The Rev. Dr. Baron Mullis
March 16, 2014 - Romans 4:1-5; 13-17; John 3:1-17

icon_listen_web   PDF_web

Romans 4:1-5; 13-17; John 3:1-17         

Dr. Baron Mullis
Morningside Presbyterian Church
March 16, 2014


What an odd interlude with Nicodemus, don’t you think?
The rabbi comes to meet with Jesus under the cover of darkness.
His question is simple – how are you doing what you are doing?  By what authority do you do these things?  And yet he comes by night – so as not to be seen, perhaps?
How often do we want just that – to approach faith, and God, and Jesus, hesitantly, under cover of darkness – for fear we might be seen, perhaps?
And then of course the conversation itself is odd.
This short passage of John’s Gospel is hardly short on imagery, is it?  Being born again, born from above… whatever it all means – it’s the sort of passage that seems bent on confusion.
And of course, Nicodemus follows suit.  He, too, is confused by what it all means. Confusion in John’s gospel is by no means an uncommon thing. 
Frequently conversation with Jesus begins with some perfectly innocuous concept and then Jesus replies.
And when he replies what could have been such a simple answer is so often abstruse.  We want clear black and white sometimes, and Jesus gives us not gray, but clay, or cotton.  It makes no sense.
And in this brief conversation, Jesus throws out one of those answers that confuses.  We must be born again.
Being “born again” is such a hard concept theologically.  What does it mean?
For many it means a conversion moment. 
It means that lightening strikes.  Clarity breaks in.  There is a before and an after, spiritually speaking.
It’s the mountaintop, or the Damascus road, choose your metaphor, but for those who have had such experiences, the before and the after are clear.
Perhaps some of you have been born again?
We who have not had such experiences should not be so quick to judge the experiences of others.  Sometimes the gospel breaks through with startling clarity.  God is at work after all.
And sometimes, there is no startling conversion.
For many of us, the road to faith is a gradual one – or an incomplete one.
For me the road to faith has always been one of continual conversion – there is not one moment of clarity for me, but many, and frequently in retrospect.
Perhaps some of you have had such an experience?
And yet, here in this conversation Jesus references a new birth and the church has been divided ever since as to what those words mean.  Indeed, the revivals of the American frontier highlight just how clearly our understanding of the words, “born again” can differ from one another.
The story is told that Henry Ward Beecher, the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe and a renowned preacher and the founding pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis, arrived in Indiana fresh from his East Coast experiences assuming that the normative worship patterns of rather stuffy East Coast Presbyterianism would translate to the more free and open frontier cities of the Midwest…
The story goes that within the year Beecher was conducting revivals and baptizing converts in the White River.
How profound the pressure can sometimes be to conform to a particular understanding of what faith should look like.  How deeply we can feel a pressure to understand things a certain way and to find ourselves within certain parameters of faith.
We had a marvelous discussion this past Tuesday night at Theology on Tap. 
As I was casting about to figure out what to talk about, I stumbled on an article from Time Magazine that one of you had sent to me a couple of years back.  (I hoard things like that… I have file that sits on my desk entitled, “Illustrations in search of sermons.”)
The article was provocatively titled, The Rise of the Nones
For those of you recovering from parochial school educations, we’re not talking about nuns, but rather, the N-O-N-E-S.
It refers to those, who when asked in a survey about their religious background, check the box, “NONE.”
In 2012, social scientists concluded that the percentage of folks who identified as NONES had doubled since 1990 to sixteen percent of the population.
And yet, only four percent of the population identified either as agnostic or atheist.
Indeed, later in the same article, a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey conducted in 2009 reported that when the respondents were asked whether they believed in God or prayed, that forty percent were in fact, fairly religious.  
Which of course puts me in mind of that category that is so often wrongfully maligned in church, the “spiritual but not religious.”
Naturally, at Theology on Tap we began to talk about what we believe – and of course for such orderly people as Presbyterians, we veered toward our confessional statements. 
And of course as orderly people, we have lots of them.  We so often recite the Apostles’ Creed because I have a bias that for a creedal statement to become part of us we have to repeat it.  We have to live with it.  We have to read it.  We have to recite it.
That’s sort of what Moses is talking about in Deuteronomy when he tells the Israelites to bind the Word of God onto their foreheads and place it on their doorways.  He means living with the Word until it comes to live in us.
So I was fulminating about this, and then one of our members said something that stopped me dead in my tracks.  It made me laugh, actually, because it was so true. 
He said, “When I’ve heard folks say why they joined the church over the last ten years, I don’t remember anyone saying, ‘I’ve joined because you have such lovely creeds.’”
I had to laugh because it’s so true!
And I have to wonder as well if that is the heart of what drives the NONES, and what pushes the SBNR.  I have to wonder if the reason that the forty percent who pray and believe in God but still count themselves among the sixteen percent who check the box, NONE, do so because they are afraid of rigid Dogmatics.
How tragic if the church is seen as the place of dogmatics and legalism.
To be sure, Dogma has a place in the church – I know it is unpopular to say at times, but sometimes we do have to be clear about what we believe. 
And as Presbyterians, if we want to avail ourselves of that there’s plenty to choose from.  We have at our disposal the two thick volumes of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, wherein he sought to make faith in God accessible. 
And for the true gluttons for punishment, there is always Karl Barth’s twelve volumes of The Church Dogmatics.
But isn’t Jesus saying more than that?
Isn’t Jesus saying to Nicodemus, the teacher, that in answer to his question seeking to deconstruct Jesus’s authority, that there is more?
It is possible to spend too much time in deconstruction of church teachings and miss the point of the message. 
I stumbled this past week upon an article about Jacques Derrida, a French philosopher who is sort of the father of the deconstruction movement.  And I think Derrida asked important questions.  But in this article, there was a line from a professor that captured so much of what Jesus is addressing in this passage of John where he talks to Nicodemus.
John Caputo of Syracuse University writes,
“I agree that there’s much more to religion than what’s stated in creeds. There are rituals, ascetic practices, moral codes, poetry and symbols. But for most people, believing that God exists entails believing such propositions as that there’s someone who guarantees that justice will eventually prevail, that no suffering is without meaning, that there is a life after death where we can find eternal happiness.”
I think that Jesus is inviting us to worry a lot less about whether our theological leanings one way or the other are justified.  I think that Jesus is inviting us to know him.  
Nicodemus came to Jesus wanting to know what he was about, what defined him, what theology was his driver, and Jesus instead invited him to know him.  Jesus instead invited him to enter into the kingdom that Jesus was proclaiming.
That’s different, isn’t it?
It’s different to be invited to participate in the healing work of the world rather than to be told that the essence of faith can be wrapped up neatly and conveniently into a tidy, logically cohesive package.
No, I have come to believe that following Jesus is much messier than that. 
There’s struggle.
There’s uncertainty. 
There’s a calling to live the right way without much clarity other than that Jesus is the one calling.
In short, there’s the call to be born again and again, and again and again.
Raymond Brown concludes, “Jesus answer is meant to show Nicodemus that Jesus has not come from God in the sense that Nicodemus thought (a man approved by God), but in the unique sense of having descended from God’s presence to raise [men] us to God.”
For those of us who want to be justified in the sense that Paul writes of in Romans, who want to see faith as a mechanism by which we control discipleship, this flies in the face of that.
Jesus invites us instead simply to follow him, the same invitation that Nicodemus received, and in following him to know that our lives will face constant rebirth as we grow into what God is creating us to be.
What a terrifyingly vague, ambiguous, undefined placed to be!
And I have to wonder if Jesus knew that because of what follows next, the 16th verse.
You know the words, “God so loved the world that God gave the only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”
And just in case that is not clear enough for us, the 17th verse goes on,
“Indeed, God did not send the son in to the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved by him.”
Do you know what it means to be justified?  It means to be shown to be right.  Or at least, that’s the way the world defines it.  But God defines it differently.  For God, it means that God sees us like we are Jesus, even though we are not.  Whether we are right or wrong, just or unjust, God looks at us like we are Jesus.  We’re invited into the kingdom that Jesus is proclaiming.  And in turn - in response - we invite Jesus in.  But that has it’s own risks…I love the way Marcella Marie Holloway puts it:
You take a risk when you invite the Lord
Whether to dine or talk the afternoon
Away, for always the unexpected soon
Turns up: a woman breaks her precious nard,
A sinner does the task you should assume,
A leper who is cleansed must show his proof:
Suddenly you see your very roof removed and a cripple clutters up your living room.
There’s no telling what to expect when Christ
Walks in your door.  The table set for four
Must often be enlarged and decorum
Thrown to the wind.  It’s his voice that calls them
And it’s no use to bolt and bar the door:
His kingdom knows no bounds of roof, or wall, or floor.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.

The Rise of the Nones in Time Magazine. March  12, 2012.  P68
THE STONE MARCH 9, 2014, 9:24 PM Deconstructing God by GARY GUTTING
4 Brown, Raymond.  The Gospel According to John. Garden City: Doubleday, 1966. p138
5 Marcella Marie Holloway, The Risk in Divine Inspirations, Atwan, Dardess and Rosenthal, eds.  New York: Oxford, 1998.  P118

Last Published: November 21, 2014 11:48 PM