The Continual Conversion of Love

A sermon delivered to the people of St. John’s Norwood Episcopal Parish in Chevy Chase, MD on Sunday, March 12, 2017 on John 3:1-17 and can be heard here

It was a bright, clear early spring morning in Nashville, and a happy five-year-old donned in a kelly-green shirt came marching into my classroom. “Ms. Kello,” he said with serious excitement, “There is an island. It had snakes. St. Patrick came. Now there’s no more snakes.” And he promptly turned to go unpack his backpack and prepare for the morning, glad as if he had just fully imparted all knowledge of Irish folklore, the nature of sainthood, and the dangers of snakes, but this left me saying, “Wait….what??” It turns out that on the way to school that St. Patrick’s Day, he had a conversation with his father about what St. Patrick’s Day is about, and I was just getting parts of the conversation, the parts that seem to matter and the ones that stuck; I was left several questions.

This is kind of how I feel after hearing our gospel narrative today.
We listen to this story about Nicodemus, who was a prominent Jewish leader, coming to Jesus in the cloak of the night with earnest questions about who Jesus is and all that he says and Jesus seems to dismiss him saying he must be born again before he can understand what Jesus means by his teachings, and we step away from our assumptions and prior experiences with this well-known text andtanner-nicodemus-large say, “wait….what??”Why in this narrative from John’s gospel is Jesus so dismissive of Nicodemus? Nicodemus comes in the darkness of the night to ask Jesus an innocent question after affirming that he knows that Jesus is a teacher sent from God.

In truth, we don’t actually know very much about Nicodemus; this exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus appears only in John’s gospel, so we don’t even have another perspective on this conversation. We know that Nicodemus is learned and powerful; John refers to him in the passage today as “the leader of the Jews,” by which John lets us know that Nicodemus is a leader among the Jewish leadership. We enter into this passage not knowing all the details of Jesus and Nicodemus’ relationship; the lines are already sharply drawn between the two. They speak different languages; Jesus the language of the Spirit, Nicodemus the language of the physical world, and Jesus acknowledges this gap that identifies that they cannot adequately communicate given this gap and the sharply drawn lines. We learn from this tense conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus that we can’t intellectualize our way into faith; to have faith is a matter of being born anew in water and Spirit.

This Christian life requires us to become new. To be born again is to enter into this life as a new creation; this is not something that we control but rather it is what we enter into in baptism and are lead to by the Spirit. This is not a self-righteous proclamation of God’s redemptive power on our life, but it is a transformation by the Spirit. We may come away from hearing about the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus a little confused, but we can look at the context of this exchange, we can look at the fact that belief is not intellectually gained, but is a matter of transformation. The Spirit through our baptism places us in a new reality; this new reality provides freedom and orients us toward something greater and better in life: the knowledge that God loves this world deeply.

Nicodemus - John 3:1-21

When I was moving to D.C. this past summer, somewhere between Abilene, Texas and here I drove past a large billboard with a black background and big, bold white letters that read, “ ‘For God so loved the world.’ – John 3:16 . . . Believe or Else.” While this certainly wasn’t the most dramatic billboard I saw as wound my way from there to here, it certainly left me saying, “wait…what??” Much like my young student, this seems to miss the point. While there is much debate about where the quotation marks should end and whether this was said by Jesus or said by the narrator, it matter little because in John’s gospel, love is the ultimate. The entirety of the Christian life points us to love, according to John; the transformation that is brought about by the new life in water and Spirit is a transformation that is shaped and molded by love.

We work in our spiritual lives to steep ourselves in practices that will continually transform and renew us, especially during this holy season of Lent. We hope to be transformed by the power of this pervasive, powerful love that God has for the world and the movement of the Spirit through our baptism. We meet Nicodemus in this narrative from John on his way to a life of faith. Nicodemus comes to Christ with a question in the dark of the night, hoping for an answer and he finds not an intellectual answer but rather a new way to live life. Nicodemus is not a person that had an interaction with Christ and was immediately changed; the gospels are full of stories of those folks, but that is not his story, his is a slow development. The conversion of Nicodemus happens not through a download of information and intellectual adjustment to a new belief, but rather through a life transformed by love and the movement of the Spirit.

We know this because Nicodemus’ story isn’t done in this third chapter of John with this tense conversation between Jesus. Nicodemus appears twice more in John’s gospel after this exchange; he reappnicodemus-crossears to advocate for Jesus’ right for a fair trail, defending Jesus before the Sanhedrin in chapter 7[1] and publicly confesses his faith as he cares for Christ’s body, assisting in giving a proper burial in chapter 19[2]. After
coming to Jesus in the night with a simple question, Nicodemus’ life is transformed in unexpected and brilliant ways. I doubt that Nicodemus would have expected his life, his stable, prestigious life as a leader in the community, to be spent speaking for someone who couldn’t speak for themselves and for showing a moving act of love to someone who is despised and suffered such a shameful death, but this is the power of a life transformed by love.

 

As we walk through this holy Lenten season, we must ask ourselves what questions do we bring to God in the darkness of the night; where do we hope that God’s response will take us; are we attuned to where the Spirit may lead us during this season? We come to God, we come with our questions and our hopes to seek the truth, but maybe the truth can’t be intellectually gained; maybe it is an experience of being loved and showing love that provides conversion. We must ask ourselves, then, where do we need to be converted to a life of love? Perhaps it is overcoming the frustration with the coworker or embracing, with love, the difficult conversation with that member of the family with whom you disagree so strongly. Maybe the conversion to love is to fully embrace the courage to stand up for the voiceless and the oppressed or to care for the despised.

During this holy season, let us reflect on the questions we bring. Let us reflect on where the Spirit is calling us to live a new life, to be born again, and to live a life so imbued with love that we cannot help but become something new simply by the very act of being loved and loving others.

 


[1] John 7:50-51

[2] John 19:39-40

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