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Sunday, May 27, 2018 | 8:00 a.m.
Lifting the Veil
Senior Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Perhaps it’s that God, who knows us better than we know ourselves, is not content to speak simply to the rational intelligence, but informs us instead through imagination, intuition, wonder, epiphany, in moments of crystal insight and lifetimes of pondering.
Luci Shaw, Breath for the Bones
It was a nocturnal visit. He may have been coming under the cloak of night because he did not want others to see him trying to get a read on Jesus. The rabbi, Jesus, had come on the scene creating quite a buzz, and Nicodemus was curious. He may have wondered if he was a believer, but he likely was still in the dark, so to speak. Or perhaps he came at night because he was a secret believer and wanted to get close to the famous man. Admiration can get the best of anyone. This Jesus was brilliant—a show stopper—stumping even the most erudite among them. But no matter: Nicodemus was drawn to Jesus’ teaching and his signs.
Nicodemus’s own pedigree was impressive: a teacher of Israel, a scholar, leader, theologian, and on the religious supreme court. So, as any scholar would do, he approached the one he considered to be his equal—doing away with the formal accolades—and engaged him at a high level. I think of Nicodemus as someone who would have been a faculty member at a prestigious university. He was absolutely clear about the rules of engagement, knew his stuff, and—with his learned self in place—approached Jesus, addressing what he thought Jesus’ work was based on: teaching and miracles. Nicodemus thinks that faith comes from evidence, from seeing what happens and then drawing logical conclusions. His intellectual argument is tightly constructed—airtight, as a matter of fact—and no wind, spirit, or gale can penetrate this construction. Yes, Nicodemus can appreciate what Jesus does—he can marvel at the miracles, he can see that Jesus heals, casts out demons, turns water into wine, is an astonishing teacher—but what Nicodemus doesn’t seem to realize is that his construct is about to be blown open, swept aside, and reorganized by what is beyond his grasp and control. Reason has its place, but faith only comes as a gift—a gift from God—which is the only true way one can be born anew.
On this Sunday after Pentecost, we are taking up another way of engaging the Holy Spirit. Today’s reading reminds us of the illusive power of the Spirit. The Spirit’s manifestation is not only the fires from on high, but the Spirit’s power is a disruptive power, a disorienting and reorienting power. It takes the tried and true, the assumed patterns, and blazes a new trail. And the new trail is nothing less than one’s whole life undergoing a radical transformation. The past is finished and gone; everything becomes fresh and new. But for many of us—as for Nicodemus—it is very hard to go there, not because we have something against newness, but because we are raised with the assumption that we have to create our lives by the strength of our own abilities. And this is not only an individual assumption but one that is pervasive in Western Civilization.
Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation says, “For postmodern people, the universe is not inherently enchanted, as it was for the ancients. We have to do all the ‘enchanting’ ourselves. This leaves us alone, confused, and doubtful. There is no meaning already in place for our discovery and enjoyment. We have to create all meaning by ourselves in such an inert and empty world, and most of us do not seem to succeed very well.” He concludes, “This is the burden of living in our heady and lonely time, when we think it is all up to us” (Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, p. 93).
Indeed, our encounter with the late-night visit may set in motion our own keen longing to let go, to step over, to be challenged, to wrest our control. This is what it means to establish a relationship with Jesus. We want to come close, look into his eyes, experience the brilliant, and—try as we might—comprehend even a small bit of the brilliant wisdom he holds. It is like the many students I have worked with over the years who stumble across thresholds during faculty office hours and often walk out befuddled, confused, and wondering what has happened to them in the encounter. They wind up in conversations like the one that Jesus had with Nicodemus. They want to be taken to the secrets of the universe, or the universe within them. They have caught some truth or light or wholeness in a lecture or an aside from the learned ones. But they are either quite sophomoric in their approach—parroting the words the professor says but not having a clue what they truly mean—or they are blinded by their own way of knowing—holding onto the keen and astute knowledge and unable to take in any more.
Rather than understanding that faith is a work in progress, that understanding awaits transformation, Nicodemus wants to know what animates all Jesus’ signs and teachings. Jesus, like all great teachers, challenges his “student” to greater understanding. “You have to be born from above,” or you cannot come into the spiritual guild. It was a show-stopper; a stumble for the man whose work in the Sanhedrin was to adhere to correct observance. It is God who is the source of the mysterious. And like the wind, the Spirit blows where it will.
So, how could Nicodemus have shifted his perspective? He and Jesus were certainly talking past each other. Was it birth from above, or going back into the womb and being reborn? Was it about entering the womb or entering the realm of God? Is it flesh to flesh, or spirit to spirit, or what? For the observant Nicodemus whose work was to arbitrate legal battles, this must have come across as double-speak, pure and simple.
And yet it may just be simpler than imagined. It doesn’t take the mind of a legal expert or a learned one to move from the familiar to the new, unfamiliar way of seeing, knowing, and awakening. For many years I have been absolutely fascinated by the way people change. Most often, in my experience, deep, transformational change—that is, the risk of new birth—comes to those who are at their wits end. They admit that they are in the dark, in trouble, lost. The lesson we take from this late-night encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus is that we may glimpse the promise, but are either unable to make our way toward it, or we simply prefer the familiar conflict to a new and unfamiliar resolution.
Twentieth-century theologian Paul Ricoeur provides a very helpful way of understanding transformation. He says, “Beyond rational and critical thinking, we need to be called again. This can lead to the discovery of a ‘second naivete,’ which is a return to the joy of our first naivete, but now totally new, inclusive, and mature thinking.” (Rohr, p. 105.)
This second naiveté moves us from the familiar to the unfamiliar and back to the familiar, but with a way of seeing we never imagined possible. It might have happened at a time in your life when you were in a place that was very familiar to you. It may have been the room in your house that is full of memories or on a beach that your family has gone to for years or your grandparents’ kitchen table. Have you ever had the experience of suddenly feeling like you are seeing it for the first time? Have you ever gone away from it and then come back and opened the door and remembered what you forgot? Nicodemus was confused by Jesus’ words, “unless one is born anew, he or she will not see the kingdom.” As a matter of fact we hear in his voice that sarcastic overtone of the super smart. “Oh, don’t be ridiculous. Do you think a man can be born when he’s old—enter his mother’s womb and be born again?” And at that moment maybe the wind rustled the olive branches outside, or whistled through the house and made the dying embers of the fire ignite for a moment as Jesus pointed to them saying, “It isn’t what you do but what the Spirit—the wind—does.” And we don’t know but maybe Nicodemus felt something he had not felt since he was a child, seeing the beach for the first time; remembering the aging face of his grandfather at the table; or just the feeling of being in that room with this one called Jesus, who led him to the glorious landscape of love.
Jesus tells Nicodemus, and by extension us, that you never know where the Spirit of God will blow, where it will open up new paths for living; where it will make you habitually restless or make you pause to listen in new ways. But the one thing he does assure us of is that we will be swept away by the most astonishing promise that God can give us: no matter where we are the Spirit blows, and though you can hear it, you cannot see it, and it happens to many of us when we least expect it.
This new, spiritually-animated way of living arises from a counter-move, actually, intensifying and deepening what does not make sense—belief in God for instance—and allowing it to sweep over us, stop our thinking for a moment, and let a new idea or insight to arise. Scientists say we are hardwired for the big picture but often we stay stuck because we don’t trust or don’t have the cultural sway to allow it to take up residence in us. The invitation Jesus gives to Nicodemus was to be open to the rush of God’s spirit in such a way that his whole self—body, spirit, and mind—were renewed. Nicodemus couldn’t go there. But even so, light shines out of this story, even so. Because the glory of the one who spoke to Nicodemus—that is, the word made flesh, full of glory One—beams forth with light. And the light is not far off, but its coming is not our doing; the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.
“You must be born anew,” Jesus challenges Nicodemus. Not on your own steam. You must be born anew, fresh from the womb of God’s knowing; coming from mystery and returning to mystery. And in these moments, we must trust that God’s love for us lifts the veil of darkness to glory, so that we don’t have to sneak around at night to try to catch a glimpse of Christ’s face, as Nicodemus did. Instead, we can see Christ in his glory in the faces of those in our lives. And in seeing Christ’s face, we know God and catch the Spirit’s wind. Indeed, the loop closes and then opens, and we see with new eyes—scales falling—and we find such trust in God that we know we are not alone, but are in the gracious keeping of the One who loves us beyond our wildest knowing. You can trust that. Yes, you can. Thanks be to God. Amen.