Kent M. Organ, Interim Pastor
Text: John 3:1-17
A team of fundamentalist Christians invaded Shipshewana, Indiana, to bring the lost of Shipshewana to Christ. In front of Yoder’s dry goods store, one of the earnest souls confronted a Mennonite farmer with the challenge, “Brother, are you saved?” The farmer was stunned by the question. All his years of attending Peach Bloom Mennonite Church had not prepared him for such a question, particularly in front of the dry goods store.
Not wanting to offend, and believing that the person posing the question was of good will, he wondered how he should answer. After a long pause, the farmer took out pencil and paper, and wrote the names of ten people who knew him well. All of them were perceptive and honest. And the farmer suggested that the evangelist might ask these people whether they thought he was saved or not, since he certainly would not presume to answer such a question on his own behalf.
* * * *
People who identify with the UCC tradition live quite a distance from the eager evangelist of Shipshewana , a distance both theological and cultural. We would probably flinch in response to the question, “Are you saved?” And as to the matter of being “born again,” we tend to be those whom Henry James described as the “once-born” in religious experience, those who were gradually nurtured into Christian faith, rather than dramatically changed.
It is interesting to realize that if anyone in the Bible ever fit the United Church of Christ profile, it would be Nicodemus: intelligent, well-bred, civic-minded, conservative, cautious. He came to Jesus at night, probably so he wouldn’t be seen talking to him.
Nicodemus is nobody’s fool. When Jesus speaks of the need to be “born again” – that’s the familiar King James translation; the New Revised Version has it “born from above,” or in the footnote “born anew” – when Jesus speaks of the need to be “twice-born,” Nicodemus wants rationality. He fends off this challenge by taking Jesus’ turn of phrase literally, making it absurd: “Can somebody re-enter the womb?” That’s his rejoinder.
I think of my father’s story, of the time when he was a graduate student in religion, and he was accosted on a Chicago elevated train by a man who asked him, “Brother, are you saved?” to which he patronizingly responded, “Brother, are you educated?”
That could have been Nicodemus, not about to be taken in by any flash in the pan evangelist. Still, there is something about this Jesus that nags at him. Too bad we aren’t told more about Nicodemus. Though he appears once more at the end. After the crucifixion, John refers to Joseph of Arimathea as “a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one [out of] fear.” Joseph got Pilate’s permission to place Jesus’ body in his own tomb. And then John adds that “Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came bringing [spices].” Careful Nicodemus, not one to go overboard, nevertheless, never quite able to shake the impact of those words uttered years before in the shadows: “You must be born anew.”
* * * *
Because fundamentalism has set up camp on the phrases, “born again” and “Jesus saves,” non-fundamentalist Christians have tended to shy away from them. I certainly do. Even though salvation is an essential teaching of our faith.
The argument we have with fundamentalism should not be that it emphasizes salvation. The argument is that fundamentalism stops short. Fundamentalism tends to see salvation in terms, rather exclusively, of rescue – the rescue of individuals from – from this world, from eternal punishment, from a fate worse than death itself. Whereas Reformed theology tends to understand salvation as salvation for – for the eternal, but also for life abundant – for God’s created purposes, for humanity’s potential, and working for God’s reign “on earth.”
Bill Muehl used to teach at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta. Muehl had a grandfather who ran a saloon, and was saved by Billy Sunday five times. His grandfather loved to tell about those conversion experiences. His eyes would light up as he talked about his sense of sin, his separation from God, his contrite heart. Sometimes he even wept as he told about the joy of knowing that no matter how low the sinner, Jesus was always waiting to receive him into grace. And then, Bill Muehl says, his grandfather would rise out of his chair, clap one arthritic hand against the other, and say with a grin, “But every Monday morning, there was that damned saloon!”
And that’s the way it is, whether for you and me it’s “that damned saloon,” or some other irresistible, damning temptation. So long as the function of the Gospel is only to convict and then to rescue, there is something crucial missing. Listen to the way that grandson and theologian expresses the positive meaning of salvation: “The function of redemptive love,” Bill Muehl says, “is not to make sinners feel good about the past. The function of redemptive love is to give us back the future.”
* * * *
Billy Sunday used to say that the best thing that could happen to anyone would be to accept Jesus Christ as Savior, and then walk out of the revival tent and be run over by a truck! Now, that might be all well and good if Jesus is only our Savior, but that is not all we claim. Jesus is also Lord.
Now, let’s not get too self-satisfied here. Let’s not slide too quickly past the challenge of “twice-born” religious faith, the challenge to Nicodemus and to us, his kin, who also approach Jesus gingerly and guardedly. “You must be born anew.”
In mainline Protestant traditions, and here at the Trinity United Church of Christ, our approach to faith-development, our Christian education program, has assumed that people become Christians imperceptibly, step by step, that we evolve into faith. We don’t seem to expect that to be a Christian entails a crisis, or even much of a decision. Ours is a “once born” tradition. And there is much to be said for that, for the nurturing of persons within the faith community, confident that through the influence of other Christians, and through God’s Spirit, it rubs off. We grow into faith. Believing becomes a constituent part of who we are.
But it is not enough – never enough – for individuals merely to float along like little paper boats in a current. Because being a Christian involves choosing. And “not to decide is to decide.” Will your engagement with Jesus Christ be such that you, in the stream of life, have a rudder? a compass? a sail? Are our lives touched sufficiently for us ever to dare rowing against the prevailing current?
Real Christian faith is a faith that is claimed, owned, that has some sense of a difference between before and after. “You must be born anew.”
* * * *
But then, what about Monday morning, where there is that damned saloon, or something else every bit as damning? What lies beyond repentance? Or, to put it differently, what does it mean Monday through Friday to say, “Jesus is Lord?”
Jesus saves. Yes. But for what?
In the fullness of the Gospel, Jesus saves me from giving in to my lesser self.
Jesus saves me from judging others more harshly than I judge myself. Jesus saves me from hatred and vindictiveness toward those with whom I disagree, or who have shown hatred and vindictiveness toward me.
Jesus saves me from claiming more forgiveness and grace for myself than I am willing to show toward others.
Jesus saves me from indifference toward the suffering of other people; saves me from ever assuming that someone’s social condition, or economic plight, or health or un-health is simply a matter of God’s will, so that there is nothing I should do to interfere. Jesus saves me from ever accepting evil as the dominant reality.
Jesus saves me from a self-centered view of the world, saves me from ever thinking God loves me more than another, and therefore challenges me to share what I have more readily than I might otherwise do.
Jesus saves me from despair, from ever believing life has no purpose, or giving in to the inclination to abandon hope.
Jesus saves me, finally, for joy, and for the full and abundant life which derives its meaning from knowing that God can be trusted, trusted not only with my sin and my salvation – my eternal destiny – but also trusted to redeem each day from insignificance.
* * * *
Even we can be born anew – born of water, symbol of cleansing, and of the Spirit, symbol of power. We have to respond – as somehow, that night, our brother Nicodemus could not – in order to move from the ranks of Jesus’ admirers to the ranks of his followers. There is always a choice. Think about it.
Lent is a good time for that.
- with thanks to Stanley Hauerwas and P.C. Ennis
For me, the intersection of faith and life is full of insight and surprise. Browse here for sermons and other meditations and musings.