SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, our leader and guide, in the waters of baptism you bring us to new birth to live as your children. Strengthen our faith in your promises, that by your Spirit we may lift up your life to all the world through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Someone placed a sticker on one of the traffic signs in front of my church that reads: “Spiritual people inspire me; religious people scare me.” I can’t say whether that missive was directed specifically at us, whether the anonymous poster was directed at churches more generally and ours happened to be in the path of opportunity or whether the sticker was placed without any thought about its surroundings. I take note of it, however, because it presses a distinction between “spirituality” and “religion” that is fast becoming normative. I question the validity of the distinction, however. For the life of me, I cannot imagine how anyone can traffic in spirits of any kind without being religious. Nor can I fathom how one can be religious without some connection to spirit or deity. Definitionally speaking, spiritual people are inescapably religious just as religious people are inherently spiritual. Thus, the term “spiritual but not religious” appears to me an oxymoron.
That said, I have listened to any number of people claiming to be spiritual but not religious (SBNR). However much I might disagree with their chosen terminology, I believe they are saying something coherent that deserves the church’s attention. We are being told that we are at best irrelevant to genuine spirituality; at worst, we are a hindrance to spiritual awareness/experience/growth. Though I cannot identify in their expressions of belief any other single common denominator, a few things I have gleaned from my conversations with SBNRs are worth noting.
- Not all SBNRs are millennials.
When you start saying things like, “when I was a kid,” or “back in my day,” or “kids these days…” you know that you have become an old fart. One of the hazards of being an aging baby boomer is the tendency to blame everything, including declining church attendance, on the millennials. Why not? Our parents did pretty much the same thing to us. But the fact is, disenchantment with the church cuts across the whole generational demographic. There are plenty of folks in the adult (read post 55) apartment complex where I live who do not attend church but consider themselves believers in God, morality and the afterlife. They might not use the term “spiritual but not religious,” but it amounts to the same thing. They have some measure of belief in God and they seek faith and meaning, but not in the church or any religious community structure. So SBNR is not a new phenomenon, nor is it limited to the younger generation.
- Many SBNRs have had bad experiences with the church.
A lot of SBNRs have told me their stories of rejection, insult or condemnation at the hands of “organized religion.” This is frequently the case for divorced persons, single parents and gay, lesbian and transgendered people. We all know that, to our shame, there have been too many people physically and emotionally abused by clergy and other church leaders. These folks are understandably angry at the church and distrustful of its efforts to engage them. I have met a number of people now working in the various sciences whose youthful interest in cosmology, evolutionary biology and astronomy put them on a collision course with the fundamentalist doctrines of their churches. Forced to choose between a suffocating dogma that blocked their curiosity at every turn and the academic freedom offered through a secular education, they chose the latter-though at some level, they still feel a need for worship, mystery and awe.
- SBNRs often tend to distrust institutional authority
We live in an age of suspicion and skepticism about the institutions that traditionally have ordered our lives as a community. The bigger these institutions are, the less we tend to trust them. Big government, big banks, big corporations are all frequently perceived as hostile to the interests of common people. Why should big churches be viewed differently? Just as corporate bosses, politicians and Wall Street investment bankers are excoriated for pursuing wealth and power at the expense of ordinary people, so church leaders are perceived as being more interested in preserving their own institutional structures, power and influence than caring for the people they seek to bring in. Critics of organized religion frequently point to the many examples of fraud, bigotry and abuse of power by church leaders. I am often reminded of the corruption and sexual misconduct among the big name evangelists of the 1980s as well as the systemic concealment of sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic hierarchy throughout the 20th Century. Sadly, we Christians have given SBNRs plenty of reasons to be skeptical of our intentions. It is not surprising that they view us with suspicion.
- SBNRs find traditional churches lacking in spiritual depth.
A lot of SBNRs tell me that they “get nothing out of going to church.” That is to say, the church does not satisfy their hunger for meaning, purpose and inspiration. For some of these folks, this is a matter of style. They drop out of more traditional mainline churches only to gravitate toward churches with more contemporary, audio-visual and interactive styles of worship. Others seek a church actively engaged in addressing issues of justice and compassion or exploring in depth the moral and ethical challenges of living in the 21st Century. Instead, they find a closed group of like-minded people whose spirituality is limited to one hour of worship on Sunday, who shy away from controversial and uncomfortable topics and whose activities include only the men’s breakfast, the women’s quilting group and the youth group’s monthly Twister championship in the church basement. They find that people in church are no different from those outside the church except for the fact that-well, they go to church.
- SBNRs are frequently uninformed concerning what the church is actually about.
Let’s face it, ours is a generation grossly ignorant of biblical and ecclesiastical traditions. More and more these days I am running into people who have never been inside of a church before, cannot name even one disciple of Jesus or identify more than three of the Ten Commandments. Much of what some SBNRs actually know about the church and the Bible comes from caricatures they see on TV or in the movies. Frequently, the media uses the term “Christian” when speaking exclusively about the most extreme right wing perversions of Christianity. Consequently, SBNRs who have had little or no actual experience with any particular congregation begin to view the whole church as an intolerant, racist, sexist and homophobic organization that rejects science in favor of simplistic interpretations of the Bible. Sadly, that is true for too much of what is identified as “Christian,” but it is not true of the church as a whole.
6. SBNRs are often spiritually open and curious people
I think it is a mistake to view SBNRs as hostile or approach them in a spirit of argumentation. It does not help to criticize their beliefs (which sometimes border on the nonsensical) or chide them for their lack of understanding or knowledge about all the good things the church does. That only serves to reinforce their perception of the church as a place where people are bullied into faith. SBNRs are generally interested in and open to discussing and learning about Jesus. They share a deep concern for morality and justice. They frequently have a keen sense of awe and wonder they yearn to express. If we can hold in our natural urge to defend the church, get past the SBNRs’ hostility toward the church as they perceive and experience it and instead listen to their concerns, I believe we will discover that we have much in common with them. Recall that many of the folks who followed Jesus were people who did not fit in very well with the religious establishment of their day. If we are patient, opportunities for sharing the good news of Jesus Christ will open up. The best way to receive a SBNR is with a listening ear.
In today’s gospel lesson Jesus receives Nicodemus in just this manner. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, fearful no doubt that his meeting with Jesus will be perceived by his fellow rulers as support for Jesus. Yet Jesus does not judge Nicodemus or accuse him of cowardice. Jesus does not demand that Nicodemus choose between his allegiance to the religious tradition from which he comes and the kingdom of God Jesus proclaims. Instead, Jesus receives Nicodemus and allows him to begin the conversation on his own terms. Their dialogue is honest, yet open ended. Jesus does not seek to silence Nicodemus’ questions with authoritative answers. Rather, he responds to his questions by prompting him to ask better questions. Nicodemus does not come away from the encounter a disciple of Jesus. Nonetheless, we find him speaking up in defense of Jesus when the rest of his colleagues would have Jesus arrested. We meet him again following the crucifixion when he comes forward to give Jesus an honorable burial, whereas Jesus’ own disciples left him to hang dead on the cross.
We never learn the final fate of Nicodemus and perhaps that is intentional on the part of John the Evangelist. Maybe John would have us wonder where Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus finally led him. Perhaps John means for us to ponder the mystery of faith and the unlikely places where it is sometimes found. It may be that John is warning us against dismissing as hostile and resistant people whose spiritual hunger has not yet led them into fellowship with Jesus. I believe we can hear in the story of Nicodemus the echo of Jesus’ words: “I have other sheep that are not of this fold.”
Here’s a poem by Michael Schmidt about faith, skepticism and a church.
When I cannot believe,
The brown herds still move across green fields
Into the tufty hills, and I was born
Higher, where I could watch them as a bird might.
When even memory seems imagined, what
Can I bring to prayer? A pair of knees.
The great faith that built a stair to heaven
As now my memory tries to climb a hill,
Becomes an old stone building, a deaf priest
Whose hand is in the pockets of his parish,
Who longs to buy a bell he’ll never hear.
The water in the font is cold, I trace
A circle on my brow and not a cross.
Source: New and Collected Poems, (c. 2010 by Michael Schmidt, pub. The Sheep Meadow Press). Michael Schmidt was born in Mexico City in 1947. He founded, edited and managed Carcanet Press Limited and served as general editor of the PN Review. He is currently a professor of poetry at the University of Glasgow (UK). You can find out more about Michael Schmidt and read more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
These verses mark a critical transition point in the Hebrew Scriptural narrative. Genesis 1-11 constitutes what might be characterized as an “overture” to the drama that will be the story of Israel. These chapters narrate God’s creation of an earth that is in all respects “good.” Yet human rebellion spoils the goodness of God’s earth, polluting it with violence. Human violence finally brings upon the earth the great flood of Noah, a judgment so catastrophic that, but for the triumph of God’s mercy over God’s wrath, it would have destroyed all. The Tower of Babel represents yet another human act of overreaching that ends with the peoples of the world divided by national identity, language and culture. We are left at the end of Genesis 11 with a humanity alienated from God, divided against itself and at war with its natural environment. It is a world under curse.
But now history takes a new turn. The overture has ended, the curtain rises and the drama begins! God calls Abram and gives him a threefold promise: a land, a people and a blessing. We know that the land referred to here is Palestine, the land of Canaan. But from Abram’s standpoint, it could have been little more than an abstraction. He had never been to this promised land, had no idea where it was or how long it would take him to get there. Abram is to become the father of many nations and, in particular, the father of a new people of blessing through which the world now under the curse of sin will find blessing. Through Abram and his offspring, the alienation witnessed in the prior chapters of Genesis will be undone. Curse will be overcome with blessing.
It is helpful to remember that the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs of Genesis, though perhaps ancient in their own right, were woven together into the narrative we now possess by later authors living from the time of the Israelite and Judean monarchies until after the Babylonian Exile. See post from March 5th. Thus, the stories, poems and genealogies preserved in Genesis 12-50 were selected and arranged with an eye toward illustrating their meaning and significance for Israel’s history, beginning with the exodus from Egypt and ending with the return from exile in Babylon.
With all this in mind, it is possible to see how this ancient tale of a family’s departure from the old country in pursuit of a divine promise has been able to inspire subsequent generations up to the present day. The exiled Jews in Babylon drew from this story encouragement to heed Isaiah’s call to make the long journey home to Palestine knowing that their origin lay in a single family’s decision to put its faith in the summons of its God. As we will see, Paul saw in Abram’s obedient trust in God’s promises the essence of reconciling faith in Jesus. Christian philosopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, also saw in Abram the paradigm of faithfulness. See Kierkegaard, Soren, Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death, translated by Walter Lowrie (c. 1968 by Princeton University Press). The story strikes a chord for all people in every age who recognize in the choices that lie before them God’s call to a deeper, more profound and significant life along an unfamiliar path filled with risk and uncertainty.
This psalm is part of a collection within the Psalter designated “Songs of Ascent.” (Psalms 120-134) While the precise meaning of this title is unknown, it is probable that these psalms were used on the occasion of pilgrimages to Jerusalem by Diaspora Jews visiting the second temple built following the return from Babylonian Exile. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 114. It is important to keep in mind, however, that although these psalms were compiled into this collection following the Babylonian Exile, the psalms themselves or portions of them might well belong to a much earlier period.
Psalm 121 is second only to Psalm 23 in popular piety. Though originally an expression of faith in God’s protection for pilgrims making the long and sometimes dangerous journey to Jerusalem from Egypt, Persia and what is now Iraq, the psalm is also a fitting expression of faith for believers in almost any circumstance.
Some scholars have suggested that the psalm was designed to be read antiphonally with verses 1 and 3 being questions addressed to the priest by worshipers at the holy place and verses 2 and 4 constituting the priest’s answers. This would necessitate translating verse 1 as a question: “If I lift up my eyes to the hills, from whence does my help come?” The second verse would need to be translated: “Your help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.” The Hebrew text does not support such a reading, however, as verse 2 continues in the first person rather than transitioning to the second person. Consequently most English translators reject this reading. Rogerson, J.W and McKay, J.W., supra at pp. 115-116.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills.” Vs. 1. This might be a reference to the “high places” where the “Ba’als” were worshiped. See, e.g., II Kings 23:5. It is also possible that the expression simply reflects the anxiety a traveler passing through a foreign land might feel looking up at the surrounding hills that could well be concealing gangs of bandits or hostile tribes. In either case, the point to be made is that Israel’s God is the source of all help and protection. Weiser, Arthur, The Psalms, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 746.
“He will not let your foot be moved.” Vs. 3. This might be a metaphorical way of saying that God will not allow the dangers of travel to deter the pilgrim on his or her journey. It may also be taken quite literally. A broken or sprained ankle could be a death sentence for a traveler far from any source of food, water and shelter.
“Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” Vs. 4. Therefore, the pilgrim can sleep soundly and peacefully at the stops along the way of his or her journey. The Lord protects the pilgrim both from the blazing heat of the sun and also from whatever malevolent forces might flow from the moon. Like many other ancient cultures, the Israelites believed that over exposure to moonlight could bring about detrimental effects. In sum, the pilgrim can be assured that the God of Israel will “keep [his or her] going out and  coming in.” That is, God’s protection will attend the pilgrim’s journey to and from the holy city of Jerusalem.
Israel’s recognition of the temple in Zion as God’s dwelling place stands in tension over against the recognition that God cannot be contained or confined to any one place, shrine or temple. Professor of Hebrew Scripture, Bernhard W. Anderson, points out that the central sanctuary in Jerusalem is described as God’s “dwelling place,” the Hebrew word for which is “mishkanoth.” The same word is also translated as “tabernacle” or “tent.” Anderson, Bernhard, Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak to us Today (c. 1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. The Westminster Press) p. 197. Thus, the understanding is that God “tents” among his people. John’s gospel picks up on this concept in its prolog where the evangelist declares that the Word of God became flesh and came to “tent” (Greek “eskanosen”) among us. John 1:14. Thus, the confession that God dwells in Zion or is made present in the person of Jesus is not a denial that God is omnipresent. It is rather an affirmation that this God makes his saving presence visible, tangible and approachable to his people.
In last week’s lesson, Paul went to great lengths demonstrating that sin is not the mere breaking of law. Indeed, Paul argues, sin was in the world long before the law was given to Israel. See post of March 5th. Similarly, faith was also at work in the world before the law was given. Paul points out that we know nothing of Abram’s life prior to God’s calling him. We know only that he responded to God’s call in faith trusting in God’s promises. This faith, according to Paul, is the true righteousness. It must be understood that God is not engaging in a fiction here. It is not as though God accepts Abram’s faith in lieu of true obedience to the law-a sort of second best. Faith in God’s promises is not a substitute for true righteousness. Faith is true righteousness. Recall that Paul views sin as an inability to trust God. Whether a person seeks the righteousness/fulfillment only God can give by indulging in lust and drunkenness (as do the gentiles) or by trying to achieve righteousness through obedience to the letter of the law (as do Paul’ Jewish opponents), it amounts to the same thing: unbelief. Sin is a refusal to trust God to do for us what needs to be done.
Paul’s argument is based on Genesis 15:6 where we are told that Abram (Abraham by this point) believed God and God reckoned his belief as righteousness. Some scholars maintain that the “he” who reckons faith as righteousness is not God but Abram. The translation should then be something like this: “Abram believed God, reckoning God to be righteous.” This is a plausible translation. If accepted, it might blunt the clarity of Paul’s argument, but it does not undermine Paul’s conclusion in the least. Though Paul focuses on this particular verse in Genesis, he no doubt has in mind the larger narrative in which God promises Abram a land, a people and a blessing. He has the promise of Isaac in view and probably the terrible test Abram will someday face on Mt. Moriah. Genesis 22:1-19. Though the Torah had not yet been given, Abram lived faithfully, trusting in God’s promises. Such trust in God’s faithfulness to God’s covenant promises equates with righteousness.
The backdrop of Genesis 1-11 also comes into play. Abram, it must be recognized, was one of the “ungodly” scattered across the face of the earth in the wake of humanity’s dissolution at the Tower of Babel. He is in many ways the antithesis of Adam, the man placed in the Garden of Eden, surrounded by God’s favor on all sides. By contrast, Abram will live out his days as a wandering nomad at the mercy of hostile governments, plagued by famine and caught in the crossfire between warring kingdoms. So begins God’s history with humanity, choosing as his “light” to the nations the poor, the enslaved, the barren and the vulnerable. The world will not be redeemed from the top down. Salvation will not come through the movements of emperors and kings, but from below by persons who have none but God to save them and so learn that there is no other who can. That is how the righteousness of God is made manifest.
Nicodemus is described as a “ruler of the Jews,” most likely a member of the Sanhedrin, or so says Professor Raymond Brown. Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel of John I-XII, The Anchor Bible (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 130. At the time of Jesus, the Sanhedrin was the highest governing body of the Jewish people. It was composed of Sadducees, Pharisees and lay leaders of the aristocracy. This assembly was presided over by the high priest. Ibid. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night to avoid any suggestion that he might be associated with him. Such a concern reflects a much later time in the history of the church during which the church’s chief antagonists were not the priestly Sadducees in charge of the Jerusalem Temple, but the local synagogues that became the center of Jewish life and worship after the temple’s destruction in 70 B.C.E. There is clearly a literary scheme at work here as well. The interplay between darkness and light is a recurring thread throughout John’s gospel. Darkness symbolizes the realm of evil, untruth and ignorance. Just as Judas leaves the disciples to betray Jesus entering into the night (John 13:30), so Nicodemus comes out of the darkness to the light of Jesus.
There are some interesting word plays in verses 3-8 that do not come across so well in the English translation. First, Jesus tells Nicodemus that no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born “from above,” which can also be translated born “anew.” Nicodemus assumes that Jesus is speaking of the second meaning and thus his question: “How can one who is old enter a second time into his mother’s womb?” vs. 4. Jesus is speaking rather of the new birth that comes through water and the Spirit. Vs. 5. It is important to understand here also that the Greek word for “spirit” (pneuma), like the Hebrew word (ruach), can also mean “breath” or “wind.” Thus, Jesus makes the point that, just as the wind cannot be seen or traced or controlled, so the Spirit of God blows where it wills. One born of the Spirit is one who is born into the community of Christ, the church. This dialogue, then, prefigures John’s account of the disciples’ receipt of the Holy Spirit following the resurrection when Jesus “breathed on them, and said ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” John 20:22.
The term “Kingdom of God” is commonly used throughout Matthew, Mark and Luke, but John uses it only twice and only in this chapter (vss 3 and 5). Possibly, the term is part and parcel of older oral or written traditions about Jesus that John has incorporated into his narrative without alteration. Ibid. p. 130. Or perhaps John intentionally makes this rare use of the term because it fits in with the global scope of this particular dialogue. Jesus utters in verse 16 the words we all memorized in Sunday School, namely, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that whosoever believeth in him shall not die, but have everlasting life.” (KJV). It is for the entire world that God sent the Son whose reign for the sake of that world is properly described in kingdom language. Perhaps it is best to read this verse in concert with Jesus’ prayer in John 17 where the life of the church is so beautifully described as a testament to what God wills for his whole creation: that all may see in the disciples’ love for each other the love of the Father for the Son and, in the Son’s sacrifice, the Father’s love for the world.
Nicodemus is an interesting character. His is a Greek name meaning “conqueror” or “ruler of the people.” This has led some commentators to opine that he is not a real person, but only a literary foil created by John to represent the Pharisees. Consequently, we have in this dialogue a conversation not between Jesus and an individual, but between the Johanine Church and the Synagogue. Most commentators reject this view and maintain that John, while certainly speaking to his own contemporary context, is nevertheless making use of traditions received from the early apostolic ministry. As the name Nicodemus was in common use throughout the first century, there is no reason to suppose that its use here is allegorical or figurative. Nicodemus is clearly drawn to Jesus, but is not willing to become Jesus’ disciple. He pops up again in John 7:45-52 where the Sanhedrin lambasts the temple police for failing to arrest Jesus. Nicodemus suggests that Jesus is entitled to a hearing before being judged. He receives a stinging rebuke. We meet Nicodemus one last time in John 19:38-42 when, following Jesus’ crucifixion, he and Joseph of Arimathea (a “secret” disciple of Jesus), go to Pilate for permission to give Jesus a proper burial.
Whether intended or not, there is no little irony in that these “secret” followers of Jesus are the ones who find the courage to approach Pilate on Jesus’ behalf and risk association with Jesus, whereas his open followers remain in hiding. Though John criticizes believers who will not confess their faith for fear of social rejection (John 12:41-43), he does not write them off altogether. Discipleship is, after all, a journey. The seeming coward sometimes finds courage s/he never knew s/he had to do extraordinary things, while those who boast of going to the cross with Jesus fail him when the time of trial comes. John 13:37-38.