When I was a teenager, growing up in Salem, Oregon, there used to be a man who would stand on street corners in the downtown area, yelling about the end-of-times and passing out pamphlets. My friends and I all knew that if we hurried past him in a small herd, he would leave us alone. So most of the time this is exactly what we did.
Unfortunately for me, one Saturday afternoon, when I was about 16-years-old, I was separated from the herd. Or maybe, going to meet the herd. I honestly don’t really remember why, but I was walking by myself. And the Street Corner Proselytizer pounced.
He blocked my way, shoved a pamphlet at me, and asked “Have you been born again and accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior???!”
Seeing how I couldn’t get around him I figured I’d have to speak, so I answered, “Yes??”
Apparently my answer was unconvincing because he replied – “Have you, have you really? Don’t lie, young lady, God will know. You don’t want to be damned to hell for lying!”
The snarky thought that ran through my 16-year-old mind at the time was “TOO LATE!” In a moment of uncharacteristic restraint I did not say this, instead, my response was, “Dude, I’m a Lutheran.”
He got this look of disappointment and resignation on his face, and moved on to the next unsuspecting passerby. I promptly recycled his flyer (yes – Green Team, in the mid 1990’s, Oregon had public recycling containers) and I walked on. I’m not really sure if my Lutheranism meant that I was saved and therefore a waste of his time, or if it meant that I was so far gone, I wasn’t worth his time. Regardless, on that day, I was incredibly grateful to be a Lutheran.
Pastor Matt Lenahan addressed this morning’s Gospel with this thought: “Faith involves mystery, questions, uncertainty, and conversation.”
I can’t think of a more true statement to frame this encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, who came to Jesus under the guise of darkness with questions. It’s unclear if Nicodemus is skulking over to Jesus at night on his own, because he is curious about Jesus and doesn’t want anyone to know, OR if he has been sent as a representative and the darkness that John refers to is actually Nicodemus being in a state of unknowing. Perhaps it’s a combination of both.
The fact that he says, “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” would indicate that he is speaking on behalf of himself and others and that THEY want a concrete answer as to whether or not Jesus is from God.
Unfortunately for Nicodemus and the rest of “them”, in this particular Gospel Narrative, Jesus rarely gives anyone a straight answer. In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ response to
questions is to answer with seemingly random statements that don’t really answer anything.
During my summer Clinical Pastoral Experience, also known as CPE, we were taught not to answer questions for people, but instead have them answer them for themselves. “What do you think?” “How does that make you feel?” Help others discover answers for themselves rather than just feed it to them.
That’s what Jesus does with Nicodemus. He CPE’s him. Jesus tells him “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” What does that mean??? Nicodemus immediately latches on to the idea of being born and fixates on how a human adult cannot be born again. Because we are all born from a woman’s womb and an adult can’t go back and do that over.
As the conversation continues Jesus tells Nicodemus that no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. Nicodemus again most likely would have taken this to describe a physical birth – waters break, a child is born, and that child takes its first breath. Water and Spirit.
But this is not what Jesus is referring to. Jesus is speaking to our rebirth – our moment of being “born again” in the waters of baptism. For many, this occurs at infancy. For some, such as myself, it happens in early childhood, and for others it is much later. Regardless of when it occurs in Baptism God reaches down to us, establishes relationship with us, claims us as God’s own children, as members of God’s family, and we are born again into this new life.
We know this. Nicodemus did not. As the conversation progresses Jesus continues to give vague and confusing answers and even tells Nicodemus that he doesn’t understand earthly things, so how can he expect to understand heavenly things???
What is going on here? Why is Jesus being THAT GUY??? You know the guy – the one who spouts off things that sound profound, but no one really knows what they are talking about? What purpose is he trying to serve???
In regards to this interaction, The Rev. Dr. Phil Ruge-Jones said this: “What if Jesus is not trying to bring Nicodemus to a place of certainty, but is nurturing Nic’s own sense of the uncertainty and living questions. I am thinking about how much rhetoric of being born again suggests that now the speaker understands all things. This is the opposite of what it means to be born. At birth we know nothing and are just beginning.”
So maybe Jesus isn’t being THAT GUY. Maybe in this whole confusing exchange he is trying to get across to Nicodemus that he doesn’t need someone else to give him all of the answers. He needs time to ponder and question and for his faith to grow through that questioning. That even if a concrete answer was immediately presented to him, he probably wouldn’t accept the truth.
I think we all are a bit like Nicodemus. We think that we should have all of the answers. And like Nicodemus and the Street Corner Proselytizer we prefer concrete answers. Yes or No! Facts that we can pinpoint. Keep it simple. We think that we must understand all things when it comes to God and faith and if we do not, then we are somehow lacking.
I’ve seen this repeatedly through the years as I’ve served in Child, Youth, & Family Ministry. Parents who are afraid to have intentional conversation with their children about God and about faith because they are afraid they won’t have an answer to a question. We are afraid to say – “I don’t know.” We forget that faith involves mystery, questions, uncertainty, and conversation.
In our Gospel this morning Jesus reminds us that questions are everything when it comes to faith. And answers are honestly not really necessary and sometimes block our ability to see truth for ourselves. What we think we know, or what we are afraid we don’t know, gets in our way and we are blinded or paralyzed with fear of uncertainty.
So how do we move beyond this? First of all, we talk about it. With our friends, with our family, with our church community, with our children. The more we discuss faith, the less intimidating it becomes. We ask questions, we answer questions, we encourage questions. We utilize the resources before us – literature, theological writings, people who know things. Grace has a group called Questions Not Answers that meets to ponder and discuss tough topics. Join them sometime.
We think. We pray. We gather in community to hear the Word and to share Sacrament. We embrace the mystery. We grow more comfortable with uncertainty. We tell our inner Street Corner Proselytizer that concrete answers are unnecessary. We embrace and grow more comfortable with the phrase “I don’t know.”
And in this process we will more fully know, appreciate, and understand the loving and forgiving God revealed to us in Christ Jesus.