Sunday, March 12, 2017

Admirers or Followers?

Second Sunday in Lent (Year A)
Genesis 12.1-4a; Romans 4.1-5, 13-17; John 3.1-17
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

It’s pretty obvious that our friend Nicodemus is a great admirer of Jesus. Nicodemus is a pious and holy man. He is a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin – the assembly that was at once the supreme council exercising authority over religious matters and the high court of Israel. As such, he represented the epitome of Jewish orthodoxy and would have been above reproach in theological perspective and in his behavior and actions.

Despite his pedigree and position – or maybe because of it – Nicodemus recognizes in Jesus a spiritual power and authority unlike anything he had experienced, even though his peers did not consider Jesus to be respectable. He has admired Jesus from afar and wants to experience him firsthand, to have a one-on-one audience with him. To publically meet with Jesus would have put Nicodemus’ reputation, probably even his position on the council, at risk. While curious, he is also cautious. So, Nicodemus goes to Jesus under cover of night, when Jesus is alone, so as to arouse no suspicion and to protect his own position and authority.

Given the need for discretion, coming to Jesus under cover of darkness is a wise and logical course of action. But there is also a symbolic significance. In John’s Gospel, images of night and darkness symbolize spiritual blindness. So, in John’s relaying this account, he is not only implying the prudency of Nicodemus’ actions, but also the fact that Nicodemus is spiritually blind. That in coming to Jesus, Nicodemus is in need of something. Something that only Jesus can provide. And yet, he probably doesn’t even know it. This is indeed borne out as the story unfolds.

Nicodemus addresses Jesus as “Rabbi,” honoring him with the title typically reserved for scholars and teachers of the Torah. He goes on to praise Jesus for his signs and his works of love and mercy. He recognizes that Jesus’ authority in these matters can only come from God. In both his actions and his words of praise, Nicodemus proves that he is an ardent admirer of Jesus. But is that enough?

In various writings, Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard notes the distinction between an admirer and a follower. An admirer is something of a spectator, keeping a safe distance, admiring the truth rather than truly following it. An admirer never makes any sacrifices, always plays it safe. The life of the admirer does not truly reflect that which he admires. A follower, on the other hand, is not merely enamored with a set of teachings and examples of those teachings put into practice, but is an adherent of those teachings. Is one who puts those teachings into action. Those teachings become a way of life. The follower strives with all her might to be what she admires through her actions. The follower is an imitator of a way of life.

Kierkegaard points out that Jesus never asked for admirers, only followers. And this is what is happening in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus, sensing, knowing, that Nicodemus is seeking something more, something deeper in making this nighttime foray, answers the question Nicodemus has. The question that Nicodemus probably does not even know he has. The question that is deep in his heart, that burns within his spirit. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (Jn 3.3). In his spiritual blindness, Nicodemus does not quite understand what Jesus is saying. So Nicodemus asks for clarification. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?” (Jn 3.4). Actually, Nicodemus asks a reasonable question. When Jesus talks about “being born from above,” the word translated as “above” can also mean “anew” or “again.” While these are similar meanings, it is very nuanced. While Jesus intends one specific meaning, Nicodemus takes a more literal interpretation.

Jesus attempts to educate his admirer. He tries to help him turn from admirer to follower. “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” (Jn 3.5-6). Jesus is attempting to convey that to enter the kingdom of God, to be in full and right relationship with God, one must be transformed. He is speaking of a spiritual experience, not a physical birth. To be “born from above” means a transformation in one’s life, a reorientation of one’s being. One that is focused not on the world, on the flesh, but rather directly toward God, on the Spirit. This birth from above by the Spirit is the gift of faith that enables one to see beyond the limits of the physical senses and enter into a new dimension of life in the Kingdom of God.

The gift of faith is the primary theme of all our readings today. The importance of true faith that leads to right relationship with God. The importance of true, abiding faith, that allows one to move from admirer to follower. The means of experiencing faith, of living into the gift of faith, is juxtaposed in our Old Testament and Gospel readings. For Nicodemus, faith comes from considering the evidence and drawing logical conclusions. But that doesn’t work when dealing with God. The history of Nicodemus’ own tradition bears that out. Just go back to the origins of the Jewish tradition. We see in our Old Testament reading that Abram accepted the risks of fully opening himself to new possibilities. Abram demonstrated his trust in God’s call by his obedience. As the one who became the paradigm of faith for the Jewish people, Abram leaves his home, his family, his community, and goes forth into the unknown. He does not know where God will ultimately lead him, but trusts the promises God gives him, trusts that God will not fail him.

While Abraham did obey God’s commands, this was not what rendered him as righteous before God. His righteousness was not based on performance. If you read the entire story of Abraham’s life and journey, Lord knows there were times when Abraham performed badly. Rather, the Lord’s acceptance of him as righteous was based on his faith. It was through righteousness—right relationship with God —and not the law, that Abraham received the promise of inheritance.

In our reading from his letter to the Romans, Paul goes on to proclaim that God’s grace is not limited to those who adhere to the law, but is extended to all who “share the faith of Abraham” (Rom 4.16b). In short, right relationship with God is not about earning points with God, but is found in trusting God’s promises. And in following despite the uncertainty. This is the same faith into which Jesus invites Nicodemus. It is the same faith into which Jesus invites all the baptized.

As we see in the example of Abraham, in Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, merely having faith is not enough. Faith calls for a response. Jesus touches on this when he talks to Nicodemus about flesh and Spirit. Jesus is not setting up a dichotomy. It is not Spirit versus flesh. It is not either/or, but rather, both/and. In being born from above in water and Spirit – being born anew in the act of baptism –  there is a uniting, or rather a reuniting, of flesh with the Spirit. For to truly be followers and not just admirers, we need both. We need the indwelling of the Spirit to connect us with God, to allow us to move into right relationship with God. And we need the flesh because it is through the flesh that the work of the Spirit made manifest.

Jesus demonstrates this through his image of the wind. “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” (Jn 3.8). We cannot see the wind, only that it is blowing. We can only hear that the wind is blowing, see the effects of the wind blowing.

This is reminiscent of “When John [the Baptist] heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Mt 11.2-5). As with Jesus, so too with his followers. The proof is not in the person himself. The proof is not in merely having faith. The proof is in the response to God invitation, the response to living into the calling to become a follower – one who lives out of that that faith.

This is the story of faith from the very beginning. With the gift of faith, and the promises of God, Abraham responded and was made a great nation. A blessing to all nations. With the gift of faith given at our baptism, in our birth anew in water and the Spirit, what amazing things could we do in our lives, in our community, if we trust him and respond accordingly?

In our Lenten journey, we are invited to examine our own lives of faith. We are invited to make a response to the promises of God that leads to right relationship with him. The choice is ours. We can play it safe like Nicodemus. Or we can take a chance on God’s promises, like Abraham. We can be admirers of Jesus, or we can truly be his followers.

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