Monday, June 1, 2015

Imagine and Believe

Scripture for Trinity Sunday includes Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

I need visuals to help us consider the Nicodemus story. If you can’t see what these words say, let me help you with that: One says Believe, the other Imagine. They’ve sat in our library for a long time, awaiting their debut. We need them today, as we unpack the story of a secret disciple who makes an interesting companion on Trinity Sunday.

Nicodemus is introduced as a Pharisee. Pharisees have gotten bad press in ages past. Reappraised more recently, they’re understood now as having been progressive agents of change in the first century, helping shape what would become modern Judaism.

It could be that Episcopalians and Pharisees have more in common than we’d guessed. By whatever path he got there, Nicodemus displayed both a privileged life and a sense of social responsibility that made of him a leader. But he seems secretive in his approach to Jesus, coming to him under the cover of night. And if there’s one more trait that might make him one of us, he has a kind of puffy use of the pronoun “we”: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God…” I can hear our Lord’s disciples muttering, “Oh? Who’s that “we”? For whom is Nicodemus making this claim? Is he leading a temple coup among the Pharisees, or is he a lone ranger covering his tracks and making himself sound grander than he is?”

One might even wonder whether Nicodemus, this man of substance who wears the mantle of authority and carries social approval, might be hoping to co-opt Jesus, an itinerant street preacher from impoverished Galilee, known to hang out with all the wrong sorts, a fellow “we” think has great potential if he would just go to the right seminary and polish his approach, get a little less other-worldly and help us keep the peace here on earth…

Notice how flattering Nicodemus’s words can be taken, and how Jesus does not take them: he cuts to the chase and confronts with his own spiritual purposes whatever agenda Nicodemus has: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Here is where Nicodemus, to believe, must imagine. Imagine what Jesus might mean by being born from above. This stumps Nicodemus. Astonishes him. I think it even offends him at some level of his propriety.

And yet… Astonishment is one reason Nicodemus has sought out Jesus. “No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” When Nicodemus is face to face with Jesus’s actions—his healings, exorcisms, feedings—the resulting astonishment does not block the Pharisee’s believing: in fact, it quickens his faith. But when he encounters Jesus himself, hears Jesus’s words, experiences Jesus’s attitude, finds himself in face to face relationship with Jesus, the resulting astonishment pushes the edge of the envelope. And suddenly, he is arguing with Jesus.

Nicodemus’s mind appears to be hemmed-in by his literal thinking, his insistence that one word must mean one thing. You could say that he lacks imagination. To believe, he must be freed to imagine. To be freed, he must welcome and experience the compassionate faithfulness of God that is being made intimately available to him in Jesus Christ, as it is to each of us.

I wonder if something very basic is going on in Nicodemus’s resistance. When Jesus chose not to respond to Nicodemus’s flattery, he answered the Pharisee with words that I imagine pushed him right out of his comfort zone. Words that we recognize as being about baptism—“You must be born from above”, and if that’s not clear enough, “born of water and Spirit.” To speak of baptism at that point in time was to evoke the image of John the Baptizer, that ragged firebrand who violated the propriety that would have mattered to this Pharisee. John the Baptizer attracted all sorts and conditions of people, by the hundreds and perhaps thousands, including the great unwashed lower classes. And what John preached was radical: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Tax collectors were told to stop collecting more than was due, and soldiers were ordered to stop extorting bribes and issuing threats. Soldiers of the occupying Roman imperial army were being ordered around by the likes of this wild man, John. What is the world coming to?

And Jesus is implying that Nicodemus must wade into the muddy water of the Jordan River, rubbing shoulders with all that teeming humanity, to what end? To lose face, to be branded as a wild-eyed revolutionary, to be targeted by Rome?

Doesn’t Jesus know that if he wants to establish a movement, he must make it easy for people, not harder than it already will be? What is he imagining, Nicodemus wonders.

I imagine that Nicodemus can’t yet shake free from his pride, his self-sufficiency, and his fear.

Nicodemus and Jesus are on two different wavelengths. The one is focused on the earthy, the other on the heavenly, the spiritual. Nicodemus can say to Jesus, “We know that you have come from God…” Jesus can say, “We speak of what we know…yet you do not receive our testimony.”

As true as it is to say that to believe, Nicodemus must imagine, it is also true that in order to imagine (in order to image what is challenging and puzzling) this human power needs to be yoked to belief, be inspired by believing, be guided by faith.

Nicodemus’s story makes an intriguing partner with Trinity Sunday. Today, the Church celebrates a doctrine, the one time in the rotation of fifty-two Sundays that we do this. Timing is everything, and it’s right on the heels of Pentecost, God’s giving of the Spirit to ignite the Church to respond to its calling to help God renew the face of the earth. It’s as if we watch God add the dynamic of the Holy Spirit to an equation that already has in it God the Creator and Jesus Christ the beloved, and the Church recognizes, “Yes! That’s it! Those are the three key ways we have come to know God, the one God in three aspects, three self-revealings, three ways to relate to the one God who chooses to relate to us with a singular love that casts out fear and challenges pride.”

Like Nicodemus, to believe we must imagine, and to imagine we need to hitch our wagon to the star of faith. Unlike Nicodemus, we do this spiritual work not secretly but transparently in fellowship with one another and in communion with God, both celebrating this doctrine of the Holy Trinity and puzzling over its meaning. This includes astonishment that Jesus, the Son of Man, must be lifted high upon the cross, amazement that eternal life is thrown open so graciously, and awe that the world—with all its teeming humanity and all its shimmering web of life—is to be made whole in him.

How it will happen, this renewal of the face of the earth and all its glorious mantle of life, will depend in no small part on our using our God-given gracious powers to believe and to imagine.