Second Sunday of Lent 2010
It should be no surprise that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. Nicodemus after all is an important man—he’s a Pharisee and is known as a leader of the Jewish people. Which placed him right among the group that Jesus often used for theological target practice. So under cover of darkness was probably the best way for a man of political and religious import to meet with a radical.
I can imagine all of the anxiety that Nicodemus must have felt—after all, Jesus was bad news to some, but to others (like Nicodemus) Jesus was a breath of fresh air. It just may not have worked out so well if their respective groups happened to see them talking. But Nicodemus seemed eager to make the connection, and before long the two were in a discussion in which Nicodemus tried a little bait and switch only to have Jesus turn the tables. And if that isn’t enough use of cliché, Jesus even tells Nicodemus that he needs to be born from above—or as some would put it “born again.”
In my previous experience in Protestant Evangelicalism, “born again” had a particular connotation. For one to be accepted by God, one must pray a “sinner’s prayer” and accept Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior. What followed was a life of certain expectations and behaviors which made it clear that you were set apart from a world doomed to destruction for all of its rebelliousness.
Of course, outside of this tradition, there is an understandable suspicion about prayer formulas for salvation and prescribed piety as a by-product of being saved.
However for as annoying as all of that can be, I don’t think we can completely ignore some of it—especially when we start talking about the intimacy of relationship with Jesus Christ. Because for many people in that tradition, Jesus is not only held up as the Incarnation of God, but there is a deep love and intimacy to their spiritual lives. At times there is even an almost irreverent familiarity with the divine—but at the same time a trust that when all else collapses, it’s faith that maintains them. And even though there is some guilt involved, the tradition touts biblical literacy and vibrant lives of personal prayer as integral to one’s relationship with God. But above all else, it is supposed to be deep love of God that keeps them going…keeps them praying, keeps them awake for sermons which can go on for hours.
And while I’ve found my spiritual home in the Episcopal Church, when I think about some of these things, I have to ask: where is that for us?
I’m not talking about a stalwart faith—I know that to be part of our tradition. But, where is the intimacy in our experience with God?
In the Episcopal Church, we’re really good at liturgies that call us to see the transcendence of holiness, but what about the imminence that can draw out our love and passion for Jesus Christ?
The truth is that for all of the beauty and transcendence of our liturgies, the language and symbol is often so far removed from our daily lives that it may as well all be written and recited in Koine’ Greek—I mean, we haven’t even really changed the clothing style that much in 1500 years… Not that I don’t absolutely love them and think we should wear more of them, but...that’s not the point. Because the question is really about where we find our passion and love of Christ?
I don’t want to give you the impression that I think our liturgy or our tradition is a stumbling block to intimacy with God. There is real meaning to what we do on Sunday mornings. There is something overly formalized—sure, but there is also something that links us to a rich history and past—it gets us outside of ourselves. This is something that I think we stand to lose by dropping everything and going to sandals and acoustic guitars only for our worship.
But if our liturgy isn’t a fine stained glass window keeping us respectfully distant from God, then how do we reclaim the depth and intimacy we know to be part of our tradition?
When Jesus talks about being born from above, he speaks also of being born of the Spirit. The Spirit, he says has this wind-like quality, which moves wherever it will, and no one really knows from where or how… There is this kind of passionate, mystical quality to it. When Jesus tells Nicodemus that he needs to be reborn of this same Spirit, it doesn’t sound very much like fire insurance—in fact, it sounds like an invitation to an entirely new way of living…
For Nicodemus, there wasn’t exactly a paradigm for what Jesus was talking about. But at the core of what Jesus was explaining, Nicodemus could no doubt see the heart of what all of the prophets had spoken of, and the Law had hoped to point toward.
Namely, Jesus was speaking of a life in which God’s people did not look to Torah only to see how to live—but the Law itself would be written on their hearts, and in simply living, they would know the spirit of the Law.
I totally get why Nicodemus met Jesus at night. Because what Jesus was talking about seemed radical. Honestly it wasn’t really all that radical. We only have to look at the Old Testament to see a king dancing before the Ark of the Covenant and Prophets coming down the mountain in an almost Pentecostal frenzy.
Nicodemus got it… The only trouble was that believing in a life and relationship with God that was as personal and passionate as some of our inter-personal relationships sounded absurd. What thinking believer could ever buy into such a thing, after all?
The thing is I don’t believe that it’s a matter of buying into something. It’s about being born again.
Now I don’t mean born again in the way of altar calls or saying prescribed prayers—instead I think it is as simple as asking God for this rebirth that Jesus is talking about.
An inspiration which could not only reawaken our sense of awe and mystery in our worship, but (more importantly) it would draw out in us the deep quiet faith already present within us. It may even inspire us to look more closely at where God may be calling us in our individual lives—what vocations. Maybe it could inspire us to share our stories of faith—or even express the faith that is in us through creative outlets… And perhaps we could even inspire others to a life of such deepened faith.
I can’t say what I think the life of passionately spiritual, Jesus loving Episcopalians would look like. But I know that we are a group ready to act, and ready to serve. I am also confident that being bold enough to love Jesus Christ more deeply, and passionately could only serve to enliven our already deep faith.
Perhaps in our zeal, the world could get a glimpse of another brand of Christianity other than the negative kind which perpetuates a false stereotype. Who knows, maybe we won’t freeze-up in discussions about Jesus anymore, either…
But in all seriousness, what could a life reborn by the spirit, and inspired by a passionate and intimate love of Christ offer to a world which is a bit cynical about faith and Church already? Perhaps it’s only a matter of intrepid believers like ourselves being bold enough to find out.