John 3: 1-17
Like most of my colleagues, I try to remain current with the actual state of the Church and its possible future by reading many books and articles. For some reason, it seems these days that I only come across texts like “the 5 mistakes congregations keep repeating”, “7 lessons for ministerial success” or “the 10 characteristics of thriving churches”. These articles are usually well written by knowledgeable people. However, I personally struggle with these reflections because they tend to reduce religion, faith and spirituality to a simple list of visible actions, decisions and characteristics. We know that life in itself is complex and there are many aspects of our existence that are not tangible or can be experienced by our human senses. We cannot touch or hear love, but it surely exists and we can witness its manifestations in our world. In the same way, God cannot be seen or tasted, but we believe the Holy One is present in our midst and works through and beyond our structures, processes and human intellect. Despite the attempt of a few religious leaders of our world, God cannot be boxed, controlled or restricted to only one way to be the Church.
In the Gospel according to John we meet one of those men. Nicodemus was an important person of his society. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, which can be described in today’s term as a mix of our Supreme Court and a legislative body overseeing religious affairs. Without a doubt, Nicodemus was considered a power elite among his people, a leader and an educated man who was chosen to identify acceptable religious structures and norms. In short, he was Mr. Big Shot and he was surely used to being listened to and obeyed.
One night, Nicodemus goes to meet a young rabbi from Nazareth called Jesus. Nicodemus’ goal is not necessarily to debate him or evaluate the accuracy of his faith. On the contrary, he seems to have developed some sort of respect for Jesus by saying, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do (miracles) apart from the presence of God.” For people like Nicodemus, the equation is quite simple. If you can do miracles, you are sent by God. No miracles, not sent by God. How hard is it to understand?, he might have said. Jesus replies that miracles are nice but one has to learn to go beyond them. Human beings cannot truly experience the realm of God with their human senses. We cannot see, hear or touch God’s kingdom. One has to become able to engage our world completely differently, almost as he or she was a new person, as if one was born anew or from above.
I only can imagine our poor Nicodemus listening to Jesus with a very perplexed face, before finally saying, ‘What are you talking about? Born again… like the full adult me... going back inside my mother and then… Are you serious? It does not make any sense.’ Obviously Nicodemus failed to understand what Jesus was saying… as most of us do when faced with similar questions. We live in a scientific and technological world which tells us that everything has an explanation and everything eventually can be understood. We do have today scientific terms and information for what was considered previously a miraculous healing. However, on occasions, when we are confronted to the darkest side of humanity, unexplainable succession of events or senseless tragedies, we often wonder how can these things be. Why did she develop a cancer and not me? Why did he walk into that specific store, at that specific time? Why did they give exactly what this group needed to achieve its goal? Most often, even if we analyze the situation with our minds, use the best technology or ding in our Bibles for some sort of divine explanation, we simply do not know. We cannot put our finger on it. It does not make sense. How can these things be?
Nicodemus struggled to understand Jesus’ message because he let himself be stuck with one level of thinking and could see beyond it. For him, and for countless others in our world today, faith and spirituality is essentially a question of knowledge, doctrines and dogmas. Religion is the visible and quantifiable results of learned behaviours, beliefs and practices. How healthy is your congregation? Just count the number of people who show up for worship on Sunday morning or the amount of money in your bank account. How hard is it to understand?, we might say. However, today’s text reminds us that, yes statistics, money and accomplishments are important, but we also need to look at faith and spirituality from a different angle. Religion is also a question of relationship and spiritual growth. Revelation and inspiration can lead to a new vision and understanding of life. The new world Jesus came to announce can also be experienced through a beautiful musical prelude in church or a few minutes of meditation at home.
Believing in the existence of God ought to be more than acknowledging miraculous signs, visible proofs, extraordinary events, supernatural accomplishments or fantastic phenomena. Our faith and spirituality also have to be anchored in a trustful and faithful relationship with God that often goes above words. It is this hunch, this intuition, this gut feeling that leads us to do things that do not make sense otherwise. Faith is to believe that something can be without receiving any proofs in exchange. It is accepting to live in the “I don’t know” and “I’m not sure” and yet still moving forward. It is accepting that each time we struggle with a difficult question, we might not find one single answer, but discovering many more difficult questions. It is accepting that there is such a thing than a mystery that is beyond our understanding and our wisdom.
For most of us this is really difficult to accept because it forces us to exist in a state of tension between the destination and the journey. It is like going on a walk on a beautiful warm afternoon. There is a part of us that wants to reach our destination or look at our FitBit to see if we getting closer to our 10,000 steps. There is another one that just wants to stop once in a while to look around, take a picture or talk to someone we cross. Even if we tend focus more on our point of arrival than how we got there, both elements are important and essential to our well-being. In the same way, God’s kin-dom becomes a reality when we both practice and live our religion. Jesus’ words make sense when we learn them and go beyond them in our daily lives. We can become a better person, a new person, a renewed person when we are ready to accept to look at life with both our knowledge and experiences.
When Nicodemus went to meet Jesus, was he expecting to encounter essentially an interesting teacher who performs impressive stunts? Was Nicodemus profoundly transformed by his conversation with Jesus? Did Nicodemus actually exist and approach Jesus? I don’t know, but it does not matter to me. Beyond the words of this story, I believe there is a God always looking for ways to reveal self to those who accept the challenge to engage the world from a different angle. Amen.