“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world,
but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
One of the saddest comments I hear on a regular basis comes from my 89 year old father-in-law, Neil. Without fail when either my husband, David, or I visit him, at some point in the conversation he says, “I hope I go here (pointing upward) and not there (pointing downward).”
Even though my father-in-law gave his best as a husband and father of six; worked tirelessly in retirement caring for his disabled brother, ailing wife and many others in the community who were facing hard times; and not only met his religious obligations, but exceeded them – attending Mass daily for as long as he could, reciting the Rosary whenever he could, my loving and generous father-in-law Neil still deeply worries that when he dies, he will be condemned.
How could this be?
“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world,
but in order that the world be saved through him.”
In today’s Gospel story, the religious leader Nicodemus recognizes that there is something about Jesus that calls to him – that Jesus actually conveys the presence of God.
Nicodemus was part of a religious system that claimed to know THE way to God:
Here are the rules, follow them, and you will be saved. This system purported to offer a clear, God-established path to right living. Follow the system, heed its leaders, and you will know God. Step outside and question the system or its leaders and you will be condemned.
For this reason, Nicodemus needed to approach Jesus discreetly. Here was someone, Jesus, who did not seem to be following the rules as Nicodemus understood them,
who was definitely not going along with the religious leaders of his time, and who was comfortable with questions – both receiving them and giving them. And, yet, Jesus conveyed the presence of God.
How could this be?
It’s likely that many of us – though definitely not all of us – grew up at a time where most everyone we knew – our family, our neighbors, our classmates – shared in the same culture and religion. When that is the case, when we grow up surrounded by people who accept religious beliefs and practices as handed to them, it can feel excruciatingly dangerous to question any of it. If we grow up thinking that “our way” is THE “right way, “ the “ONLY way,” we face nothing short of an existential crisis should we even begin to question any of what we have been handed. This is a problem at least as old as the time of Jesus that can cause religious injury – incredible damage to our very sense of self and sense of God. Religion becomes toxic when teachings and practices rooted in love are blended with fear.
I can only imagine that if Jesus were to return to earth and see how many of his followers have set up systems that condemn those who do not follow the path they have created in his name that he would be beside himself. “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Religious systems that condemn certain people (whether inside the group or outside the group) in the name of God cause religious injury. This phenomena is likely why so many people in our culture have turned away from religion. Why stay in a tradition if we or those we love have felt “less than” or condemned because of our gender, sexuality, choices, or inevitable human imperfections? What damage and even violence has been done to the people of God (and the creatures and planet) by those who would put God in a box of their own creation? And want to put everyone and everything else in the same box, or else?
At the heart of the discourse between Nicodemus and Jesus is a conflict about the nature of sin, the nature of falling short, of missing the mark. In the worldview of Nicodemus, sin leads to condemnation. This is the same worldview of every exclusive, fundamentalist branch of the great religious traditions – whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or any other – that says “We know right belief; We know right action; We know who is in and we know who is out.” If you sin, you might be forgiven. But don’t count on receiving your eternal reward. You might go here (pointing up) or you might go there (pointing down).
When Jesus references the story of Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness, he is telling a story about sinfulness that all of his listeners would immediately understand. Unfortunately it’s not a story that we immediately understand.
Remember that Moses and his people were in the wilderness, a place of extreme vulnerability, for forty years. The people began complaining that when they followed Moses out of Egypt, God was not providing for them what they expected. God guides Moses to place a serpent, a symbol of their sinfulness, high on a pole for them to look at, to literally face up to. The idea is that by actually looking at their sins, by facing their actions, God’s grace would be present to transform them. God would help them bring new life out of formerly destructive ways. This is the same dynamic present in 12 step groups. People admit their problems, turn to God for help, make amends, and then help others to do the same.
In other words, out of love God invites us to look at our sins so that we can be free of them; God’s love is so great that God promises to be with us to help us change those sinful patterns that grow out of our brokenness and our fear. (At the opening of the service, we sang “Kyrie Eleison” – Lord have mercy. The root meaning of mercy is “womb love.” This is how God loves us. Sue gestures a big embrace.)
God waits for us, like Jesus waited for Nicodemus, to come to him when we are in darkness, not to be condemned but to be offered new life. God wants to work with us in the midst of our brokenness and sinfulness that we might experience the fullness of eternal life, a term the Gospel writer uses to mean God’s presence with us. All we have to do is to turn to God, admit where we’ve gone wrong and ask for help.
The lie that religiously injurious systems tell and enforce, is that certain people – not only because of what they do, but because of who they are – are somehow outside of the realm of God, bereft of grace and favor, condemned. And it is the leader or the leaders of these systems who know who is in and who is out; who is saved and who is condemned. They are the gatekeepers.
In contrast, Jesus says “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit… 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.”
Rather than making the claim that access to God’s kingdom, access to God’s presence, is based on what we can know, Jesus says the opposite… that NOT KNOWING is the path; that returning to a state of consciousness like a newborn: a state of consciousness that is open, trusting, and sees with fresh eyes is the path to God’s presence with us. And this path is open to everyone.
This Lent, the encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus offers some important lessons for our spiritual lives.
A first lesson is that like Nicodemus we are called to set aside time to be with Jesus through prayer and reflection. Whether we make time for Jesus at night, in the morning, in the middle of the day. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that we approach God with a seeker’s open heart and mind. Nicodemus brings his questions to Jesus and listens for answers. Through spiritual practice, we can do the same.
A second lesson is that we are called to be born of the Spirit. Rather than allow our concepts or doctrines about God to box us in spiritually, we are called to return again and again and again to the consciousness of a newborn – open, receptive, trusting, accepting and loving. Not locked into narratives of our own making about the past or worried about the future.
And in those very human moments when we feel fearful, threatened, reactive or in any kind of distress, when we feel tempted to allow our ego or our wounds to lead the way, we can instead pause, breathe, and remember that just like a precious newborn, we are beloved of God. (Sue gestures embrace again) Lent is a time for us to try dropping those narratives we are so attached to that hurt ourselves or hurt others and instead practice seeing in a fresh way. We might even take to heart the words of Thich Nhat Hanh: Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.”
At heart, the spiritual life is not about following any set system, rules, or doctrine – it’s about allowing ourselves to be reborn each day, to be open and receptive to God’s call in our lives and to trust that the Spirit is alive within us with every breath.
A third lesson for our spiritual lives this Lent is that we are called to look at our sinful patterns – both as individuals and as members of society. We do not do this because we are condemned, but because we can face up to our wrongdoing in the presence of a God who loves us and wants us to enjoy fullness of life. Our greatest growth as human beings can come when we look at the ways we habitually hurt ourselves, others, or our beautiful planet and then seek ways to bring healing and restoration.
Condemning someone for sinful behavior is simply not the way our forgiving God responds to us. Instead, we are called to face up to, to deal with our destructive habits, our sins, so that we can change – or perhaps even save – our lives. If we do not pause to look at those thought patterns or behaviors that we would prefer to ignore because it feels too painful or feels too difficult, it is unlikely that we will change our ways. But, when we courageously look at our sins, as the Israelites in the wilderness with Moses did, our God is there to meet us, strengthen us, and show us a new way.
Finally, the encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus points to what is at the core of any authentic spiritual life, love. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him, who follows his way, may not perish but may have eternal life.” The whole purpose of the Christian life, of the spiritual life, is love – to receive God’s love and to share it with the world that God loves.
My father-in-law may never be convinced that he merits eternal life, the fullness of God’s presence in this life or at his death. He may never be able to see that his loving actions are actually a sign of God’s presence and favor. But as I look at him, I see someone who did his best to believe, to follow, and to love. How different might Neil feel about his life and his death if he could see that in all of his loving actions and even all of his sinful actions,
God is present in a love that will never let him – or any of us – go. (Sue gestures with an embrace again.)
May we see that we are born of the Spirit of love. Amen.