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Beneath the Cross of Jesus #5

Beneath the Cross of Jesus #5

The Call to Deny Sin

Introduction: In the movie "Regarding Henry," Harrison Ford plays a successful cut-throat lawyer with ethics flexible enough to get the results he wants. His life changes dramatically when he stops at a convenience store one night and is shot in the head during a robbery. The doctors save his life but he requires months of rehab. And he literally is “unnamed.” He has no memory of his former life; no memory of his wife, his family or his career as a lawyer. He enters into an intensive program to regain his memory including wearing clothes he now finds too formal and eating steak and eggs he no longer has a taste for. He paints, something he never did before. And he keeping painting the same image of a Ritz cracker box. As his memory begins to return, he discovers some troubling things. He finds evidence that his wife had been unfaithful prior to the shooting. He also discovers that it was not Ritz Crackers he remembered, but the Ritz-Carlton – and his own marital unfaithfulness. He also discovers that he had withheld evidence in an important trial in order to win. As the clip begins he returns home troubled by his past. His wife meets him at the door and breaks into tears.

"I'm sorry," she says. "No, I'm sorry," he counters, and then adds, "You were right. Things were different. I have something I need to tell you." "What is it?" she asks. "I don't like my clothes," he says, sounding childish but sincere. "Mavbe they used to be my favorite, but I don't feel comfortable in them anymore." "We'll get you some new clothes," his wife says smiling. She reaches to embrace him. "I'm not done." Henry says, pulling away from her embrace. "Eggs. I don't like eggs, or steak. And Sarah, I hate being a lawyer. I quit and I told Charlie goodbye." "Whatever you want is fine." Sarah assures him. "I want us to be a family for asa long as we can, Sarah," Henry quietly whispers, "For as long as we can." "I love you," she offers. "I love you too," Henry says as they embrace.

In the movie, of course, they all lived happily ever after. But the truth of our own lives is that it was the first Henry that most people in our culture believe is the good life. While his ethics might be suspect and his personal morality less than the best, one could overlook such failures because he was otherwise so wealthy and powerful. His life was defined by a world of his own making. Then Henry’s life got turned upside down by the total disorientation that accompanies horrible tragedy.

Tragedy of all kinds un-names us. At the same time, we humans seem constantly to name ourselves by lives of our own efforts, our own making. We then find ourselves undone in crises and tragedy, and even in triumph because efforts to define our lives by a world of our own making are always temporary.

Such disorientation of is the story of God’s activity in Scripture. In the Bible, it is not just the life of lawyers that is defined by a world of one’s own making. It is the human dilemma from the beginning. It is a decision we humans are prone to make in which we get caught up in our own efforts, even and especially when we are claiming to worship God. Worship practices often become forms of idolatry because the practitioners are more interested in getting the performance right rather than being in the presence of God. God repeatedly steps into the drama of human existence to reform and redirect our attention. Life and world are not ours to make.

In John’s Gospel, the ministry of Jesus is depicted as a string of conversations with individuals and crowds in which confusion and disorientation are the outcomes. The confusion is particularly obvious in the story of Nicodemus, whom John describes as “a Pharisee who was a member of the Jewish ruling council.” We readers are to understand that in the cultural definitions of religious success and prestige and power, Nicodemus has elite status. He’s as powerful and as religious as it gets. He also correctly understands that Jesus is no ordinary person from Galilee.

“Rabbi,” Nicodemus says, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answers him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:2-3).

Unfortunately, the process of translation has created even more confusion for us modern readers of this text because Jesus intentionally uses a word that can have two radically different meanings, and our translations have traditionally chosen the meaning that Nicodemus understands. Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Very truly I tell you, No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born” – here Jesus uses the word “anothen.” It can mean either “again” or “from above.” As you read on, it is clear that Nicodemus hears the idea of being born “again.” The NRSV that I just read is the first translation to provide the meaning that Jesus actually intended, which is “born from above.”

That sets up the confusion that runs through the rest of their conversation. Nicodemus is trying to figure out how to re-enter his mother’s womb while Jesus is trying to convey the necessity of being born “from above.” Jesus has in mind a baptism that is “from above,” that leads to the indwelling of the Spirit, the transformation of life that can only come from God – from above.

Nicodemus says to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answers, “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. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 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.” Nicodemus says to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answers him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:4-10).

Remember that this story is first being read by John’s audience. I don’t think John’s audience could have read these words about being born of water and Spirit without thinking about their own baptisms. But it was the empowerment of the Spirit that made their baptism “from above.”

At least one word of disorientation for a lot of us this morning has to do with baptism. Irony of ironies, we have often become concerned about right thinking and right action regarding the human performance of baptism, without much or even any thought given to the Spirit. To be born of the Spirit – born from above – is to experience the radical act of God’s grace empowering us for life. Otherwise, the act of water baptism becomes just another line item on Nicodemus’ “to do” list. He already has that performance based faith figured out. Jesus is suggesting a radically different approach, one that cannot be humanly explained anymore than Nicodemus or John’s audience could explain the blowing of the wind.

I should note one other word change that is lost in our translations, namely the change in verse seven to the plural “you”—“Y’all must be born from above!” Jesus says. The plural “you” becomes a very important because it suggests the teaching is much broader than a simple address to a single individual. Jesus points out that both the “wind” and God’s “Spirit” – a play on words in their conversation – are sometimes unknowable except in their effects. “The wind blows wherever it pleases,” he says. “You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (3:8).

God’s work is mysterious, beyond our comprehension. We are invited into his initiatives, but we are not capable either of understanding or of conquering those purposes. Nicodemus had all the appearances of right religion and successful career identity. He was a deeply religious, powerful man. Jesus called him to deny his present identity and circumstance and affirm God’s activity in Jesus in such a decisive way that the change could only be describe as new birth. Birth from “above.”

We’ve spoken off-and-on these past few weeks about the season of Lent – the 40 days and the six Sundays leading up to the church’s remembrance of the Passion – the death and resurrection of Jesus. Lent is a tradition in churches that admit they have traditions. Our tradition is Churches of Christ is to not have traditions! And yet we do, of course. Yes, we correctly understand that traditions can become just another set of empty human performances; one more way for placing identity in our performances. But it can also be for us a genuine time of reflection. While we deny such traditionalism and in our own church setting particularly we claim a grace orientation, are we that far removed from Nicodemus? It’s worrying about church politics that has Nicodemus coming to Jesus in the cover and anonymity of darkness. Doe we not suffer the same desire at times in the name of church politics? Do we not still too easily get wrapped up in our own brands of Pharisaic thinking? Do we not still have certain right practices and rules for church that define us more than we are defined by Holy Spirit’s presence in us? Don’t we still define religion as a set of time-and-place performances? Even baptism itself is susceptible to becoming just another performance, is it not?

During this season of Lent, perhaps we need to admit with Nicodemus that it is better to be in the presence of Jesus when it is safe. Nicodemus comes to Jesus “at night” – in the anonymity of the darkness. Just a few verses after this encounter with Nicodemus in chapter three, John writes this commentary:

“And this is the verdict, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (John 3:19-21).

Remember, Nicodemus is the human context here. What are his evil deeds? What is he afraid will be exposed? What are his sins? I doubt we’re talking about ethics violations while in government service. We’re not talking about most things we would call addictive behaviors. But we are talking about addiction – identity addiction. Addiction to finding/creating identity through human effort and performance, even in the name of pleasing God.

Perhaps in our non-tradition experience of Lent, this is a time for us to abandon the worlds of our own making – our own versions of religious rightness, our own versions of performance identity. I’ve been reading a book this week by Dan Allender entitled “To Be Told: Know Your Story; Shape Your Future” (Waterbrook Press, 2005). At one point in the book, Allender describes the struggle of human identity in terms of how we want to see ourselves in the future. He labels this projection of ourselves the “ideal self.” He writes “Our ideal self is revealed in what we value (passion), how we understand the world (belief), and what we do to reach our ideal (behavior). Our passion, belief, and behavior fit together so intimately that I can say this with confidence: What we do is what we really value. What we value enough to do tells others what we really believe. What we really believe shapes what we will become” (p. 62).

At first that may sound like the opposite of all I’ve tried to say this morning about performance based identity. But I think it is precisely what we need to ask ourselves about our identity this morning. What are we really passionate about that shapes our actions? What we truly value will be seen in what dominates our lifestyle. How does a Holy Spirit filled life walk passionately in this world? Is our new name in Christ our greatest passion? Is our new Spirit led life our true self? I don’t know the specifics of that, but I do know the direction. The Spirit is still like the wind, but it is always pointing us toward the light. To go from darkness to light is initially painful, even blinding. It is also the only way of truly seeing and being seen, knowing as we are known.

Lord, let your light
Light of your face
Shine on us!

Delivered at Woodmont Hills, March 6, 2005.


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