Tuesday, May 26, 2015

At the Cross Road



OUR READING for the celebration of Holy Trinity Sunday comes to us from the Gospel According to Saint John. Within the text for the day we hear that a shift in strategy occurred after our Lord completed his attempt to cleanse the temple in Jerusalem. The authorities wished to know who it was that threatened the transactions of the people. Consequently, Jesus is portrayed here as being engaged in conversation by the high, legalistic powers of his day. Of the darkness within their confusion, we read…

Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.”
 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
 Nicodemus said to him, “How can this be?” 
 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this?  Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?
 No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.  (John 3:1-17)

Which Way Does the Wind Blow?
Our author described a scene that no other gospel records. Within the telling, we hear that after Jesus had taken whip to the money changers and certain cultic powers of the temple, a member of the religious leadership approached him. A man, given the name of Nicodemus by the author, speaks to our Lord out of the darkness. Nicodemus proclaimed that he accepted Jesus as a teacher. He recognized Jesus’ rabbinical successes in doing mighty works of divine authority. Today we might ask ourselves whether the conversation came from Nicodemus out of sincere inquisitiveness, or was simply bait laid to entrap our Lord. We know that later history revealed Nicodemus acted favorably in caring for Jesus’ even unto our Lord’s burial. However, we see here that no question was asked. Instead, Jesus apparently sensed the separation between them. He immediately stated the necessity for a person to be born “from above” or “again” in order to see the kingdom of God.
 In reaction to his statement then, we often get mired down in trying to decide whether the original Greek word, “anothen” meant “from above” or “again”. This heated query has led us along the path toward denominational differences in the church. While the translation choice of this text is important to us, what seems much more profitable here is to focus on what Jesus meant concerning the “kingdom of God”. You see, from the author’s perspective that phrase seems far more important. Since Nicodemus could not grasp the concept of a kingdom gracefully given, we may consider that by using him as a confused example John was informing his church concerning that graceful realm.
 Note here! In spite of the man’s human short-sightedness, Jesus revealed for us that one had to be born of water and the Spirit in order to see the kingdom. By saying this clearly in conversation with the priest, Jesus recalled… and thus John echoed… what had been said clearly by the prophets. For example we refer to…

I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your filth, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.  (Ezekiel 36:25-27)

 Therefore both Nicodemus and those in the early church were informed of the need for the duality of gifts poured out… of water and the Spirit. As Christians then, we need to be both cleansed by the waters of baptized purification and gifted by immersion in the Spirit. This was and is still necessary for citizenry and growth in the kingdom.
 Examine the reading closely! Our author points us firmly to Jesus’ instruction that the presence of the Spirit cannot be contained or controlled by self-serving human power or ritual. Our Lord said that the Spirit (described using in the Greek, the word “pneuma”) blows freely where it will. So it is that those persons raised up and driven in the Spirit go where God wills, and are not moved merely by human decree.
 This faith statement loomed very, very large for the early churches. In the latter decades of the first century, baptized and committed Christians were being cast out from the synagogues because of their faith declarations. Because of the efforts of the Pharisees, who were yet powerful survivors of Roman oppressions, many faithful Christians were cast adrift from their roots in Judaism. Therefore Christians did not know where it was that they were going. By relaying Jesus’ words to them, John’s message thus resounded soothingly across the stricken early church. You see, John described that our Lord stood firm in the past darkness, and yet stood rooted by the Spirit in the storm-clouded present. To us today, the disciple yet states in this scripture that Jesus works in our midst through the Spirit and points us toward our own bright future.

Fresh Breath of Freedom
Indeed, John said that they were called into a living faith, even as the power of the Spirit calls us today. Faith is a trusting citizenship that brings living freedom within the kingdom of God to all Christians. As citizens exercising these rights purchased by our Lord, we are no longer tied to such legalisms that adhere us slavishly to earthly temples. Like our faith ancestors in John's day who were convicted by God’s Law, we too are freed from condemnation. We also follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit. As Christians we come to know the forgiveness of our sinful human filth down to the bottom of our souls and are assured of the Resurrection of the body even unto life everlasting. This assurance is the power that formed the church.
 Remember! Through this freedom given, the Holy Spirit gave us the written Word of God. Through Sacraments bestowed, the Spirit secured the saints of the church despite rising persecutions. A right understanding of Holy Scripture was formed over-against egotistic Nicodemian confusions and many heresies.
 John described this Spirit connection for us. To illustrate, I ask you, “Did not Jesus point out to Nicodemus that our Lord’s being “lifted up” upon the cross would reveal the miraculous coming of the kingdom of God?” Surely the sacrifice of our Lord upon the cross and the issue of water and blood poured from his body, focused our souls upon the mountainous chasm between the gushing waters of sinful human birth and the heavenly realm of spiritual rebirth. In the symbolism appropriated from my own automotive history, I hold up to you the image of a hilltop “cross” road. Understand that Jesus’ life, death and Resurrection highlight the mysterious intersection between “earthly things” such as water, bread and wine… and the very profound sacramental “heavenly things” of holy baptism and communion. In the cataclysmic crucifixion event we see his sacrifice upon the cross as the center of all redemption. We are privileged to know the innocent Jesus crucified for us as “the Way, the Truth and the Life”.
 “Why was this miraculous gift given?” By our asking we avoid Nicodemus-like ignorance and learn that through the power of the Holy Spirit working in John we can know the simplicity of the Truth. In its simplicity the gospel has been prepared for us as John related an oft-repeated phrase. The reason for the gift was shown concisely as divine and perfect Love.  I repeat that John said..,

 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”

 By making that faith statement clearly and concisely, blessed John gave the church much more than just a catch phrase to be lifted up before the Sanhedrin, the Coliseum, or placed in front of our cameras at a modern football game. Within these few words, John gave us the everywhere and for all time core proclamation of the good news. They proclaim Jesus Christ crucified for our sake. This central theme stated that even as we confess our sin and separation from God, we are forgiven through Jesus Christ. We are freed from the penalty of death. We need not do a sacrificial ritual. We do not need to purchase salvation... or buy a modern temple a sacrificial lamb. We are forgiven not for our sake or works, but are provided reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ. Thus we can turn our lives to doing good works out of thankfulness for what God accomplished for us.
 Christians brought into his church through baptism are called by John to live in the here and now and praise God. We are to serve him personally and collectively all the days of our lives, whether those days be fair of foul. I say to you, “Thanks be to Almighty God for his grace!”
 God alone provides the intersection between the human and divine by the death and Resurrection of his Son. Almighty God, expressed by the church rightly as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, thus deserves our words of praise and thanksgiving. I pray that you may echo this loudly in worship and carry the message out into this world of darkness. May the Light of God’s love guide you and be with you always.

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