By The Rev. Dr. Roy W. Howard
Several years ago, I noticed something peculiar happening to me, as well as many of my friends and colleagues in the church. It wasn’t that we were getting older – or slower – or, in my case, grayer on top. No, something more subtle was happening.
I NOTICED WORDS WALKING OUT ON ME. Good, strong words that caressed, nurtured, and supported me nearly all my life; the same words that had shaped a vision and given form to my hopes had slowly slipped away. And I let them go. Words like: holiness, righteousness, evangelism, charismatic, even the word gospel – one by one a steady stream of life-shaping and life-giving words walked out the screen door of my house of faith. After a while I learned to live without them, and so did most of my friends and colleagues; better, we thought, than to be misunderstood as a religious nut.
The estrangement didn’t occur overnight; broken faith never does. Slowly, these perfectly good, strong Biblical words just walked right out the door and I let them go. I, the disenchanted lover, let these once beloved words stroll away. I barely said goodbye when I heard the screen door slam behind them. How did I know that I had lost them? I knew it when I found myself wincing with embarrassment each time I said one of them in public. The strange thing is I noticed these faithful words being sent out of other Christian homes. The words that once seduced us with holy vigor into the community of faith, but that are now banished from our lips, are welcomed as refugees into the glad embrace of those who turn words to wood, and then use them as weapons against others. It hurts the most when I hear these beloved banished words rolling smoothly off the tongues of Christians who have stripped them from their contexts and use them for personal gain. And we who let the words of life go into the arms of their exploiters are tongue-tied and unable to say a word of personal faith because we have lost the words that sing us home.
WE WHISPER “EVANGELISM” AS IF IT WERE THE PRACTICE OF SOME STRANGE, ANCIENT CULT, NOT THE JOYFUL PROCLAMATION OF THE GOOD NEWS. We’ve forgotten that evangelists were simply those who went about telling stories of glad tidings of God’s all embracing love. Holiness sounds to our ears hopelessly arcane. We don’t even know how to say “Jesus” without worrying that someone will think we belong to Jerry Falwell’s club. So, sadly, the old words hang from the walls of faith like bearded-elders to kindle a nostalgic feeling of the way things used to be.
I suspect the loss of Biblical language signals something deeper than the loss of poetry. Of course, poets without words are a sorry lot, and isn’t that what the tellers of Good News are – poets? I suspect that the old words left me because my faith was faltering and being replaced by a culturally accommodating civil religion. Regardless of the cause, I am in recovery and have been for years. I want to recover the words that gave us life and formed us in a lively, risk-taking faith.
In this search for a lively faith, I find great empathy with Nicodemus. He was a good man – an intelligent, sensitive, strong leader in his community – and an active participant in weekly worship. He may have been wealthy but he didn’t show off. He was certainly not poor. So let’s call him moderate and middle-class and, as someone recently described him, “the patron saint of seekers.”
A HOMILETICS PROFESSOR SAYS: “Richard, in my assessment, as a preacher and as a teacher of preaching, I find the exegesis in your weekly sermons to be excellent, balanced, very complete. I would not like to see it changed in any way.”
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Nicodemus encounters Jesus and his whole life is thrown into turmoil. He is unable to deny that he senses the presence of God in Jesus even though it contradicts everything his religion has taught him. Some things take more effort to deny than they do to admit. Nicodemus couldn’t deny what he sensed but neither did he have the courage to raise his questions in public. Like Nicodemus, our deepest questions about authentic faith, life and death, meaning and purpose remain unspoken and, as long as they do, like Nicodemus, we remain profoundly unsatisfied. A fault line stretches between what he professed in the daylight among friends and what he wondered about at night. Nicodemus lives along that fault line. So do I.
As our friends in California know very well, fault lines sometimes give way to earthquakes.
The ground trembles within Nicodemus. The good man shakes because the scripture he has known since birth is coming alive in strange, dangerous ways. He can’t deny what he feels in the presence of Jesus, so he follows his question to the source. Shall we, gazing upon the patron saint of seekers, follow our questions until they bring to the source of life?
Under the cover of darkness, Nicodemus may have assumed he could keep the conversation with Jesus on his terms. He would go home with his questions answered and his life undisturbed. Then he could go on with his normal religious life. But Nicodemus finds that his questions have led him to a most vulnerable place. New life at an old age? Why such riddles? Uncontrollable winds that roar through the soul and fill your life with Holy Spirit? What’s going on here? Wait a minute, sir. What have done with my religion?
Jesus speaks of a new birth from the Spirit, and we, with Nicodemus, are induced into labor. Any who has given birth knows that neither the labor nor the birthing is without pain. Nicodemus discovers quickly that he can’t control his encounter with God or even the course of his life.
What on earth are you talking about, he asks Jesus in desperation. Jesus’ language doesn’t make sense, so Nicodemus resorts to literalism, that last bastion for those who would keep God in a religious box. How can I reenter the womb? he asks. Literalism is a way to keep things safe on the page or in the head, but certainly not in the heart. But, Jesus is not interested in a safe religious conversation – not then and not now. Then and now, he is interested in the transformation of your life and mine. The Nicodemus who lives within me trembles because I know that to believe seriously in Jesus is to yield everything – to lose my religion and to be born again. This is risky business. How can this be? Nicodemus cries out in holy labor. Indeed, how? Do you see the top of a little head coming down and now nearly being born from the Spirit womb?
JESUS SPEAKS AND WE WHO WOULD BE BORN LISTEN. No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. The fault line cracks right down the center; grace shatters the fetters of safe religion. He says the most radical thing of all: if you believe in me you will emerge from the womb of the Spirit wet with the newness of life. A whole new person you’ll be. And we cry out: How can this be?
Nicodemus was schooled in the ways of religion and civic virtue. So am I. Nothing in religion or virtue can prepare you adequately for an encounter with Holy One. All that is required is the willingness to believe that the God of scripture may also be present in life – the willingness to believe that love revealed itself in Jesus. Nicodemus stands there in the night and feels the wind blowing across this face.
Do you suppose this is all that is required of you to be born anew? Not once, but again and again? Is this all that’s required: to come timidly at night or to come boldly in the day to ask of God, how can this be? How can it be that you or any of us who are nursing secret hurts and fears, nagging insecurities and embarrassing private sins can ever change? We have grown old as we are. How can we be anything else?
This is the heart of the matter isn’t it? Believing that you can be born anew is but a short distance from believing in the One whose love is capable of saving you. That belief will send you shooting right out the womb into a new life. Salvation is what the ancients called this life-long process of being made whole in God. It’s what Jesus invited Nicodemus to accept.
Grace shatters you and leaves your safe religion in pieces. Don’t bother putting it back together. Jesus says love blows into our lives with the power to make us whole. We are only summoned to believe and to cast our lives confidently upon God who is capable of transforming everything, even you.
Several years ago I was called upon to preside over the funeral of a teenage boy who had been “hanging out” with our church youth group. He was there because a friend invited him; he had no other connection to the church or any other group. He was a wayfaring stranger who drifted in and out of our lives. One day I received the news that he had hanged himself on the swing set of the playground at a nearby school. He father, a single parent, with no church affiliation and no other children, asked if I would conduct his son’s funeral service. In his living room that afternoon, he held my hand firmly and looked directly at me. I noticed his sad, swollen bloodshot eyes, and every line of his face etched in grief. We both cried. I wondered what words could possibly be strong enough for such sorrow? This father, a stranger outside the boundaries of the Church spoke the words to me. I recognized them as the words that I let walk away so long ago. They now returned to me on his lips.
“My son and I had only one Bible verse that we both knew,” he said, “and we talked about this verse a lot because of what it meant for our relationship.” Then, from a deep place within came the Word of God. The father said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whosever believes in Him may not perish but have everlasting life. Will you read that at my son’s funeral?”
The Nicodemus within each of us leaps as the words return full circle and full of life. This is to be born again: to believe in God’s love for you so generously displayed in Jesus. Love graciously given; Love freely enduring the agony of Love lost.
Believe this and you will be born again. And again. And again.
— Copyright for this sermon, 2002, the Rev. Roy W. Howard, Saint Mark Presbyterian Church, Rockville, Maryland. Used by permission.