on to see if we push this button about Holy Eucharist, we'll get even more of a reaction.

There are those who say that the canons (or laws) of The Episcopal Church are clear about who is and who is not allowed to receive communion. And, they would be quite right.

Title I, Canon 17 Section 7 says this very plainly: “No un-baptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this church.”

Right. You may have noticed that when a person who is new to this congregation comes to the altar rail, I do not ask them for their baptismal certificate before giving them communion. I do not make any assumption about the state of their baptism; rater, I assume that deep in their souls they are hungry enough for the Real Presence of Jesus to boldly walk all the way up here, fall on their knees, and stretch out their hands in anticipation of a foretaste of the heavenly banquet.

There are those in the church who find that appalling. The canons are clear, they say, and as someone who has signed an oath of conformity to the ‘doctrine, and discipline’ of the Episcopal Church, I could be brought up on presentment charges.

And, they would be correct. I could. Baptism is the rite of membership into Christ’s body and the rules of the church are very clear. Some see our baptismal certificate like an American Express Card: membership has its privileges, the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist being chief among them.

There are others who maintain that this is an issue of evangelism, who then regale you with wonderful, marvelous stories about experiences of conversion to Christianity or a deeper transformation to a relationship with Jesus.

Still others will name this as an issue primarily about pastoral care – about tending to the souls of the flock who may have fallen away or been led astray and need the boundless mercy and forgiveness of God as we know it in the unconditional love of the Body and Blood of Jesus.

Right. All of this is right. I find no fault with any of it. And, I maintain that it’s not simply about keeping the rules and the privilege of membership Neither is it just about evangelism and pastoral care.

If you want to know, it’s all here, in this conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus.

Like Jesus, I want to frame the conversation differently. I want to ask some questions. In fact, all I have are questions.

I want to ask about the nature of the sacraments. The Confirmation Class is learning that sacraments are, according to our Catechism, “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.”

Let’s talk a bit about that grace, shall we?

We know that grace can not be earned and it is certainly not deserved, but can grace be contained? Jesus says, “the Spirit blows where it chooses” If we believe that Gospel Truth, does anyone have the right to contain or direct the Spirit of God?

What then? Are we talking about anarchy? Are there no limits? No boundaries? No rules? Am I suggesting we become 60's 'granola heads' and hug trees, drop a little acid and practice free love? By no means. That is so yesterday.

The sacraments of the church are vehicles of grace, not the grace itself. We have some control over the first, but not the later. The chances of my being brought up on charges for breaking the canons are far less than the possibility that the grace of Holy Communion will allow love to increase and faith to deepen in the heart of all those who partake in that heavenly banquet.

How can this be? Well, I don’t know exactly, but I do know that Jesus is right when he tells us that there is a distinct difference between earthly things and heavenly things. Sacraments are the earthly things of the church. Grace is the heavenly thing of God. There is much we do not understand about earthly things. How much less we understand things that are heavenly – like grace?

Here’ the best argument for 'open communion' and other moments of sacramental grace. It’s hiding in plain view at the end of John’s gospel. Ever wonder what happened to old Nicodemus after that clandestine meeting in the dark of night? Did he go back and say anything to his fellow Pharisees about this Rabbi, Jesus? Did his encounter with the Living God make any difference at all in his life?

Well, here’s a hint about what might have happened. In John’s report of the crucifixion, he makes mention that there was no tomb in which to place the dead body of Jesus.

A man named Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy Pharisee but a secret disciple of Jesus, donates a tomb which can be sealed so the body of Jesus can not be stolen and those pesky Sadducees can’t use this for political advance of their disbelief in the resurrection.

But wait! Don't miss this! There, in the words of scripture, lies evidence that grace abounds. In Chapter 19, verse 39, we read: “Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.”

Well, son of a gun! Would you look at that! The prodigal returns! Nicodemus came back.

Why? Was it about ‘getting religion’? What happened to him as he considered everything Jesus said to him in the middle of the night?

You know what I think? I think Nicodemus was 'born again."

I suspect that Love – the kind that is incarnate as well as divine – happened for Nicodemus. It often does when one is in the Real Presence of Jesus. That kind of love is illogical. It is unreasonable. It allows you to deepen your faith. Which allows you to take risks. Which inspires random acts of generosity and kindness like bringing about a hundred pounds of costly myrrh and aloes to properly bury someone who was a stranger to you.

Sacramental grace is like that. What happens at that altar and at that altar rail is transformative. You may not realize this, but people are being 'born again' every Sunday when they receive the Body and Blood of Christ.

If we really believed half of what we said in the Eucharistic Prayer, we would also hand out seat belts and crash helmets with the communion bread and wine. There should be a sign at the foot of the chancel steps, perhaps hanging from the Baptismal Font, which says: “Warning! Transformation at work. You may be born again. Approach at your own risk!”

As we see from this late night encounter with Nicodemus, being in the presence of Jesus can completely and forever change your life.

How do I know those things? Well, I can’t prove it, but I have seen it happen. People come to the altar rail and despite all that is wrong in the church, all that is wrong with her ministers and often her ministry, nothing can either contain or weaken the power of the Spirit.

I know. It’s very confusing isn’t it?

Jesus said, “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘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 ti goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Sprit.”

Clearly, there is a time for plain speak – to say what you mean and to mean what you say. Eucharist is a time to allow mystery to enter into that deep place where your spiritual hunger may be fed, you may be nourished to care for others, the way Nicodemus and Joseph of Aramathea cared for Jesus, even in death.

It is a moment in which the past and future fold into the present and you believe with all your heart that that you, like Abram before you, are being blessed so that you may be a blessing. Abram may have had to work in order to be justified, but Jesus promises that we are justified by faith. The Eucharistic moment is when Love comes, that you may have faith and hope – but the greatest of these is Love.

And suddenly, in that moment, you understand that you can mean what you say and say what you mean, and people may not understand you, anyway, but it matters not. It is in that moment that you understand that you have been born again – but this time, from above.

I know. It’s all very confusing. Take heart. Jesus says this: . “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?"


Brother David said...

Great sermon Mother 'Lizbeth.

May I humbly submit one factual error. You have the beliefs about resurrection of the Pharisees and the Sadducees reversed. The Pharisees believed in an afterlife, whereas the Sadducees did not.

There is a simple nemonic I have heard taught in Sunday School to remember. Because they did not believe in resurrection They are sad, you see?

Fran said...

I am so moved by this. I was just at another blog where there was a discussion of the context of John 3:16 with 3:17 - a whole other meaning than 3:16 alone.

You beautifully bring this into clarity and your insights about Nicodemus and Jesus are very stirring to me.

Common union - open communion, what a struggle. I know as a Roman Catholic woman - often struggling within her own denomination, that this is not easily found. Although lucky enough to be in a fairly liberal parish in a reasonably liberal diocese (Albany NY) but still challenged by B16 and the RC church at large.

Thank you for this thought provoking post.

Peace unto all.

JimB said...

I have been confirmed, a chalice bearer, lay reader, postulant, vestry member and diocian convention delegate. No one has ever asked for my baptismal certificate. I am fairly sure that no one in my parish has ever been asked for one, and we are about to install our third rector since I was confirmed.

I have heard our last recton say at services where we might have a lot of visitors (weddings, funerals especially) "The Episcopal Church teaches that communion is open to all baptized Christians regardless of denomination. If you are not baptized or simply desire to receive a blessing, please come forward and cross your hands over your chest." Was that somehow not canonical? Somewhere I am missing a point or two.


Lindy said...

I hadn't made the connection between this and open communion. Very interesting. Thank you.

I like the Pharisees, btw. I always thought I would've been a good Pharisee, so populist and everything...