The Second Sunday of Lent
Gen 12:1-4a; Ps 121; Rom 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17
When I was a little child, my stepfather taught me to love the ocean. He would wade into the ocean; bend down; pick up a rock, glistening with water, and then cry out, Teeny pebble, teeny pebble! I was terrified of the ocean, but I wanted those stones, and so I would forget my fears and run toward him, into the foam, into the swirling water, to dance around his knees, reaching and reaching until I had the pebble in my own hand. And we would laugh and laugh, until I’d realize where I was and run back to the safety of dry land. And we would start again.
My relationship with God is a lot like that: God calls me, as he called Abraham, as he calls you, to go beyond what we know and plunge deep into the living heart of life, to be born of water and of spirit. It’s a scary call, and one I can only manage in short bursts, dipping my toes in deep prayer, running delighted toward the face of Love, and then panicking and turning back to what I know again.
Even the church often hesitates in the face of that plunge, drawing back from the invitation to intimacy with God and focusing on the human dimensions of our faith. I was reminded of that a few weeks ago by quote from Robin Meyers, which read: “Consider this remarkable fact: In the Sermon on the Mount, there is not a single word about what to believe, only words about what to do and how to be. By the time the Nicene Creed is written, only three centuries later, there is not a single word in it about what to do and how to be — only words about what to believe.” When I read the quote, my heart sank: not because I did not see the point, but because I did. There was a time in my own faith life when I was deeply troubled by the apparent gap between the teachings of Christ and the official formulations of our faith, which tend to mention Jesus’ birth and death and nothing in between. But as I have grown in prayer, I came to understand: the Creeds are less about what we believe than about what we can become. I learned from my own experience how much we lose out when we take our faith to be less than the fulness of what God is offering us.
The distinction Meyers points to is real, but it doesn’t mean what Meyers seems to imply. Christianity is a faith which unfolds on more than one level: there’s a level about how we are and what we do, and then there’s a second level, a level about who we are, and whose. The first level is largely ethical; it focuses on community with one another. The second is about interior transformation which brings us into deep communion with God — that’s what unfolded within the disciples after Christ’s resurrection. Like the double helix of our DNA, the two levels unfold together; the work of becoming deeply ethical purifies our soul to enter into intimacy with God. In Jesus, God invites us to enter both levels: to be born first of flesh and blood, and then of the spirit of God. In this is fulness of life, and God is offering it to us with both hands.
Let’s start with the first level. The Sermon on the Mount presents us with the heart of Jesus’ moral and ethical teachings. Jesus takes the teachings of his own Jewish tradition and deepens them, emphasizing that external observance is not enough; our lives must come from our hearts. Thus, Jesus says, “Of old, you were ordered not to swear falsely, but I say, don’t swear at all. Just be honorable in your Yes and your No.” (Matt 5:33-37) Why sign a contract, when a handshake should be enough! Or, “You’ve been commanded not to murder, but I say, do not even nurture your rage, for that is to commit murder in your heart.” (Matt 5:21-22) The idea is to go beyond external compliance with what is ethical, and to become ethical people.
This would not have been taken amiss in Judaism, particularly not among the Pharisees. Judaism was and is a religion of orthopraxis; it emphasizes doing the right thing. Ideally, one does it with a whole heart, but, rabbis would argue, it is better to do the right thing even with clenched teeth than to do what is wrong. If your wastrel brother squanders all his money (again) and then begs you for something to eat (again), you are supposed to help him, even if it’s for the ninety-ninth time.
The idea is that if you do the right thing, even for the wrong reasons, the act of doing it begins to convert your heart. Most of us have seen that in practice: we drag ourselves reluctantly to a serve at a soup kitchen or manage to be kind to that person who drives us crazy, only to find that being there and doing that changes us, deepens our compassion and sense of connection. It’s the idea behind behavior modification therapy: instead of seeking the childhood roots of your current behavior, it may be more efficient to alter how you act in a particular relationship and let the good results unfold.
Let’s be clear: for most of us, this is hard work! We grow up in an imperfect world in which we adopt certain behaviors to help us survive, and even when we are no longer vulnerable children, casting off that armor is hard. That armor has become part of who we are. Doing this work takes what the Church calls the four Cardinal Virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance (knowing what’s right, doing what’s right, enduring the cost of doing what’s right, and managing ourselves so that we are not the slaves of our desires).
It doesn’t take much looking around the world to realize that we’d all be better off if more of us would do this. Jesus teaches a way of life which is centered on the well-being of all, rather than just ourselves; which reverences life in all forms; which fosters and nourishes community. It is a high ideal, and one which is challenging to meet — and it would be easy to mistake it for the goal. But in the immensity of God’s goodness, it’s not the goal: it’s only the foundation which prepares us to receive the extraordinary gifts of God.
When Nicodemus comes to Jesus, he comes as a leader of the Pharisees; that is, he comes as one for whom embodying these teachings is the core of his life. And yet, Jesus says to him, “You must be born from above.” In those words, Jesus is pointing Nicodemus beyond the level of human understanding, into the reality of wondering love. That’s why the conversation is so weird; Jesus is deliberately short-circuiting Nicodemus’ understanding of the faith in order to open him to something more.
That Something More is the supernatural dimension of our faith, something which is utterly lacking in the Sermon on the Mount. Being a good person is hard work, but many religious and philosophical traditions teach how to do it, and with remarkable consistency. What Jesus came to offer, however, was not just community among people (rich though that is), but intimacy with God.
In the years following the Resurrection, the first believers had a series of experiences they struggled to understand: experiences of divine presence, of God with them even though Jesus was no longer on this earth. Some were able to work miracles. Others saw visions. Still others experienced no wonders at all, except for a deep unfolding of God within their hearts. And over three hundred years of talking and praying and arguing and wondering, they came to understand an astonishing truth: that somehow, Christ had done something, so that those of us who had been baptized into Christ were no longer separate from him or from one another. (John 15:5) We had been fundamentally transformed, and our task was to live into that transformation. St. Athanasius wrote, “God became human that we might become divine.” Not so that we might become gods, but so that we might experience God’s love as Christ experienced it. (That should take your breath away!)
That’s what the arcane language of the Creeds is about: the door that Christ opened into the very life of God. The great spiritual director Von Hugel writes, “the Beatitude of Heaven, the Direct Vision of God…the sincere forgiveness of our enemies, the love of them, and… the eager acceptance of suffering, are graces and dispositions beyond, and different from, God apprehended as the dim background of our lives, and from the honesties and decencies of average domestic and political life.” It’s not that honesty and decency are bad things; it’s that God wants to give us so much more. Beyond what we can achieve through our own efforts lies a richness of grace which can come only from God, the gifts of faith, hope, and love.
When Jesus speaks with Nicodemus, he takes the conversation right to the Cross. He points to the central mystery which links suffering and death to a kind of birth we do not understand and a life beyond our imagining. It’s the line between what we can do for ourselves, and the point at which God takes over, the difference between taking a dance class and actually dancing: that moment when what had been earthbound and clunky takes wings and begins to soar.
You must be born of water and Spirit, Jesus says, inviting us to plunge into the love which made the sun and the lesser stars. A love which picks us up and turns us around and destroys who we were and unfolds the person we do not yet know we are becoming. It is life in death, life from death, joy from pain, hope that does not fade. I’ll leave you with the words of the poet Maya Cannon:
The unexpected tide,
the great wave,
uncontained, breasts the rock,
overwhelms the heart, in spring or winter….
There are small unassailable words
that diminish caesars;
territories of the voice
that intimate across death and generation
how a secret was imparted –
when someone, in anguish
made a new and mortal sound
that lived until now,
to waves succumbed to