Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sermon for Lent II

St Paul's Cathedral, Springfield--John 3:1-17, Genesis 12:1-8

My friends, as you know, it is always my joy to worship with you at St Paul’s and share the word of God with you from this pulpit. But it will not surprise you, I’m sure, when I say that I would give nearly anything for it to not be under these circumstances. Keith Roderick was my esteemed and beloved colleague and friend, and I already miss him terribly. Father Roderick was a devoted and humble priest and pastor for this cathedral congregation, who accomplished a great deal in the one year, plus a couple of weeks, that he served you. My heart breaks with yours at the effect his sudden departure will have on the life of the cathedral parish. May we all hold one another very close in our hearts during the days and weeks ahead.

As tomorrow we lay the mortal remains of Keith Roderick in the embrace of the earth, in the joyful hope that we have in Christ of the resurrection of the body, our prayers will make mention of his entrance “into the land of light and joy” and his taking “a place at the table in [God’s] heavenly kingdom.” Alongside our grief at this week’s news, and our anticipation of tomorrow’s burial, we have the readings for the Second Sunday in Lent, which direct our attention to this very theme, the theme of entrance into the Kingdom of God.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Jewish religious establishment in Jerusalem. He comes to Jesus at night, as if wanting to avoid the public spotlight. We're not given very many details, but it seems reasonable to speculate that Nicodemus comes to Jesus in response to a deeply-felt personal need to find out for himself just who Jesus is, to find out whether Jesus might be the one who can relieve the deep spiritual ache, the deep spiritual hunger, that he is experiencing, but which his prominent position keeps him from discussing openly.  “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus reads between the lines and understands Nicodemus to be asking, “How can I get in on whatever it is you have? How can I enter the kingdom of God?”

This is just one version of a universal question, perhaps the primal human concern, a question and a concern that rises to the top of our hearts and minds at a time like this. In the sixteenth chapter of Acts, the Philippian jailer, speaking to St Paul, puts it, “What must I do to be saved?”  Others have said, “How can I find the meaning of life?”, or “How should I behave?”, or “What happens after I die, and is there anything I can do to affect my fate?” There are as many versions of this question as there have been inhabitants of this planet, but they're really all the same question. How can I enter the kingdom of God? 

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and the Pharisees, as we know, were avid students of the Law of Moses. A Pharisee would be inclined to believe that one enters the kingdom of God through a kind of moral perfection that can be attained by carefully studying and learning what God requires of us and by persistent striving to live by these requirements.  This approach is not unique to the Pharisees, of course. It represents a broad popular consensus, among many professing Christians, as well as among Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and the adherents of most of the world's religions, from the most sophisticated to the most primitive. But if we pay attention to the scriptures, and to the mainstream of the Christian tradition, we know any plan to enter the kingdom of God by means of human moral perfection is guaranteed to go awry. We cannot do it. We're doomed from the start. St Paul tells us in the third chapter of Romans that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Yet, at times, particularly in the late Middle Ages, it has seemed to the Christian faithful as though the Church indeed does teach that we earn our way, we qualify, for entrance into the Kingdom of God on the basis of our good works. So, in the great turmoil that we now call the Protestant Reformation, there was a quite justifiable reaction against this notion. The Reformers condemned the idea of “salvation by works” as a distortion of the gospel. The real good news, they claimed, is that God offers us salvation freely, on His own initiative. He invites us into His kingdom, not because we earn it, but because He loves us.

Of course, it’s possible to go too far in the right direction, and many, I fear, do so when it comes to just what it means to say that God infinitely loves us. It's one thing to sing, as a well-known hymn puts it, that God accepts me “just as I am.”  But it's quite another to suggest that God is content to leave me there, just as I am.  “How I am” is the problem!  “How I am” is what led Nicodemus to interrogate Jesus about entrance into the kingdom of God. God accepts us just as we are, but He's not interested in letting us remain in that state. To believe that those who enter the kingdom of God are the passive recipients of God's universal and non-discriminatory acceptance distorts what the Protestant Reformers were trying to say. It is tantamount to belief in what the martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” It's a kind of salvation that certainly has no need for the Son of God to die on a cross.

So, if salvation is based neither on our activity —qualifying by obeying a set of rules, nor on our passivity—simply accepting a gift with no strings attached, the question remains: How does one enter the kingdom of God? 

The first clue that today's liturgy supplies us with is found in the Old Testament character of Abraham. Abraham was living quite happily and prosperously and, as far as we can tell, inconspicuously, in the land of his birth, minding his own business, when the Lord “said” to him, in whatever way the Lord says things, “Abram, I want you to fold up your tent and pack up all your belongings and gather up your household and move —about 500 miles to the southwest, to a place called Canaan. In that land, I am going to make of your descendants a great nation, a nation that I will bless, and through which all the nations of the world will themselves be blessed.”

Now, in no place are we told that Abraham was particularly qualified for this honor. Nowhere are we told that God was paying Abraham back for some good deed, or even a lot of good deeds, that he had done. God simply chose Abraham for God's own reasons. But neither was Abraham passive, like a puppet on a string. Abraham responded to the Lord with trusting faith, trusting faith, moreover, that was demonstrated by concrete behavior: he indeed did pick up and move to Canaan. He obeyed God. And in the process of obeying God, Abraham was changed. As a result of his obedient faith, Abraham was transformed in his inner being. St Paul says that this faith was “reckoned” to him—credited to his account, so to speak—as righteousness, as being just, as being in proper relation to God. From our New Testament vantage point, we would say that Abraham was granted entrance into the Kingdom of God. 

In today's passage from St John's gospel, we get another clue, another insight into this whole mystery. Jesus says to Nicodemus, “You've got to be born from above, born anew, born all over again, get a fresh start. You've got to receive from the Holy Spirit a new lease on your life with God.  You've got to turn your eyes to the Son of Man lifted up—lifted up on the cross, lifted up in resurrection from the dead, and lifted up in ascension to the right hand of the Father. In a word, Nicodemus, you've got to be transformed. God does the transforming, but it happens in you, and you've got to let it happen.”

My friends, we can say that the kingdom of God is like a limestone quarry, from which the materials are being dug for the construction of a great cathedral. One piece of limestone is taken and left just as it is, because it's going to rest in an obscure corner of the foundation where it will never see the light of day or feel the admiring gaze of a human eye. The piece next to it, identical in every respect, is chosen to form the intricately carved crucifix that will be set in the reredos behind the high altar. This second piece of stone did nothing to earn or deserve such a glorious destiny, but before it can take its prominent and honored position, it must be born again. It must be transformed through submission to the skilled and patient chisel of the master stone mason. It is to that master stone mason that we comment Fr Keith tomorrow, because we know that, having already been marked as Christ’s own forever in baptism, his proper destiny is to reign with Christ in glory. God so loved the world—that is, every person in the world—that he gave his only begotten Son—which is to say, his very being, his very self—that whoever believes in him—whoever responds to him with the obedient faith of which Abraham is an example—should not perish, but be transformed within by being born again by water—the water of baptism—and the Holy Spirit, and thereby have eternal life, which is to say, entrance into the kingdom of God. 

Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

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