Sermon for Sunday, May 27, 2018 || Trinity Sunday B || John 3:1-17
About ten years ago, I was a newly-minted priest living in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. That part of West Virginia was much more farm and orchard country than coal country, and the Appalachian Mountains were a good hike west of my town. One Saturday afternoon, I got a hankering to experience some local custom, so I took myself out of my solitary townhouse and headed down to the county fair. It was fantastic – a perfect window into a particular aspect of Americana right down to the fried dough, the pig weighing, and the tractor pull.
As I wandered through one of the tents, a provocative sign caught my attention. It hung above a booth and read: “How sure are you of going to heaven? Are you 50% 75% 100% sure?” Now, I really had no desire to get into a theological sparring match with the man and woman at the booth, but I couldn’t help it. I needed to know how someone might arrive at a 75% surety of heaven. I mean, 75%? It’s an oddly specific percentage of certainty…
I approached the couple, and the woman handed me a tiny pamphlet that looked like a doll’s magazine. The cover sported a yellow happy face and the words, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” Now, before I could tell the woman I had done that (and I preached a sermon about it a few years ago. You can check my archives), something else at their booth caught my eye. It was a wooden box with three small doors emblazoned with another provocative question: “Do you know the three things God CANNOT do?”
My curiosity got the better of me. I really needed to know what they thought God could not do, considering God is, you know, God: the fundamental ground of all being, that which nothing greater can be thought, the Alpha and the Omega, the Creator of all that is, seen and unseen. I failed miserably at keeping the incredulous tone from my voice: “So what are the three things God can’t do?”
The woman opened the first door: “God CANNOT lie.” She opened the second door: “God CANNOT change.” She opened the third door: “God CANNOT let people into heaven who have not been born again.”
We talked for about fifteen minutes. I told them I did not disagree with the first door, but that I preferred to state the sentiment in positive terms: “God always tell the truth” or “God is trustworthy and faithful.” As for the second door, I said that God might not change, but our understandings of God change throughout our lives, and we run the risk of thinking our current view of God is the unchangeable one. This is dangerous because it leads us to remaking God in our own image. At this point the man asked what I did for a living. I told him I was a priest. He told me I was “pretty smart.” It was not a compliment.
At that point, I extricated myself from the conversation, which wasn’t really a conversation at all, but a theological boxing match. I felt so bad on my way home. How could our understandings of the Christian faith be so divergent? Their intentions were good – they wanted to bring people to Christ – but I felt like the impact of their rigid fundamentalism did the opposite. On the other hand, we Episcopalians have a generous and expansive faith that I believes reaches for all of God’s possibilities, but we rarely feel comfortable sharing it like the couple at the fair. Indeed, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the royal wedding last week caused such a stir precisely because the world heard someone evangelize in an Episcopal manner – and it was awesome!
The sticking point here is this: the rigidity of fundamentalism makes it easier to proclaim than the expansiveness of generous faith. It’s much easier to market something as certain than to share a faith built on wonder and practice. And yet that is exactly what God calls us to do. And that’s what Jesus does in today’s Gospel lesson.
Each of the doors in the booth’s “What God CANNOT do” box contained scripture citations, and the third door pointed to this same Gospel lesson, John Chapter 3. That third door said, “God CANNOT let people into heaven who have not been born again.” The county fair proselytizers took this from something Jesus says to the Pharisee Nicodemus: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.” Seems pretty clear at first blush. Seems like Door #3 was accurate after all.
But a second look reveals an entirely different reading of those same words. Some English translations do read “born again.” Others, like ours this morning, read “born from above.” The Greek word could mean either, and I think Jesus speaks it specifically because the word contains inherent ambiguity. You see, he’s trying to break Nicodemus out of his rigidity, the same type of rigidity that leads to banners asking how sure you are of your place in heaven. A few verses later, Jesus speaks another intentionally ambiguous word that could mean either wind or 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.” With these ambiguous words – born again, born from above, wind, spirit – Jesus breaks Nicodemus out of his rigidity and leads him to an expansive faith based in wonder. In the end, the pharisee asks, “How can these things be?”
This question starts Nicodemus on a journey, which ultimately leads him to the foot of Jesus’ cross. If Jesus had not broken Nicodemus out of his rigid understanding of God, Nicodemus would not have made such a journey. Where he went from the cross and tomb, we don’t know, but I like to imagine him sharing the story of his midnight conversation with Jesus so others might embrace the expansive, generous faith that Jesus offered him.
It might be easier to create sound bites for rigid fundamentalism, but the easy way is often not the best way. The world is full of people who have questions and doubts and fears. The world is full of people with unspoken existential dread that they do not have the tools to face. The world is full of people yearning for something, some connection to something greater than they are. People of faith and no faith responded to Bishop Curry’s sermon at the royal wedding because he spoke the truth with passion and generosity, and it stirred the ember of faith smoldering inside each person who heard him.
Our faith might not fit onto a bumper sticker or within a doll’s magazine, but that can’t stop us from sharing our faith: the generous, expansive faith that Jesus shared with Nicodemus. This faith we share opens us up instead of shutting others down. This faith we share embraces new possibilities instead of clinging to the narrowest of old dogmas. This faith we share enlivens us to be about the mission of God, a mission of healing and reconciliation in a world full of brokenness. So share it we will, with God’s help.