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Archive for June, 2012
Not What We Know but What We’ve Been Given
Sometimes I feel like I don’t know anything. Do you know what I mean? Sometimes I feel that the more I explore, read, study, discover, and experience the world—the less I actually know. I love to travel, to meet people of different cultures and backgrounds; I love to learn new things. But as I do that, I often feel that I actually know very little. Perhaps I agree with US historian Will Durant, who once said: Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance. Life can certainly feel like that sometimes. Maybe some of you are in that place today. Perhaps there are things going on in your life that you just cannot explain. The more you try to understand, the less it makes sense. You scratch your head in agony over not knowing what to do. Should I take this new job? Should I move? Will my sister ever speak to me again? Is my kid ever going to get better? How long do I have to feel this loneliness and emptiness? Why did this person have to die and why did this person live? Why do people kill children in Syria? Why do people kill children in Greater Philadelphia? Is there a God? Does this God really care? Who knows?
Today is a good day to ask such questions and to struggle with what we do not know. It’s Trinity Sunday, after all, when we’re supposed to focus on God being known to us in three persons: father, son, holy spirit—at least, that’s what the doctrine tells us. I’m not sure I want to go there today, because, as some of you have heard me say before, years ago when I was serving a church in Honolulu, Hawai’i, I tried to teach the Trinity to some teenagers who looked at me like I was from Mars. Rightly so, because I failed miserably. Actually, throughout my years, I have unsuccessfully attempted to understand and teach the trinity and have watched countless others seek to do the same. Each time when we tried to explain it, we failed. Our explanations became too simplistic, superficial, and token.
Now I have mentioned this before, but I think it’s worth remembering: the word trinity does not appear in the Bible. Go ahead and look for it. You won’t find it. The closest thing you will get is the mention of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at various times in the NT epistles. But the trinity itself did not come to be until hundreds of years after the Bible was written. It was the year 325 CE, and a council of Christian bishops got together in Nicaea, what is present-day Turkey. Their purpose was to come up with a theological agreement for all Christians around the world. Roman Emperor Constantine was behind it. But this council in Nicaea was more about controversy than anything else. There was this guy Arius, a preacher from Libya, who had written a commentary on the Bible; he had a wide following. These Arians believed that God was the Father of Jesus, and therefore, Jesus was born of God. This meant that Jesus was born after God, meaning that God created Jesus. The controversy was about Jesus’ divinity—whether or not he was equally God. Arius obviously lost the argument. The Council of Nicaea passed the Nicene Creed, which stated that God the Father and Jesus the Son were of one substance and that Jesus was “begotten” of God, not created by God. But they weren’t finished.
The bishops added a line at the end of the creed: We believe in the Holy Spirit. It didn’t satisfy everyone, though, so in 381 CE at the First Council of Constantinople, they added: We believe in the Holy Spirit the Lord and giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father. This is why I’m not going to use an egg or an apple to try to show you who God is, because the trinity is not perfect, nor is it actually taught by Jesus. The Trinity is simply about human beings trying to say [or write down] what they think they know about God. Ironic, I think, because today’s Gospel story is all about a guy in Nicodemus who thought he knew about religious things.
So who was Nicodemus? The name Nicodemus means “peoples’ victory” and is a name of a member of the Sanhedrin, or the ruling Council in Jerusalem at that time. He’s also called a Pharisee and a leader of the Judeans, which means that Nicodemus was part of the group that didn’t care for Jesus too much. But actually, the Pharisees and Jesus had a lot more in common than we think. They were avid students of scripture and people of prayer. The problem for the Pharisees was that they loved the status quo and the religious institution. People like Nicodemus were kind of torn between two worlds. On one hand, this Jesus of Nazareth made some good points in his sermons and teachings. But he was just too risky and threatened the dogma and doctrine of their religion.
Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. This is John giving us a clue, because remember that in the 4th Gospel, Jesus is the light of the world. John borrows a lot from Isaiah of the Old Testament—contrasting darkness with light. You see, we live in this world and oftentimes things can seem pretty bleak. We walk in darkness, so to speak, when tragedy, violence, injustice, guilt, and despair overwhelm us. When you try to walk in the dark, you stumble and fall down quite a bit. You cannot see anything. So light, the concept of Jesus as Logos/Word of God, breaks through the darkness and illuminates people with love, grace, and truth. Nicodemus came at night. He came from a place of confusion; he stumbled over to Jesus. He came to Jesus with his assumptions and his proud knowledge of what he thought he knew.
John’s Gospel periodically criticizes characters who claim to know more than others. Why–because at the end of the first century, a famous intellectual movement called Gnosticism developed. Proto-Gnostics claimed to have special knowledge; therefore, they could set the standard for spiritual truths. This was contrary to what John was saying about this Jesus of Nazareth, the one who opened up knowledge for all people to receive and enjoy. So Nicodemus is a symbol of the institutional knowledge [doctrine and dogma] of the temple and religious bureaucracy that contradicted Jesus’ message.
Nicodemus was sure that he knew who God was and who Jesus was. After all, he knew the doctrines. He might as well have been present for the Council of Nicaea. But Nicodemus, in the dark, was about to get shocked with some light. Jesus said: No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. That really wasn’t what Nicodemus wanted to hear. First, Jesus was basically telling Nicodemus that his knowledge was suspect. Second, he was teaching Nicodemus something new, at least for people like him who were so loyal to doctrine. Born after being old? How could a person go back inside mom’s womb? I kind of think Nicodemus was scratching his head and uttering a few what the…? Of course, he didn’t have the luxury of rewinding back to the beginning of this Gospel. John 1:10-13:
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own,* and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
But Nicodemus still didn’t get it, and that’s obvious, because even though Jesus used the phrase born from above, Nicodemus asked how it was possible to be born again? He got stuck in semantics. So Jesus continued: 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.”Jesus clarified his point by using common, universal symbols of water and spirit. This is classic John—the 4th Gospel’s famous wordplay. John uses an almost spiraling repetition of words and phrases to help the reader see their double meanings. As words are repeated, their meaning is intensified and deepened. The more we read, the more the message moves forward. Jesus is moving Nicodemus away from his narrow view of life and God to a more mysterious, yet illuminated perspective.
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 Spirit.
Notice that I removed “the” from the end, because in the Greek it should read born of spirit, not the spirit.
Jesus’ mention of water and spirit inspire many thoughts. First, water is something directly connected to nature. Water is basically limitless; it goes around, under, and through things. It carves rocks, making rough places smooth. It’s powerful. The word for spirit, on the other hand, is actually the same word for wind in Greek. The spirit/wind blows where it wills. It’s unpredictable, chaotic, sometimes dangerous, sometimes comforting and soothing. To be born from both water and spirit/wind is to recognize full humanity as a child of God. Our bodies are not separated from our souls. This John wordplay brings together two things that Nicodemus [and most people] always see as separate. God and humanity coexist. It blew Nicodemus’ mind! So he borrowed from Mary, the mother of Jesus: How can this be?
Well, duh, Jesus answered. Nicodemus saw the world, himself, and God as existing inside a small box. His perspective was limited and therefore, it was easier for him to think that he knew things. But, as Jesus pointed out, once you let your perspective of the world, yourself, and God outside of the box—you realize you don’t know much at all. When perspective is small and rigid, it’s easy to say, “I know this or that” with certainty. But once your perspective expands to be bigger and freer, you tend to say: “I don’t know everything and therefore, I’m open to new possibilities.”
And then, in the middle of the story, John’s Gospel throws us for a loop. Notice that starting in verse 11, we seem to leave the Nicodemus-Jesus conversation and start to hear from a narrator. There is “we” language. Most likely, this is the 4th Gospel addressing its community and context, for there were many people still on the fence about Jesus. So the writers of John appeal to Old Testament sensibilities and utilize the story of Moses and the serpent. You can read the original story in Numbers 21, but here’s the synopsis: snakes were biting little kids in Israel and so God tells Moses to place a fiery serpent [an ancient symbol of knowledge] on a pole so that when people get bitten by the snakes they could look at the snake on the pole and live another day. It’s weird, I know. But John’s Gospel changes the story. John’s version has Moses lift up the serpent on the stick, just as Jesus would be later lifted up on the cross. Both Moses and Jesus bring life to the people.
Jesus is then called the Son of Man [literally, son of humanity], a very common phrase that is the result of the long road of translation from Hebrew to Greek and then to English. Of course, Jesus spoke Aramaic. But in all linguistic cases, the phrase son of humanity is meant to lead us to recognize Jesus’ full humanity and our full humanity. It connects directly to being born of water and spirit, being children of God. Jesus, the son of humanity, fully demonstrated what it meant to live as a child of God. And he was “lifted up,” not to condemn or point fingers, but to exhibit God’s unconditional love.
That is the lead-in to the sparkplug of John 3:16. Ironically, the dark place—the world, which I mentioned before, is the reason for all this lifting up and unconditional love. Jesus’ own disciples are not specifically mentioned; only the world. God so loves that darkness. God so loves the Nicodemus in all of us. God so loves in a way that disrupts our three point sermons, doctrines, dogmas, and logical sensibilities. God so loves without any kind of condemnation awaiting those who don’t believe a certain way.
There’s a message for all of us here. When we become too sure of what we think we know about God, we can expect demanding, piercing light to interrupt just like it did for Nicodemus. Our certainty will be overturned, our black-and-white religion undone, our neat, little categories upset. And that’s the best part of all. Because when we’re upset and pulled out of our religious comfort zone, wrestled away from what we think and believe about Jesus, we’re invited to experience the miracle of a new perspective. It’s not about what we know, because no one knows more about God than another. When we’re infants, we know as much about God as we know when we’re 90. It’s not about what we know; it is about what we have been freely given. God has given us life, and the moving, blowing spirit wind; the relentless, cooling and shaping water; an unending, inexplicable love. God has freely given.
This grace is lifted up before us and we are drawn to it. We are drawn to this love; we are surrounded by it and filled with it. And we are so loved that we have plenty of this love flowing out from us in glad response. Friends, each day of your lives, embrace your identity as a child of God, no matter what. You are born of water and spirit-wind, and love. It’s not about what you know; it’s about what you’ve been given. Amen.
 Nicene Creed, 1973 draft ICET text.
Mark’s Gospel doesn’t waste time. Mark doesn’t have patience for lengthy, detailed stories like some of the other Gospels. Mark skips sermons and long conversations in favor of driving action. If John’s Gospel is like a dramatic, indie film with a bit of romantic comedy built in, Mark is a shoot-em-up, action-adventure flick. In Mark, the story sprints forward. And the Jesus of Mark has very little patience for anyone or anything that gets in his way. Mark’s Jesus is Ripley in the Alien movies. Today we’re in the third chapter, during the early days of Jesus’ ministry, just after he has called his disciples. At this point, Jesus is a rock star. Crowds follow him—Jesus groupies. So much so that it’s impossible to sit down and have a decent meal. Mark tells us who the people around him are in this story: the crowds [Jesus groupies and curious folk from towns, villages, and rural areas who had heard of healings and miracles]; his disciples; Jesus’ own family; and religious scribes from Jerusalem, including those who were enemies of Jesus.
It’s a chaotic scene, really. And Jesus’ family [his mother and his brothers] were quite concerned for his welfare. So naturally, upon hearing the screaming, demanding crowd, they attempted to restrain Jesus. Lo and behold, this is the first time the Terminator Gospel mentions Jesus’ family. And in the whole rest of Mark, they are only mentioned once more in chapter 6: They were saying, “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters with us?” Okay, so we already know that Mark is not known for sentiment. But to point out that Jesus’ own family members were restraining him? Actually, the word in Greek is closer to arresting or seizing than it is to restraining. They were holding him back. Why? Because they were scared. Notice one important translation error commonly seen here—some Bibles say that as his family was trying to restrain him that other people called him crazy. But actually, it should read like this: When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” It was indeed his own family who called Jesus out of his mind.
But that’s better than what the Jerusalem scribes said. You see, even though Jesus had his share of adoring fans, he also had accumulated quite a group of enemies, too. The scribes, representing the temple authorities of Jerusalem, were less polite about it. Jesus wasn’t just crazy, he was possessed! That’s right. He most certainly was possessed by some sort of demon straight out of the Exorcist because he could cast out demons. Their explanation for Jesus’ crazy abilities was that a major demon was inside of him [Beelzebub], allowing him to get rid of minor demons. Sounds like an interesting comic book to me.
Were these scribes jealous? Maybe. Did they fear Jesus? Probably. Were they confused by his teachings? Some of them. Certain scribes were convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was a big loony. After all, how else could they explain his strange behavior? He healed the sick and unclean, there were whispers that he could perform miracles. He taught about the kingdom of God in a way that no one had ever imagined. He had to be crazy. How else to explain this Jesus of Nazareth? The scribes were religious powers, so they did what they felt was necessary to push down someone who challenged their authority: they called him names.
But their argument didn’t make sense. Jesus refuted it quite easily by making the logical conclusion that there was no way he was possessed, because why would Satan try to cast out his own demons? If the devil is so tricky and smart, wouldn’t that be stupid? And then, a random parable about a strong man’s house. The gist of it: one can’t possibly get the good stuff out of a strong man’s house without first making sure that the ripped dude is tied up and not a threat. I don’t know about you, but doesn’t this seem like a weird reference? It does, unless we notice the word for plunder is skeue, the same Greek word that appears only one other time in Mark, in chapter 11 when Jesus raids the Jerusalem temple, throws over tables, and kicks out the moneylenders. The house of prayer, the temple, the strong man’s house, needed to be upset. The only way to upset it was to tie up its strength—its religious bureaucracy. Of course, that was a dangerous thing to say with the Jerusalem scribes around. So Jesus spoke in parables. He may have been crazy, but he was no dummy.
And then we come to a very misunderstood Bible passage. Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” Sadly, over the centuries, some have used this passage to define which sins are forgivable and which ones aren’t. I even remember once as a teenager that an adult church leader once said to us that the sin God won’t forgive is when we take the Lord’s name in vain. Another adult told us that the eternal sin was denying Christianity as the one true religion. Wow, that’s ironic, because that’s exactly what the scribes were doing and precisely why Jesus said this! Jesus points out that God forgives all sins. The unforgivable sin is in fact trying to define what God does or does not forgive. You see, the scribes and other religious authorities forced people to make sacrifices, to pay money, and to perform rituals in order to receive God’s forgiveness. But Jesus taught about forgiveness without limitations. God forgives. That’s it and that’s all. The scribes were claiming–that Jesus’ healing of the sick on the Sabbath, his casting out of physical or mental demons, and his acceptance of the unclean—were demonic in nature.
This forgiveness teaching of Jesus is consistent with the original version of what we call the Lord’s Prayer. Starting at Matthew 6:12: And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. Forgiving is both God’s job and also our job. It’s easy, perhaps to throw the scribes under the bus, saying that we would never do such a thing. But we in the church often do play this role of religious authority. We spend a lot of time and energy saying which beliefs and practices are more religious. We also spend WAY too much time determining who belongs in the church and who doesn’t. Like the scribes, oftentimes we are not open to the movement of God’s Spirit, still-speaking in our lives. We like order, established doctrine and practice, and clear categories. Forgiveness without limits? Impossible!
Jesus did not and does not fit into our categories. God doesn’t fit into our religious practices, sanctuaries, and traditions. God is loose in the world without limits—upsetting and offering new perspectives and hidden possibilities; unexpected grace. But like the scribes, we often say: “That’s CRAAAAAAAZY! “ Apparently, it was crazy to his family, too. His mom and brothers, standing outside, were asking for him. The people in the crowd were bothered that Jesus didn’t go to them right away. They are asking for you, Jesus. Jesus replied, Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.
It’s almost like Jesus blew off his mom, saying, Thanks, mom, for caring, and giving birth to me and raising me, but you are not being helpful. I know you love me and want to protect me, but I’m a big boy now…
But Jesus was not against family. In his time and culture, family was of the utmost importance. It still is for most cultures around the world. Remember that we are reading Mark’s Gospel, the one that has no birth story, no family genealogy of Jesus. It is not Mark’s intent to focus on Jesus’ blood line. One of my classmates from seminary, Ira Brent Driggers, is the Associate Professor of New Testament at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. He wrote the book Following God through Mark. I think Brent gives insight when he states:
Jesus will not settle for isolated family units coming and going on Sunday morning, for God pulls us out of our self-interested households, giving us the means of growing in faith and love through the gift of brothers and sisters we would have otherwise ignored.
Jesus redefines family. He doesn’t reject family; he opens up the meaning of family, expanding it, imagining it to be more than we normally assume.
No wonder people thought he was crazy, for this Jesus of Nazareth stood up against all the ailments of society—illness, disease, depression, hate, prejudice, broken community, religious oppression, exclusion–he was not afraid to share abundant life with others. The Jesus Way is still crazy today, because most of us are quite suspicious of such radical, free thinking and healing—especially if it does not seem overtly religious, traditional, or “churchy.” We are often tempted, just like Jerusalem scribes, to pay more attention to the regulation of our faith via church doctrines. Like Jesus’ family, we also get scared and overprotective. And thus, we pay less attention to the life-giving, healing and strengthening relationship we have with our God as human beings. Sadly, we may even stop imagining.
But what the gospel of Jesus Christ offers is what theologian Karl Barth described as the “impossible possibility.” God has given you and me everything we need to be able to think beyond what is possible. The gift of imagination frees us to open our minds and hearts to possibilities far beyond what see and even what we currently experience. Why? We are free to imagine because we are freely forgiven. God loves us first and foremost, and forgives us daily. Being loved and forgiven means we are not stuck in our past or bound to our sins. We are healed; we are freed; we are forgiven; so we imagine.
We imagine a better world that starts in our own little world called our home. We pray and work for a loving, just environment for our life partners, children, and all who make up our household. We imagine friendships based on mutual love and respect, not on material obligation or social status. We imagine a community in Warminster and beyond, where all people can feel welcomed—no matter if he speaks Hindi, Spanish, or Korean; or if she calls Russia, Mexico, or Ireland home; whether his life partner is a man, or hers a woman; or if he’s never been to church and she’s not even sure there is a God. We imagine a church in which they can be accepted for who they are and find safety, love, and community. We imagine healing in our relationships—that one day we will learn to love each other, in spite of our differences and even though we have so many emotional scars; and we imagine ourselves following this crazy Christ, forgiven and loved ourselves, and then loving and forgiving others as we journey in life.
Friends, the theme for the National Youth Event at Purdue University, where some of us will be in a few weeks, is imagine. The video you are about to see is from the vision team for NYE—youth and adults of the UCC who are imagining the new thing God is doing.
A church without walls.
The change you want to see.
A healthy world: where no child suffers.
A safe space.
A world without poverty.
A world with clean water for all.
A world where differences are embraced.
A world without prejudice.
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Here you will find sermons on Biblical themes and scriptures, interfaith stories, and other random things. Thanks for visiting!