Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Second Sunday in Lent.
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, 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 answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Nicodemus said 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 answered, “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 said to him, “How can these things be?”
Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just 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, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
This week I had the great joy of being called a heretic.
It happens, of course, from time to time. Comes with the territory of being a woman pastor. And this one wasn’t someone screaming in my face, so that was nice. It was just an email.
A long, long email.
Someone writing under a pseudonym took it upon themselves to write out a new 95 theses—95 complaints, really—that they had about the Presbyterian church, and email it to every church office address they could get their hands on. This happens too, from time to time; rather than build relationships and invest in the slow work of meaningful change, people blast out lists of anonymous complaints, demanding we take them seriously. I haven’t seen it work yet, but it doesn’t stop people from trying.
It didn’t take much internet sleuthing to find out that the sender, in this case, was a college sophomore somewhere in New York. I have to admit, I wasn’t shocked. There’s a reason the word sophomoric is in our vocabulary. Young people can be brilliant, incisive, passionate, wise—but they can also be rather too plagued by certainty. I know I knew everything when I was his age.
And to avoid being ageist, I have to say that anyone of us—at any age—can fall victim to the plague of certainty. To being so sure—so sure that our way is right, that our thinking is correct, that our plans are perfect—that if we can just get people to listen, then they will obviously fall in line behind us. I just have to make them see it my way, we think to ourselves. Then everything will go great.
Nicodemus was born long before you could hide your questions behind anonymous email addresses, but he does the best he can, coming to Jesus under the cover of night. I wish we could know more of his stance as he begins to converse with the strange rabbi, who has crashed into Jerusalem with a whipcord in the temple and a rumored habit of turning water into wine. I wish we could know if he was curious, or combative, or merely confused. It would help me know what to do with this conversation, because I struggle with it.
You see? I want to be certain. I want to know what Nicodemus’ intentions were. I want to know what Jesus’ answers really mean. Certainty.
Nicodemus is sure of one thing. Certain and sure. “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God [he proclaims]; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
God is mixed up in this business, he says to Jesus. And then he leaves it hanging, as if he doesn’t know what he’s even really there for. He just knows God’s presence is where Jesus is. And he wants to be there.
Now Nicodemus was a Pharisee. And the Pharisees get a bad rap in the gospels, because they and Jesus are always arguing, but the reason they are always arguing is not because they are such diametric opposites but actually such close cousins; you don’t waste your time on someone who has it all wrong but that friend, that coworker, that church that is so close to getting it right? That’s when you want to take them under your wing and just nudge them a bit, get them to see what you see, and follow your ideas.
The Pharisees, like Jesus, are children of Israel. They are devoted to fulfilling Torah.
And unlike some of the priestlier folks, they are enamored of the idea that God’s holiness can be everywhere. That faith is for everyday life, not just holidays. That faith is in the details.
There’s a danger, though, to a detail-driven faith. We can all agree on the big ideas—love, justice, worship—but the more you start to tell people what to do with their time and their bodies and their kitchenware, the more arguments are bound to pop up. And so Jesus dashes himself again and again against the idea that faith is a matter of getting everything right. That religion can be broken down into long flowcharts of can and can’t and do and don’t.
I’m telling you, Jesus says, that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.
Being born from above, of course, is not a thing we can do. We have tried. In the last two hundred years, a whole branch of Christianity has sprung up around the idea that we can, more or less, facilitate our own born-again experience. If we believe enough, work ourselves up enough, feel guilt or hope enough, we can be born again.
But being born again—or anew, or from above, all fine translations of the Greek—is not really about our work or our faith. A wise pastor once counseled a young man who was worried that, although he considered himself born again, that it hadn’t really taken. What else could he do? he asked. Was there a conference to go to, a devotional to read, a mission trip to attend? The wise pastor said, “let me ask you this. how much work did you put into being born the first time?”
“Well, none,” the young man responded. “I’m pretty sure my mom did all the work.”
And so, the pastor said, trust God to do the work. It may not come all at once, but God is always making you new. Not because of anything you do. Only what God does.
The young man was both relieved and a little disappointed. He had wanted a sure answer, a clear answer. “Trust God” sounded good out of the pastor’s mouth, but it didn’t feel as good as a set of simple directions would have.
I sympathize. I wish Jesus gave clearer answers. Answers I could implement in my own life. Answers I could pass on to you. But for whatever reason, God wants to make us seekers, not soldiers carrying out tinned orders. God wants to make us children of water and breath—ever-flowing, ever-changing.
I came across a video this week from Dr. Amy-Jill Levine. We’re using one of her books in Sunday School right now, so some of you are familiar. She’s a Jewish professor who studies religion, and in particular, Christianity. She’s written elsewhere that although she doesn’t worship Christ, she finds him compelling—compelling enough to devote an intellectual lifetime to.
Since she often moves in Christian circles, Dr. Levine also gets frequently called a heretic. She bumps up against the certainty—the certainty—that although she is very nice and very funny and very worth paying to come and give a talk—she is definitely going to burn in the eternal torment of hell. People try to make their arguments to her, from scriptures like the one we read today.
When people are trying to argue her into hell, Dr. Levine has this response.
the problem … is that people are attempting to make a logical argument about something that’s not logical at all. And this is category confusion. They’re presuming that faith has something to do with logic, as if faith is somehow like Sudoku. Now Sudoku I can do—it’s logical. Anybody can get the right answer as long as you have a sufficiently logical mind, a pencil, and an eraser, right? You all get the right answer. But faith has nothing to do with logic. It’s not like Sudoku. Faith is like love and love has nothing to do with logic. I love my family because I love my family and I don’t have to give reasons for it, the love is simply there. And sometimes love is completely illogical because I have seen the people my children have dated. So I know what makes perfect sense to them makes absolutely no sense to me… so if we look at religion like Sudoku, like logic, we are in a category confusion. Belief is simply not a matter of logic.”
Many of us would love our faith to be more logical. More firm answers, more clear lists of to-dos and to-don’ts. But Jesus speaks in riddles, as Jewish rabbis often did. God’s presence in our life—God who first appeared to Moses as a fire that didn’t burn, who goes by the name “I am”—is simply not content to fit into our desires. God will not be made small or simple. Growing in faith, then, is the process of welcoming complexity and mystery.
Richard Rohr is a Catholic mystic who penned a book called “Falling Upwards,” about how human spirituality can often be split into two stages: the first, where we strive to be spiritual successes, having the right answers, doing the right things, and the second, where we embrace the messy mystery of God, and are willing to fall, as long as we fall while pursuing God.
“In the second half of life,” Rohr writes, “we do not have strong and final opinions about everything, every event, or most people, as much as we allow things and people to delight us, sadden us, and truly influence us.”
As a full confession, I didn’t love his book when I first read it. Even though Rohr repeats that the second half of life starts for some people at age 10 and others at 100, it still felt like being patted on the head and being told I’d understand when I was older. And I do still think that our lives—and our faith—cannot be broken into neat halves, but that we slide sloppily each day, sometimes each minute, between our need to be right and our capacity to be wise. But I understand more now what Rohr is saying: growing in faith is not about learning more answers to recite, or collecting certainties to throw at others like ammunition. It’s about coming to God in the middle of the night with questions you aren’t even sure how to phrase, and hearing words that don’t make sense, except that there is love in them. Love to save the world.
There is nothing wrong with knowledge, but knowing a lot about God, and knowing God are not the same thing. I hope my friend with the 95 emailed theses will learn that someday.
Dr. Levine tells a story about the death of her mother. Her Jewish tradition has many diverse teachings on what happen when a person dies, but this story is not about what she was taught; it is about what she experience.
“We were sitting at my mother’s bed waiting for the inevitable to happen. My husband teaches religion and I teach religion, and as we’re sitting there, we’re reading stuff and talking to my mom whenever she was awake. And she woke up one night. It was a Saturday evening about five days in and she said, what’s going to happen when I die? So I said, mommy, when you die you’ll see daddy. My father had died decades before. My mother says ‘I look like hell;’ and it was true; she didn’t look great. So I say to my mother, mommy, when you see daddy you will look as beautiful as you looked on day you got married… my mother said how do you know this? And I said, mommy, I have a PhD in religion, I know these things. And she smiled and closed her eyes. A few moments later the machine flatlined. And as we’re waiting for the doctor to come pronounce my mother dead, my husband looks at me and says, “You don’t believe that. I’ve known you for decades and I’ve never heard you say—I’m not even sure you believe in God…I know you like to go synagogue, and pray, but I’m not sure your mind has room for that supernatural material, that mystery, that transcendence.” but when I mentioned that to my mother, I believed every single word. Is it true? I think so, but I don’t know.” 
It takes a lot of strength for any of us to set aside our ego and confess, I don’t know, but I believe. Even more for a PhD in religion. But in those moments, when Amy-Jill was in the presence of death and therefore in the presence of God, she believed that love would win the day.
We only get two more glimpses of Nicodemus in the Gospel of John. After Jesus has been going about Galilee for a while, claiming to be the Messiah, THE messiah, the temple police come to arrest him. But although Nicodemus is a leader among the people, he does not launch an impassioned defense of Jesus; he does not outline ten clear reasons to believe he is the messiah. Instead he asks one simple, open-ended question: “doesn’t our law give people a hearing before judging them?” And though the crowd grumbles, they disperse. The power of a question.
And finally, one last time, we see Nicodemus at the cross, when Jesus is dead, and there is nothing left to be done, and any belief that he was the Messiah is crushed along with his body. But Nicodemus still comes, with one hundred pounds of aloe and myrrh, because he has one last chance to be kind. To be with this man who brought him into the presence of God.
I don’t know if Nicodemus ever believed that Jesus was THE Messiah. I don’t know if he would have said he even wanted to be born anew. I’m pretty darn sure he would not have called himself a Christian. But I do know that something about Jesus compelled him, to keep the possibilities open, to ponder answers that raise questions, and to prize kindness over rightness.
Jesus says to be a child of the spirit is to surrender to a windblown faith. We don’t know where the wind comes from or where it goes, yet we also know—right now, this weekend, we know intimately—that it cannot be gainsaid or argued away. Embracing the wind of the spirit means letting go of our plans, our certainties, and letting ourselves fall in love with Christ—wherever he may take us.
I don’t always know. But I believe.
 Dr. Amy-Jill Levine: “Life After Death: Jesus, Judaism, and Justice.” TheoEd Talks, Nov. 13, 2017.
 Rohr Richard. Falling Upward : A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. 1st ed. Jossey-Bass 2011.
 Dr. Amy-Jill Levine: “Life After Death: Jesus, Judaism, and Justice.” TheoEd Talks, Nov. 13, 2017.