Another Sunday. Another time apart from my church community due to illness. I am on the mend. But, in light of having had to miss a whole week of work (which, for the self-employed, is financially devasting) I thought it prudent to stay home, and stay focused on rest and recupriation.
And so I am left to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the Scriptures at home again. Perhaps there is really something in this for me as I strive to be reconciled to God. To be separated from community, and the communion of the Eucharist, and why this is important to me, and how can I carry on without receiving the sacrament on Sundays. I once thought that perhaps a Lenten discipline for me would be to stay away from church on Sundays during Lent. Now, I'm getting that experience, although not because I so choose, but because I don't want to inflict my sniffling, hacking self on other people. Separated from my church community, yes. Separated from God, no. Hmmmm....
OK, so let's have some fun together and follow the pathways of my brain as I looked at the sum of today's lectionary. First, let's frame things with the Collect of the Day:
O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
I'm going to take this collect and race ahead into today's Gospel lesson, which was John 3:1-17. This chapter is where Jesus receives a visitor in the night, Nicodemus, who has come to talk with this intriguing new rabbi. Nicodemus, a Pharisee, has to go to Jesus at night; otherwise, somebody might see him covorting with this one who isn't like other teachers, and is just a little bit too radical for some people's tastes. While some knock Nicodemus for his going to Jesus "at night," I resonate with this strategy. It isn't too unlike me in so many ways. Coming out to myself as a lesbian, especially in mid-Missouri which was Assembly of God and non-denominational evangelical Christian country, required me to approach that identity in an undercover way as well. I didn't exactly waltz into the campus gay student union group with a big ol' "Heeeyyyy!" Quite the contrary: I used a class reporting assignment to attend an off-campus Women's Music Fest. And that's where I found "my people" and my identity. In a similar vein, coming out as lesbian who is Christian in a community that really has no use for the church has also been something that I initially had to do "at night." Not literally, but figuratively. My circles are not ones that welcome the notion that there is a force called God that is all around us. When belief in God isn't being mocked as believing in "an invisible sky wizard" then it's dismissed because it can't be proven using math and science. Slowly, cautiously, I have been making myself known as one of those who do believe in God and have reached this belief through Jesus Christ. It has come at the cost of some friendships and that saddens me. Others have remained engaged, even if they are a bit leary of this "belief thing" that I have. All of this to say, I appreciate Nicodemus' cautious approach to meeting with Jesus. So, let's get back to that.
According to John's Gospel, Nicodemus starts the conversation this way:
"Rabbi, we know that 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." Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above."
Uh-oh. You can almost see Nicodemus looking at Jesus with a cocked head and furrowed brow as he puzzles to make sense of what he just heard.
Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?"
Before we laugh at Nicodemus for saying this, or get too caught up in the whole notion of what it means to be "born again," consider that this man is a Pharisee; hence learned in the law and all the laws that have maintained the people of Israel, and he is working from that place. I read his response to Jesus as being one that is attempting to make sense of what was said to him in light of his own experience and understanding. But that's the thing: Jesus is taking Nicodemus to a "new frontier" and a place where this Pharisee has never gone before because he has been looking to the law all this time.
Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 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 it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
Ow! This portion of the conversation, for me, is like sitting with a spiritual director. The directee, Nicodemus, can't wrap his mind around this analogy of what is required, the ascent of the spirit to the Spirit, to enter the kingdom of God, and so he naively says, "How can these things be?" And Jesus, the SD, fires back, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?" Talk about a knock down!
You, Nicodemus, have forgotten what was in our First Lesson of the day, which was from Genesis in which God tells Abram, "I will make you a great nation and I will bless you, and make your name great so that you will be a blessing." (Genesis 12:2). Abram didn't play 20 questions with God over this idea, even though God was telling him to strike out into the unknown. He went, and he took Lot with him. His trust was in God... much as the psalmist says in Psalm 121 when he asks and answers this question: I lift my up my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come? My help comes from The Lord, the maker of heaven and earth (vv 1-2). Nicodemus has become so ingrained in the letter of the Law, and the literal understanding of the Law, that he has lost the intention of the Law, which requires faith and trust in God, not words and interpretations of God.
But before we again get so high and mighty about Nicodemus, maybe we should think about how this same scenario might play out today. Is it not possible that Jesus could look at any one of us, and when our cloudy vision of the kingdom leads us to narrowly drawn conclusions about God, our Savior might challenge us with a "Are you a believer, and yet you do not understand these things?" Can we really believe in the all-powerful, unconditional Love of God, and really believe that God's grace and love is limited only to those who think and believe just like us? Aren't we more comfortable with our pocket-sized God and our own personal relationship with Jesus instead of realizing that we cannot possess or hold the Almighty as our very own? Indeed, we sometimes might need to be body slammed in the same way the very learned Nicodemus was schooled by Jesus.
Which brings me back around to the collect of the day. Because we all in our own ways and at different times in our lives and walk with God are apt to go astray, and allow absolutes and literal intrepretations get in the way of us actually living into the Spirit. And that fog of our own certitude is often what keeps us from seeing the kingdom of God. What better time than Lent to let go of our own certainity and return to the trust and faith in God.