Questioning Belief

Second Sunday in Lent
March 12, 2017

1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He 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.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus 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?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The 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.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
  11“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. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
  16“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.
  17“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.” – John 3:1-17

Listen to today’s sermon here:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” – John 3:16

That’s the verse we remember of course. Not just because it’s one way of encapsulating Jesus’ work in a single short and potent sentence, but also because we like a nice ending to the story. But this definitive and memorable statement by Jesus, tends to make us forget that Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus doesn’t end with some kind of conversion moment where Nicodemus falls on his knees professing his complete understanding and undying faith in Jesus. Rather, Nicodemus’s last line in the whole thing is “How can these things be?” All the rest is more of Jesus speaking in, frankly, incoherent metaphors and symbolic speech. And the whole thing just trails off unresolved a few verses after our reading ends, the gospel in a nutshell verse notwithstanding.

Nicodemus appears only twice more in the whole story. Once to advocate for due process for Jesus in front of the somewhat upset religious authorities, and again to help at the burial of Jesus. Neither appearance indicates faith or lack of faith, intellectual understanding or a genuine change of heart, but simply someone who became part of Jesus’ story, someone who brought doubt and genuine questions.

Which is maybe a better, or at least more realistic, summation of a life of faith than John 3:16. A life of questions, occasional, cautious engagement with Jesus, a life that asks over and over again, “How can these things be?”

I worry sometimes that we as the church too often rest in John 3:16 language, by which I mean language that has become so familiar to insiders as to no longer challenge and unsettle us and at the same time so confusing to outsiders as to cause them to walk away shaking their heads. One of the most commonly questioned of those statements is the creed, which centers around a key word that is also at the heart of our gospel reading: “To believe.” In our 21st century North American context, to believe frequently means “give intellectual assent to.” It means to accept facts, to understand in our minds that something is real. But for the writers of scripture, the writer of John’s gospel in particular, believing wasn’t so much about intellectual understanding at all. It was something much more relational. Something akin to trust. Something more like a willingness to be in relationship. Something felt more deeply and much more abstractly than our brains can manage.

So what if we examined our fundamental statement of belief, as Nicodemus might, with deep questions of “How can these things be?”

We confess, “I believe in God the father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” Yet we stand also as people who understand scientific evidence about the big bang and about evolution. How can these things be?

One simple – and I think true – answer is to assign to God’s agency the beautifully complex and awe-inspiring scientific truths of the evolving universe. But this affirmation is much more than that. Because we are people who baptize. People who practice with word and water the reality of God’s re-creation of us. People who can no more than Nicodemus explain with our words and understand with our minds what it means to be born again by the spirit, but who again and again bring ourselves and our loved ones to the water. We who every week renew those promises of baptism in confession and forgiveness. Whether we can understand it with our minds or not, our baptism, God’s repeated expressions of forgiveness, our experience of God’s re-creation of us weaves us into God’s story.

We confess, “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.”

And here is where many of us get caught up in trying to understand with our minds. Human and God at the same time? Virgin birth? Resurrection? Where is heaven exactly? If you don’t ask from time to time, “How can these things be?” then you may want to read more carefully. And yet, here we are, week after week, listening to scripture and one another as the embodied word of God in our midst. We together take bread and wine, eating and drinking together with one another and with Jesus, which makes as much sense as anything Jesus says to Nicodemus when we try to explain it with our minds and with limitations of our words. And yet it draws us here and draws us together and draws us to God and sends us out again. We pray a Eucharistic prayer that recalls highlights of others woven into God’s story until we come to Jesus. And through that prayer Jesus’ story arrives in our present and weaves us into God’s story with that meal.

And finally we confess, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.” And if anything it’s the hardest one of the three to get our rational, intellectual heads around.

But it is here, too, that we believe with the most basic of human actions – our breathing in and breathing out. The spirit, the wind, the breath that Jesus names to Nicodemus isn’t altogether distinct from the breath that fills our lungs. We believe and trust that each breath will keep us alive, will keep us connected to one another and to creation. Not because our minds think our breath into every cell that needs it, but because our bodies simply know what to do with the breath and we’ve done it every moment since we’ve been born, breath by breath being woven into God’s cosmic story.

Ultimately, I think that’s what Jesus is trying to get across to Nicodemus. While making room for his very understandable, very reasonable, very human questions and doubts about things that are beyond his control and understanding, Jesus invites him to live instead from the Spirit that breathes in and out of him, blowing him where it will, calling him to a fresh start over and over again every morning, every breath.

And Jesus ends with what is, for me, an even better verse that John 3:16, the verse that talks not about belief, even the kind of belief that is about trust and relationship, but John 3:17, the verse about the salvation of not just the world, as in the English translation, but the salvation of all that exists – the cosmos, in the original language: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn it, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” I still can’t wrap my head around it, but in water and word, bread and wine, in the very breath we breath, that promise envelops you and me and Nicodemus with all our questions and doubts into the infinite love of God.

-Pastor Steven Wilco