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March 16, 2014
Entering our church building during the week can be a little tricky. From my office window, I occasionally see someone turn in our courtyard, stop, and then look around, unsure of where to enter. Some will make an immediate right and try the sanctuary doors, to no avail. Then they may come and try to open the center doors. But if it’s after hours, those doors are locked. To enter the building, visitors need to enter by the arcade doors, which are open. This is where Barbara, our building monitor, welcomes visitors inside. Well, these somewhat bewildered visitors remind me of Nicodemus. Like them, Nicodemus finds himself on the outside wanting in. So Nicodemus comes to Jesus secretly, under cover of darkness, to say, “You come from God. Everyone can see that. I want to know God, too; I want to have the kind of life with God that I see in you. Only I don’t know where to begin or how to enter such a life.”
Notice how Nicodemus’ approach to Jesus is entirely cerebral. It’s analytical, rational. Nicodemus responds to Jesus on an intellectual level. I can’t help thinking that Nicodemus would have made a good Presbyterian. Don’t get me wrong, the life of the mind is a very good thing. I was attracted to the Presbyterian tradition, in part, because I treasure our historic commitment to theological inquiry and scrutiny. Yes, thinking the faith has its place, but, as Nicodemus learned, we can’t think our way into the Kingdom of God. Nicodemus tried to enter by the door of analytical thought, but Jesus refuses to engage with him in a Socratic conversation. Instead he baffles Nicodemus with strange sayings about “being born from above,” and “the wind blowing where it chooses.” Poor Nicodemus can only scratch his head in bewilderment, saying, “I don’t comprehend. How can these things be?”
It’s not that Nicodemus doesn’t believe. Right up front, he declares that he believes that Jesus has come from God. At issue for Nicodemus, however, and also for us today, is what we mean by “belief.” If by “believe” we mean only accepting certain ideas about Jesus and God, even those articulated in the church’s creeds, then we stay forever on the outside of eternal life, looking in.
Preacher and writer Barbara Brown Taylor illustrates the difference between what Jesus meant when he said “believe” and what Nicodemus meant by the same word. Taylor writes, “On one level, to believe someone means simply to accept what that person says as true, usually on the basis of some evidence. Someone shows you a picture of himself climbing the rock face of a mountain, tells you it can be done, and you say, ‘I believe you.’ You accept the proposition. You give your intellectual assent, but it does not interfere with the way you live your life, because it is all in your head.
“But,” Taylor continues, “there is another level of belief that is much more visceral. Instead of showing you the pictures, someone invites you to go rock climbing with him. As he checks the knots on your harness and runs your safety line through the carabiner around his own waist, he assures you that everything will be all right. The proper response at that point is not, ‘I believe you’ but ‘I believe in you,’ because you are way past anything like intellectual assent. You have set yourself in relationship with this person, and you are trusting him with your life.”
While Nicodemus was trying to figure out how to enter the Kingdom of God, Jesus said, in effect: “I have good news for you, Nicodemus. The life of God is not far away from you. The life of God has come near to you. Indeed, the life of God is sitting right next to you, speaking to you now inviting you into a new relationship with God. You see, Nicodemus, you don’t need God in your life. That’s all backward. You need to be in God’s life. It’s a matter of being born all over again, and this time born into the life and love that I share with the Father and the Spirit.“
Of course, baptism is a sacrament that celebrates and proclaims our entrance into the life of God. This is why, when people are baptized in the church they are baptized not just in Jesus’ name, but in the name of the Trinity. To be a follower of Jesus is not just to ask, “What would Jesus do?” but to be drawn into a holy communion of dynamic, mutual and self-giving love.
The Reverend John Buchanan recently retired after 48 years as a Presbyterian pastor, and in an article recently, in which he was looking back over his half-century of ministry, he remembered one Sunday service in which he was baptizing a two-year old boy. After the child had been baptized with water, John Buchanan, following the direction of the Presbyterian prayer book, put his hand on the little boy’s head and addressed him in Trinitarian language. He said, “You are a child of God, sealed by the Spirit in your baptism and you belong to Jesus Christ forever. “ Unexpectedly, the little boy looked up and responded, ‘Uh-Oh.’”
Well, it was an amusing moment and people in the congregation smiled, of course, but “it was also an appropriate response,” wrote Buchanan, “…a stunning theological affirmation from the mouth of this child. He did not belong any more just to his biological family; he had now been born all over again, this time into God’s Trinitarian family.” No wonder he said, “Uh-oh.” Life would never be the same.
Here at UPC, when new members are introduced in worship, we typically say something like this: “We invite you to breathe with us.” By saying that, we hope to communicate that church membership is not about saying the right things about Jesus. It’s not just a matter of getting your name on the roll of a religious organization. No, it’s about joining in the life of a community that is inhaling the love and grace of God so that we can exhale that love into the world.
When you leave the sanctuary this morning, don’t rush out the gate. Instead, linger for awhile. Listen to the music. Browse among the various tables displaying the many aspects of our ministry. Our effort here is not to get you more involved in church work, but to invite you to share more deeply in the life of God through the ministries of our church. Who knows, the wind that blows where it will may blow you into some new path of service.
Friends, the door to eternal life is not hard to find. God loved the world so much that God sent his Son, not to condemn the world but that the world might have eternal life. And this only Son, Jesus Christ, opens his arms wide to welcome us into the eternal life that he shares with the Father and the Spirit. The door is open. Come on in.