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.”
When tucking young children into bed, they may share many ways to stall having to go to sleep. They need a drink of water, another hug, one more book read or another stuffed animal tucked under the covers. But many kids are also afraid of the dark. When when they grow up, the fear usually abates. But night and darkness still have a sense of mystery as compared to a day of sunshine and blue skies where you can see every detail all around you.
It’s no coincidence that Nicodemus seeks Jesus out at night, is my guess. The symbolism of a nighttime inquiry of Jesus from a religious leader adds to the drama and alludes to the darkness that comes before the enlightenment of learning and new knowledge. I picture Nicodemus stealthily moving in the cover of night to find Jesus to get first hand clarification on the new teachings that are spreading around the area. Questioning the religious leadership was not a common or allowable circumstance. But Nicodemus must have had a thousand questions about the gospel of love and acceptance being taught by Jesus, throwing all the rules the Jewish people held as sacred, right out on their ear. And the fear of the unknown must have been overwhelming as Nicodemus worked to get a better understanding of how his life as a Pharisee would be changing. What a brave move to confront his fears and seek deeper understanding of Jesus!
Jesus’ words in this week’s Gospel reading from John are some of the most famous words of the Christian faith shared throughout the world. “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.” I remember seeing a colorfully wigged man at nationally televised NFL games with a big poster with John 3:16 painted boldly on it (some pretty persistent evangelism if you ask me!) and we used to hear the verse every Sunday at church from the Priest just before the passing of the Peace. It is one of the greatest summaries of our faith. Through love, we are promised eternal life; our earthly lives are not all there is to our existence. Another mystery really, as our human brains can’t even understand what that really means for us.
But as we read the Word, spend time in prayer and listening to God and do his Kingdom work with love in our daily lives, the darkness of our limited imagination begins to be illuminated with the wisdom that comes from a deeper relationship with Christ. Nicodemus knew how to be religious leader before Jesus came along and cast doubts on his way of living. He was brave and went looking for answers. He heard radical things that most likely felt contradictory to what he might have always believed. This reading doesn’t share what Nicodemus did with this new-found knowledge and command for living; but we Christians have access to Jesus’ teaching. We have to keep learning about and practicing our faith to stay out of darkness. Do not be afraid of stepping out in faith; be more afraid of what will happen if you don’t.
God of light, push away our darkness and our fear and show us the way to live faithfully in your love. Teach us your ways and help us walk with you every day in the light of your gifts of grace and mercy. We are not worthy but gratefully accept the gift of eternal life and perfect healing in you, O Great Redeemer! AMEN.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
Love for Enemies
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Sometimes (or maybe all the time and I’m too thick-headed to see it clearly), all the readings in the lectionary line up and a Big Picture Idea jumps off the page and sparks an idea. This week is that time for me. Here is a link to all the readings if you want more than just today’s Gospel reading. For me, the message I hear loud and clear is to “Be Brave.”
All of this week’s readings are full of do’s and don’t’s; there are some that are suggestions and some that seem pretty black and white no-no’s. And I think most “come to church every week Christians” really feel comfortable in the rules that are spelled out. Especially the YOU SHALL NOT ones – man do we love to hang our hats and identities on those! This claim of Christianity often struggles to stretch beyond the rules and leaves us incomplete in our attempts to follow Christ.
I have a friend who teaches Kindergarten. He is a compassionate and committee educator and the students who are lucky enough to be in his class every year learn lessons far beyond the required curriculum and state standards. He is innovative and diligent in creating a classroom environment where all students are compelled to excellence. I refer many educators to his blog because he discusses issues in ways that help all educators reflect on their practice. But my very favorite topic that is a thread throughout all of his written discussions, his professional development presentations with other educators and especially, with his students, is his one and only classroom rule: Be Brave.
Now, you might think that schools should always spell out to students the exact expectations for their behavior, much like the rules from Leviticus do (in extensive and figurative language, of course!), but imagine instead that all of those rules fall under that very broad umbrella of being brave. Jesus makes some pretty radical statements in today’s Gospel reading from Matthew about how we are expected to treat the people who are the hardest to love – those who wrong us, cheat us, lie to us, repel us and challenge us. They were even more radical back in Jesus’ day, as the cultural rules and governmental laws actually forbid the very things that Jesus calls us to do. To follow his example and heed his command to love one another is really quite brave. Courage is an under-appreciated quality to have when we make the commitment to follow Christ. I still think some rules are important (speed limits, as an example), but the reason we need them spelled out for us by God and our government is because when we rely on ourselves to keep us in check, we just fail and fall short of loving one another.
Loving one another is not a feeling. It is steeped in action. Love as a feeling is fleeting and shallow; love as action is life changing and living out the call to bring Christ to the world. It takes courage and bravery because it is not easy to do! When my teenager says those things that she does that cut me to the core, when a parent at school yells at me for a problem completely outside my control, when my husband lets me down, when a hurting person lashes out in anger – responding with love is not my first and most primal response. And I’m not very good at the loving response that Jesus calls us to have. My other cheek is in self-preservation mode! But when we respond back in anger or selfishness or withdraw our outreach and offer judgement instead of love, then we aren’t being very brave!
To quote Chris Rosati, a victim of ALS profiled on the show CBS Sunday Morning, “If I have enough time, I’ll change the world,” it is our jobs as followers of Christ to love with reckless abandon and be very, very brave. Brave enough to strive to be perfect. Because any less than that implies that our love won’t be shared with everyone. Changing the world is exactly what this radical love will do. Now go out and BE BRAVE!
Lord of love, your reconciled us to you with the gift of your Son, Jesus Christ. We don’t deserve the grace and mercy you give us every day and we long to be perfect in our love for you and for our brothers and sisters in Christ. Help us to be brave and courageous in our love for your people. We can do all things through you. AMEN.