“How the Spirit Moves”
Rev. Tina Walker-Morin
Pilgrim Congregational Church, UCC
March 12, 2017
This morning I have a message for you about faith.
Wow these winds the past few days have been something. The howling as they wrap around the house. The bitter coldness that stings your nose and cheeks. No matter how long I live here in New England, I am not sure I will ever get used to the bitter cold winds.
Down in Virginia we would have violent winds, but they came in the form of hurricanes. The winds would be driving, wet, heavy but warm. I never remember hearing the whistle and howls that the winds up here seem to make. I do remember one time during a hurricane, my entire college team was staying at my parents. Just when one of my teammates said, “this doesn’t seem too bad” a tree came crashing down knocking out our power. Thanks Melissa.
It was in that same house but many years earlier that as a child I grew up with the idea of a punishing God. A God who maybe created the hurricane because of something we or someone else had done. A God who I worked hard to please. A God who terrified me of doing something wrong and not making it to heaven. I even remember one night lying in my bunk bed thinking, “it is okay, I will be saved because I believe in Jesus. That’s all I have to do.” And like a mantra I would repeat this to myself, calming the inner anxiety and worry that would stir. “It I okay because I believe”.
It was terrifying wondering if people I knew here on earth were going to make it to heaven and was I going to make it to heaven?
Our scripture this morning is the first time we meet Nicodemus. Later in chapter 7 before Jesus is arrested, Nicodemus stands up and says Jesus should not be dismissed or arrested until they hear from him personally since their “law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing” (7:51). And we once again meet Nicodemus after Jesus’ death when he joins Joseph of Arimathea (the one who asked Pilate to take Jesus’ body) and brings “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds”. Nicodemus and Joseph then wrapped Jesus’ body with spices in linen and placed it in the tomb.
So who is Nicodemus? He is a community leader, a respected official in his religion, a man who comes to see a young Rabbi in the night. The Gospel of John, in which this story occurs, is full of symbolism and metaphors. If you recall the opening verses of the Gospel begin:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)
Jesus is referred to in this passage as both the “Word” and “Light”. There is a stark contrast between light and darkness throughout this gospel. So it is no surprise that Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of night when he has questions.
Imagine this: Nic comes over to Jesus in the night, maybe because he does not want to be seen or maybe because it is during the time when he is to study scripture. So why not go have a study session with a rabbi? Nic comes to Jesus and says, “I know you are a man of God because I have seen all of your great works. You changed the water to wine at the wedding in Cana, you gave sight to the blind etc., etc.” Jesus responds to Nic with listen to me, “no one can see the kingdom of heaven without being born from above.” (v.3) Nic responds like you or I would, “what in the world do you mean?”
Jesus goes on to tell Nic that you must be born from above, born of the Spirit to enter the kingdom of heaven. Nic’s second question is simply, “How can these things be?” Jesus gives Nic a little sermon which includes a reference to Moses and then we get what seems to be an editor’s note, John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
I have struggled for many years with this popular verse from the Gospel of John: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”. You see it everywhere, particularly down south. At most football or basketball games you will see a sign waving in the crowd with John 3:16 written on it. Some football players have written it on their black eye patches or on athletic tape that is wrapped around their wrists or ankles. It is on billboards and bummer stickers and even mentioned in a new country song by Keith Urban, which has a verse referencing: John Cougar, John Deer, John 3:16.
For me, this extremely popular scripture has always held a negative view of God. It describes a God who punishes people who do not believe at all or not strongly enough. It holds onto a belief in heaven and hell, a God whose love for us is conditional.
It is easy to imagine that type of god, a god who loves us conditionally because that is the type of love we practice here on earth. However this is only one way to understand John 3:16.
After diving deeper you will find that John’s gospel does not include the notion of substitutionary sacrifice, that Jesus died on the cross as a substitute for others. No, it is not a Jesus died instead of us, it was not a one or the other. Rather the “giving” of Jesus Christ has to do more with the love God has for us. Marcus Borg suggests the giving of the Son (of Jesus) in this verse “refers to the incarnation as a whole and not primarily the death of Jesus. [So] How much does God love the world? So much that God was willing to become incarnate in the world.”
Now that I can get behind.
God loves the world so much that God would do anything to make us see and understand that love. So much so that God would come in the form of a lowly man, take all the abuse and beatings, take on all the questions and doubts, be sacrificed and crucified just to show Her love for us.
Did you notice? I used the feminine pronoun, I usually avoid pronouns when referring to God because I believe God is greater than our language and our ideas of pronouns. Yet even our beliefs are simply our own constructs of God. Our beliefs about God are how we imagine God acts. Our beliefs are what our minds create, which is limited.
Faith on the other hand is beyond our comprehension, beyond our thoughts and ideas. Faith is believing and trusting even when we have no logical reason to do so. This is what happens to Nicodemus as he gradually he gains faith.
God loves us and the world (which God created so much so that God was willing to join us in the human form, as Jesus. It is not about God willingly giving up, or killing Jesus but rather about God loving us so much that God gave us Jesus to follow and learn from.
I no longer worry about “making it to heaven” or that my God is sending down punishing, howling winds. I believe the reason we follow Jesus and do good work here on earth, is not for a reward in the afterlife, but rather to make this life better. To make earth as it is in heaven. After all in John’s gospel, eternal life is used to refer to the present experience, while also being something to hope for.
So what does it mean to believe?
Marcus Borg states Believing is about “beloving Jesus, giving one’s heart, loyalty, fidelity, and commitment to Jesus. [That] is the way into new life”. I would also add believing is trusting and allowing the winds of the Spirit to move with you.
Easier said than done. It can be so hard to completely love Jesus and to allow the Spirit to move us. It can be so hard believing and keeping faith. We all get blown into the darkness at times while at other times we stand solidly in the light. And that is how faith is. It is hard and it is never a done deal. “Faith is not a possession, not something that one gets, not something that one has--it is something that one does.” We live out this new life and our faith through our actions here on earth. We all make choices every day. We get to choose how to act, how to treat others, how to treat ourselves and we choose to believe and have faith.
As we continue to move through Lent. I invite you to have faith in the Holy Spirit and to sit, see, touch and feel it move around you. Take notice where the Holy Spirit is working and when you are moving with the Holy Spirit.
Keep faith my friends and trust that light will always overcome darkness.