Dear Nicodemus

John 3:1-17

Dear Nicodemus,

I owe you an apology.  I confess that I have not always held you in very high esteem.  The fact is, in the past I thought you were—how to say this?—too cautious and, well, more than a little timid—and, if I’m being really honest, I sometimes thought that you were not the sharpest quill in the inkwell.  I’m sorry I was so quick to judge you.  I confess I hadn’t really read the story from your point of view. 

I realize now, Nicodemus, that it was actually very brave of you to seek out Jesus that night when you two sat down to talk.  Nothing timid about it.  Some people think you came at night just because you didn’t want to be seen talking to the “enemy.”   That’s the frame a lot of people put around your meeting with Jesus.  They see the antagonism and contempt that some of your fellow Pharisees had for Jesus—but to be fair, he gave as good as he got, better really—anyway, people see that enmity in his back-and-forth with your fellow Pharisees, so they assume that you came to that meeting that night with a little malice and a big agenda.   

I hadn’t really thought about it before, Nicodemus, but I can see now how much was at stake for you.  John says that you were an archon, a leader or ruler of the people.  And the language he uses indicates that you were a most highly respected teacher among your people.  Plus you were wealthy.  You had standing in your community as a righteous man, blessed by God.  You had a big reputation to protect, and you were putting all that at risk in order to have a meeting of the minds with a man who many of your community regarded as a troublemaker.  That could have badly tarnished your reputation, and I admire you for putting that concern aside so you could have an honest, personal discussion with Jesus, rabbi to rabbi.

Having said all that, I realize now that you probably came at night simply to avoid the crowds.  I see now that what you wanted was a real conversation with someone who cared deeply about the same things you cared about.

Some have said that your coming at night was symbolic.  They see you as a caricature of  “those who walk in darkness.”  That idea makes a certain kind of sense based on the ways that John’s gospel uses the themes of light and darkness.  But since you came to Jesus, who later calls himself “the light of the world,”  wouldn’t it make more sense to see you as someone who was moving out of darkness and into the light?  You remind us that faith is a process.  Understanding unfolds by degrees.  Too often we forget that.

I’ve also been thinking, Nicodemus, about that first thing you said to Jesus when you sat down to talk:  “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.”  It’s kind of sad, really, but in our time and our culture, when someone greets you with flattery like that, our first impulse is to hold onto our wallets.  But I’ve come to think you were really in earnest when you said it.  You showed him such respect, calling him rabbi and acknowledging not just the powerful things he had done, but the source of that power.  You acknowledged his relationship with the one he called Father, though you couldn’t possibly have understood the true nature of that relationship.  

But then, who does?  Oh, we have no shortage of doctrinal formulas and illustrations to describe that relationship—relationships, really, because the Holy Spirit is part of that eternal dance of love we call the Trinity.  But when you get right down to it, who can really understand the relationship between the Maker, the Christ and the Spirit?  We recite the illustrations and restate the formulas and then think that because we found some language to corral it, we understand that mystic communion of love that is God.  Our language, itself, betrays our lack of real understanding.  In naming them Father, Son, and Spirit, we insert a separateness between them and ascribe roles. That is the antithesis of their relationship, their existence, their being, where they cannot and will not be separate.  As Frederick Buechner said, they are the Mystery beyond us, the Mystery within us, and the Mystery among us—and it’s all one deep and eternal Mystery that gives us life.  The best we can do is enter the Mystery and experience it—and understand that we will never completely understand.  Saint Augustine said that it’s like trying to pour the ocean into a seashell.  

Speaking of understanding, I now understand that I have greatly misunderstood your conversation with Jesus.  When I dug a little deeper, did a little more homework, I came to realize that the dialogue between you two was typical of the way rabbis talked to each other and mulled over ideas in your time.  I didn’t realize before that you were actually inviting Jesus to elaborate more on “being born from above” when you asked, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  You gave the obvious “dunce” response to Jesus so that he had a reason to go deeper into what he was teaching.  It was a rhetorical device.  You are far from a dunce, Nicodemus.  I may be wrong, but your dialogue with Jesus now sounds to me like you and he were using a familiar and respected rabbinic method to engage in a kind of team teaching for the disciples.  And you, with grace and humility, played the role of the “not so bright” student.  

Even when Jesus says, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things,”  it reads to me now as if he’s using you as a foil, and you great teacher that you are, you graciously play along.  You help him make the point to those gathered around and listening, that these are not simple, easy concepts to grasp, these things that you two are discussing.  Even a “great teacher of Israel” has to wrestle these ideas.  You help him spur the other listeners into thinking more deeply and opening their minds and hearts more fully to the Mystery of God in, with, under and around them.  You give them permission to have questions.

If you’re wondering why I’ve reassessed my opinion of you, Nicodemus, it’s because I took a good look at the two other times you are mentioned in John’s gospel, particularly that time in chapter 7 when the other Pharisees in the Sanhedrin are upset with the temple police for not arresting Jesus.  They throw shade on him because he’s from Galilee, which is just pure prejudice.  They say he should be arrested for misleading the people because “he does not know the law.”  But you stood up for him, and with perfect irony said, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”  That one cost you, I know.  Somebody in that group tried to throw shade on you, too, when he said, “Oh are you from Galilee, too?  Nobody’s ever heard of a prophet coming from Galilee.”  But I think you were maybe beginning to suspect that he really was a prophet, and maybe something more than a prophet.  Even if he was from Galilee.

And then there’s that other thing you did—that beautiful, generous, heart breaking thing.  You were there when he was crucified.  When his disciples had deserted him, you stayed.  Right there at the foot of the cross.  And when you and Joseph of Arimathea took his body down from the cross, you brought a mixture of myrrh and spices—a hundred pounds of myrrh and spices—to prepare his body for a decent burial even though the scriptures said he was cursed for hanging on a tree.  Some have said that in preparing his body you were betraying that you didn’t really believe what he had said about resurrection.  Well if that’s the case it’s no shame on you.  Nobody else believed it either.  Not then, anyway.

No…that was an extravagant act of deep respect, one teacher for another.  That was an act of love.  And that is why, Nicodemus, I have had to revisit what I thought about you.  I realized that you were a person of profound integrity and generosity of spirit.  I realized that you were a righteous man.  I realized that I had no right to judge you to begin with.  

So please forgive me, Nicodemus.  And please know, teacher of Israel, that you have taught me a great deal.

How Do You Read It?

In the Gospel of Luke in chapter 10, a lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life.   Jesus responds by asking the lawyer a question: “What is written in the law?  What do you read there?”  At least that’s how it’s translated in the NRSV.  A better translation, though, would be “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”

How do you read it?  How do you interpret it?  How do you understand it?  The lawyer replies to Jesus by quoting from Deuteronomy and Leviticus: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  Then Jesus says him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But this is when the lawyer really begins to answer the second part of the question “How do you read it?” because this is where he starts to look for wiggle room.  Wanting to justify himself, Luke tells us, he asks, “But who is my neighbor?”  And that’s what prompts Jesus to tell the parable of the Assaulted Traveler. You know it by another name.  But I’ll come back to that.

A man was travelling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, said Jesus, when he was set upon by bandits who stripped him and beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.  A little while later a priest comes along, sees the unfortunate man, but passes by and does nothing for him.  Not long after that a Levite comes by, a man dedicated to serving God.  He also sees the assaulted traveler bleeding, bruised and naked at the side of the road, but he, too, passes by and does nothing to help.  Fortunately,  right after that a Samaritan happens along.  He takes pity on the man.  Gives him first aid, takes him to a nearby inn, gives the innkeeper two days wages to care for the man, and promises to pay for any additional expenses on his way back.  

After telling this story, Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the bandits?”  “The one who showed mercy,” said the lawyer.  “You go and do likewise,” said Jesus.  

You know this story well.  You have a familiar name for it.  But I gave you a different name for it.  I did that because the name we usually call it, “The Good Samaritan” carries a boatload of interpretive baggage.

Some context.  

When Jesus tells this story he is on his way to Jerusalem.  He is still in the countryside.  To the people in the countryside, bandits were not necessarily bad guys.  Because of economically oppressive systems inflicted by Rome and the heavy tithe system from the religious structure represented by priests and pharisees, and limited labor opportunities, many men turned to highway robbery.  Those listening to Jesus tell this story probably assumed that the man who was assaulted and left for dead was a rich merchant—bandits wouldn’t rob poor people, no money in it—and rich merchants were not trusted.  The common people in Jesus’ time had a world view of limited good; if someone was well off it was almost certainly at someone else’s expense.  Bandits tended to even the scales.

So bandits robbing a merchant—not shocking.  But a priest and Levite walking by and doing nothing?  That’s shocking.  These are men who have an obligation to help according to Torah.  Actually, according to Torah, anyone who can should help.  Most shocking of all, though, is that the person who does stop to help is a Samaritan.

I wonder if we can really understand how much Judeans hated Samaritans.  I suppose I could give some examples, but I would surely offend someone.  And that’s the point.  The people listening to Jesus, including the lawyer, would have been greatly offended that the Samaritan was the hero of the story.  The mutual hatred between Jews and Samaritans had deep historical roots.  When Jesus asks, “who was the neighbor?” the lawyer can’t bring himself to say the word Samaritan.  He simply says, “The one who showed mercy.”

This is an anit-racist story, pure and simple. When the lawyer asks Jesus, “But who is my neighbor?” he’s really asking “who is it okay for me to hate?”  So Jesus tells him a story where the hero is a person he is going to be automatically inclined to disregard and disrespect.  In the end, it turns out that the long answer to his original question of how can one inherit eternal life turns out to be, “Love God, love your neighbor as you love yourself, and that means you can’t be a racist.”

We call this episode “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.”  Earlier I called it “The Parable of the Assaulted Traveler.”  What if I called it “The Encounter With A Racist Lawyer”?  Changing the title can change the way you read it or hear it.  It can shift the focus.  In the same way, learning more of the background information can change the way you understand the story.  We’ve always heard it as a story about helping those in need—and it certainly contains that element—but it’s really a story about racism.

How do you read it?  This is such an important question for us to ask ourselves about the scriptures, about the news we’re reading and watching, and about life.  

How Are You Translating?

For this is how God loved the world—all of it, everything: God gave God’s unique son so that everyone who trusts into him need not be destroyed but may have eternal life. For God did not send this son into the world to judge the world, but so that the world might be made whole through him. – John 3:16-17 (my translation)

I know.  That’s not the way your Bible says it.  It’s not the way my Bibles say it, either.  I have several.  It goes with the job.  No, that’s not the way it reads in your Bible or mine, but it is a perfectly legitimate translation from the ancient Greek text.

So how does it sound to you, this word about the Word in different words?  Does “trust into him” make you pause?  Before you mentally substituted the more familiar “believe in him” did you stop to think about the difference?  What do you mean when you say “believe?”  Is there a difference between believing as intellectual affirmation versus trusting?  Can you believe in someone but still not trust them with your life?  What’s the difference between in and into?  Subtle, that one.  But doesn’t in sound more like stasis, something settled, while into is more of an ongoing process?  Why do so many translations say condemn when the Greek word most frequently means to judge.  True, it can mean condemn, but why leap to that?  Oh, and saved.  Such an interesting, interesting word.  Sozo in Greek.  It can mean to be rescued, to be made safe, to be removed from danger, but its oldest meaning is to be healed, to be made whole.

So how do you prefer to hear it?  Heard one way it can be about God’s plan for fire insurance of the eternal kind. Heard another way it can be a message about God’s intervention to heal this world, all of us and everything else.  Which translation speaks to you?

How are you translating the world around you?  How are you translating the other people you encounter in life?  How are you translating yourself?

“Love one another as I have loved you,” says Jesus, later in the Gospel of John.  He makes it a commandment of all things.  Really loving each other involves learning to really hear each other and see each other. David Augsburger wrote, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.” To love you, I need to hear you.  To love me, you need to hear me.  We need to translate each other accurately.  To do that we each need to know something about how the other person is translating the world and interpreting their experience.

We are not looking at the world through the same eyes or hearing it through the same ears, but if, when we disagree, we stop to ask why we are seeing and hearing things so differently—if we take the first step in translating each other—then we’re taking the first steps in loving each other.  If nothing else, paying close attention to those around us can teach us all kinds of interesting things, even when they are not being particularly relational. “I learned silence from the talkative and tolerance from the intolerant and kindness from the unkind,” wrote Khalil Gibran.  And that’s love, too.

The Penalty For Neglect

Thoughts Along the Way…

For the past 2 years our congregation has been enjoying a Sunday morning Adult Ed class called Occupy the Gospels. It has been an enlightening and stimulating study and discussion that has taken all of us who participated into a deeper level of understanding of why each gospel is so different from the others and just what each of the gospels is all about. We’ve done a close reading of each gospel examining such questions as who was it originally written for, what kinds of stresses and pressures were they dealing with in that community, why does Jesus say things one way in this gospel but differently in another gospel, and so on.

If you’re going to call yourself a Christian, a follower of Jesus, an apprentice of Jesus, it’s important to be deeply familiar with what Jesus said and did. In his tract How Christians Should Regard Moses, Martin Luther suggested that we are not really properly equipped to understand the rest of the Bible unless we first come to a clear understanding of the gospels.

One advantage of doing a close reading together in a group is that very often others will spot things you haven’t seen before or ask questions that hadn’t occurred to you. I honestly couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve been through the gospels, but in our class together I was frequently seeing new things or seeing them from a different perspective than I had before. And sometimes that new little thing I saw would sit with me for weeks and make me rethink a lot of other things about my faith and my understanding of my faith.

Here’s a case in point. The 25th chapter of Matthew has always been important to me. I’ve even sometimes called myself a “Matthew 25” Christian. This chapter is the only place in the gospels where Jesus, himself, describes the final judgment, where the “sheep” are separated from the “goats,” and the criteria are not at all what a lot of people expect. He doesn’t say a word about what you believe or don’t believe. There is no mention of whether or not you accepted him as your personal Lord and Savior or invited him into your heart or any of those other popular ideas that some people think are the doorway to being “saved.” Nope. Nothing like that at all. No statement of creed. No tally of church attendance. Not a bit of it. Instead, the final exam is all about one thing and one thing only: how well did you take care of people who were in need?

34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

A few years ago I realized that the “sheep” in this text, the people who did these good things and are being rewarded and inheriting the kingdom, are quite surprised to find that they are, in fact, the Grand Prize Winners! They didn’t know that by taking care of those in need they were also taking care of Jesus, himself. They just did it because it was the right thing to do.

Rereading this text in our class a few weeks ago, though, I was suddenly hit between the eyes by yet another little epiphany. Words I had read maybe hundreds of times before suddenly hit me in a way I just had not thought of before. And this time it was the flip side of the coin. This time it was the “goats,” who got my attention– you know, the ones who did not feed the hungry or visit the sick or give a drink to the thirsty, the ones who ignored those in need, or worse, went out of their way to do nothing for them.

41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink…

These are the words that hit me like a ton of bricks: “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” I confess, I’m not real big on the idea of Hell and eternal punishment. I like to think that God’s grace trumps everything in the end. On the other hand, the punishment motif crops up several times in the Gospel of Matthew, so in this gospel, at least, it is kind of unavoidable. But seeing that the “goats” get punished wasn’t the thing that arrested me. It was that they were being consigned to a punishment prepared for the devil and his angels. In other words, the failure to take care of those in need is not merely a “failure” or sin of oversight. It is something far worse. It is evil. If the punishment is the measure of its severity as a sin, then the failure to care for those in need is demonic.

I think the ramifications of this are huge. Jesus, as I read it here, is saying that any actions on our part that deprive those in need of food, water, clothing, shelter or medical care, actions that deprive the imprisoned of hope and comfort, actions that alienate the stranger– such actions are evil, even demonic; the punishment is the measure of the crime.

At our little congregation, the little church with a big heart, we have much to be proud of in the ways we have fulfilled the positive side of this equation. We have been wonderfully generous in feeding, clothing and providing for those in need. Our benevolence is extraordinary, and I am so proud, as their pastor, of this congregation’s generosity in spirit and in practice. I know and trust that we will keep up the good work that leads us into God’s presence.

But think about those “goats.” As you read the headlines or watch the news, as you watch what our elected officials are voting for or against, what they are funding or not funding, remembering that they do all this in our name as our representatives, think about those “goats.” Think about the final exam as Jesus describes it. Think about how Jesus sees it. Are we on the road to inherit the Kingdom? Or are we stumbling toward that place prepared for the devil and his angels?

Pro Gloria Dei

Pastor Steve