[A Sermon preached by Greg Garrett for Lent 2, at St. David's Episcopal Church, Austin, TX. Taken by permission from Greg's blog, "The Other Jesus."]
Gospel Lection: John 3:1-18
Every Tuesday I go to lunch with my friend Tom. On the way to the Baylor faculty dining room, we pass a granite slab near the statue of former Baylor president Rufus Burleson. It's the time capsule of the Baylor Sesquicentennial class, due to be opened sometime after I'm dead and gone. Chiseled there into the granite, you find the notice that it is, in fact, a time capsule, my name and title, and in between them, a beautiful and somewhat cryptic sentence that I am supposed to have uttered: "To discover a coded rational meaning in life is to destroy our experience of it."
Every semester or so, Tom will look at me significantly as we pass it, or arch an eyebrow, and I'll shake my head, shrug, say, "Nope. No idea."
Because this single sentence, chosen for some reason by the students of a great Christian university as life wisdom worthy of memorializing in granite, is so shorn of context I don't remember when I might have said it, or what it's supposed to mean, or why anybody thought it had anything to do with time capsules, Baylor, or life wisdom.
That's why I feel a little sorry for John 3:16, the star of our gospel reading today, featured on billboards, on signs at athletic events, a t-shirt and bumper-sticker verse like Romans 3:23 and John 14:6 forced into service as a Twitter encapsulation of Christian faith, and somehow expected to do the heavy lifting of conversion for the people who encounter it.
When Brian McLaren was with us a few weeks ago, he reminded us that because the most vocal of Christians read the Bible in this way-in small chunks that are thought to be self-explanatory-other Christians have, for all practical purposes, ceded the field of bible study and scriptural revelation to them-and, by doing so, they in a sense have also ceded our best knowledge of Jesus to them, since Jesus is revealed to us in those gospels they lovingly quote a verse at a time.
But we Anglicans are fond of third ways, via media. Surely there must be a way to approach even this compilation of Christian Greatest Hits that takes the Bible seriously as our chief revelation of how God is moving in the world through the life and work of Jesus Christ, without surrendering to sound-bite sureties. What if instead of reading John 3 as a selection of theological sureties that will get us to heaven, we read it as I think the Bible ought to be read, as a continuing narrative of God's grace at work in human lives?
This gospel lection might then serve to remind us that as beautiful as an aphorism can be, we live in stories, we only fully understand through experience, and even a pithy and wise saying may not permit us to know in our bones about God's grace and love.
I suspect that this may in fact have been what I was trying to say in my one granite-worthy moment: that we live in stories, not in words or systems, and so we understand our lives, the world, and God most fully only by paying attention, listening, and living forward.
That's why I'm grateful for the story of Nicodemus, which begins here when John tells us about this leader of the Jews who comes out of the dark night equipped with his codes and his systems by which he hopes to make sense of this new data-Jesus of Nazareth. The passage suggests that Nicodemus is a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, one of the elite Jewish leaders. He is a thinker, and Jesus describes him as a chief teacher among the Jews. Nicodemus comes, though, because I suspect he has an inkling that whatever he and others may note in his plus column, he could be missing something big, something that so far has escaped him.
So in the beginning of his story, Nicodemus is also us, trying to figure Jesus out, desiring what Jesus seems to be offering, unsure how to fit it into anything he knows.
We are reading Nicodemus's story on the Second Sunday of Lent, a season when we, like Nicodemus, are consciously seeking a greater understanding of God. For many of us, our hope is that giving up worldly things or taking on spiritual practices might move us away from society and at least some of those distractions that surround us to such an extent that we might as well be blind to anything else.
Commentators suggest that one of the reasons Nicodemus comes at night is to avoid the crush of the crowds around Jesus in the daytime, the distractions that would prevent him having a real dialogue with Jesus. But there's a great irony in the story: even a spiritual person like Nicodemus who is trying to turn his back on the distractions of the world can find he's still in the dark. Jesus pushes Nicodemus out of the realm of the known and comfortable, and his responses show that this teacher of Israel is befuddled.
It is a challenging teaching: Jesus says that unless we embrace a new way of thinking-a new way of seeing the world centered on the acceptance of who and what Jesus is that will feel as radically transformative as birth-we are incapable of grasping what God is doing through the person of Jesus.
Stories have beginnings, middles, and ends, and here the second act of our story is quickly recounted: Nicodemus fails.
We who sit in pews-and we who stand in pulpits-are happy to have other people stood up object lessons in the Bible. Look at Nicodemus, sitting across from Jesus. Why can't he see how God is moving in this new way in the world, and that he, Nicodemus, needs to change? Didn't he just hear what Jesus said? That was John 3:16!
Again, it's easy to be critical about this failure of vision, when the hard truth is that all of us have, as Jesus says, difficulty understanding earthly things, let alone heavenly things. I fear that if the Jesus we encounter in the Gospel of John were sitting across from me today, he would push me to the limits of my understanding and challenge me in different but equally befuddling ways.
Nicodemus was serving God to the best of his considerable knowledge. He had faith, he had a theological system, but at this point in the story, he cannot see past his preconceptions to experience this grace pouring into the world. In fact, he disappears from this lection, seems to fade back into the darkness as Jesus talks.
In this part of the story, Nicodemus reminds us that all of us-including religious people, and maybe especially religious people-have our systems or beliefs or coded rational meanings designed to get a handle on God, to, as is sometimes said, try to put God in a box.
But we know in some part of our brains that our box can never contain the totality of God. Even if it's a really nice box. Solid. Roomy. A four-square fundamental gospel box, or an inclusive peace and justice box. A John 3:16 box. Or even a John 3 box.
God is doing a new thing, always doing a new thing, always shining light into the darkness, and always surprising us when we hear the whole story.
The story we enter today is not just about the John 3:16 belief that Jesus is the Son of God who cleanses us from all sin, but about our own ability and willingness to believe that-and about everything that happens to us and to the world once we give ourselves to that belief.
It's not about a bumper-sticker faith that can be encapsulated in 144 characters. It is about a truly different way of seeing that changes everything about us.
It is about stepping out of darkness and choosing light.
Which brings us back to Nicodemus. Although things looked bad when we last saw him, his story continues in the Gospel of John, and it becomes clear that in the interim, some kind of transformation has begun in him. When angry crowds in the Jerusalem Temple demand that Jesus be arrested, Nicodemus is the lone man who stands up to defend him. Later still, when Jesus has been lifted up and executed upon a cross, Nicodemus is present when Jesus is taken down and is one of two men given permission by the Roman governor Pilate to bury him. In the last piece of the story that we know from scripture, Nicodemus "who had at first come to Jesus by night" (John 19:39) stands there in the daylight, not as a curious seeker of wisdom, but quite possibly as a disciple risking his reputation and potentially even his life to publicly identify himself with this Jesus, while more familiar disciples such as Peter have run and hidden from the authorities.
Raymond Brown says in fact that Nicodemus represents the gospel character who is on a spiritual trajectory which is the exact opposite of Judas-during the course of his story, he moves from darkness to light, from outsider status to true discipleship. The Christian tradition goes beyond the scriptural record in hope that this is true: we find stories that Nicodemus argued on Jesus's behalf before Pilate, that he was deprived of his high office and suffered persecution for professing Jesus, that he was baptized by the two central disciples Peter and John.
But wherever we end the story, Nicodemus still offers a glimpse at how an authentic encounter with Jesus can challenge us-and can change us, not just in what we believe, but how we live.
The words of John 3:16 come true not on bumper stickers or billboards, but in the human heart, played out in human lives like Nicodemus's-and like ours, if we are only willing.
In this prayerful season of Lent, my prayer is that we might also move into the light and begin to live fully into the story God wants to tell in and through us.