Reservation Not Required
First United Methodist Church, May 27, 2018
Pastor Toni Carmer
Muir Woods is about 15 minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and several people had told me before we headed off to California that we needed to go there to see the redwoods. We were told how beautiful it was, and we were really looking forward to it.
So on Tuesday, we headed that direction, had lunch in Sausalito, set the directions on my phone and headed into the mountains. THEN we saw the sign: Reservations required.
Apparently there are only a certain number of cars or busses that are allowed into the park every day, and you have to make your plans in advance/make reservations in order to enter Muir Woods. We'd spent some time in our Fodor travel books as we were planning our trip, but somehow we missed that. So we had to figure out alternative plans.
In this morning's scripture, Jesus and Nicodemus, who is a Pharisee, are engaged in conversation. Nicodemus knows his Jewish faith: it is at the center of his life. He studies scripture, he prays regularly. If you wanted to know something about the God of Israel, Nicodemus would be the man to ask. He would know how to answer your questions.
But now, Nicodemus has some questions. He's had his eye on Jesus, he's heard him teach, perhaps he has watched Jesus heal someone at some point…he is moved by Jesus, and all of that troubles him. Everything he thought he knew and had figured out, doesn't come together anymore like it once did.
So he seeks out Jesus at night. So others don't see them together. So others won't know he's meeting with the man on the Pharisee watch list. That wouldn't be a good connection for him, it wouldn't be a good thing for his reputation. But Nicodemus has these questions that have been burning inside. He needs to know, and so he seeks Jesus out.
"We know that you are a teacher who has come from God. No one could do what you do if God were not with him."
Jesus responds, providing Nicodemus with the entry requirements straight up, so there will be no misunderstanding: "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." (Some translations say, "no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again." )
Ok, so it is a little confusing. Nicodemus isn't sure how to interpret what Jesus is saying. "How can someone be born when they're old?" He's thinking literally: being physically born again would be more than a bit awkward. (Mom says, I don't think so) He's thinking about what we do, but Jesus is pointing Nicodemus to what God does: no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.
There is certainly water involved when we're born into life the first time; water eases our way through our mother's body into a totally new reality of breathing air, receiving sustenance, of moving our limbs and expressing ourselves. But Jesus is pointing to the waters of our baptisms: water that purifies and cleanses, water that in pouring over us signifies death to the old ways and new life in Christ, which is also a completely new reality of living, breathing, moving and expressing ourselves. All of this comes as a gift of God's Spirit, from above. The Spirit blows where it will, seeking out and settling upon us. God is always seeking us out, always seeking to be in relationship, God is always the first to act, pursing us, offering us the invitation, and patiently awaiting our response.
I'm guessing that a number of us in this room can point to a particular moment in our lives when we responded to that invitation, when things clicked into place for us, when we say we were "saved" or "born again." Others of us might relate a whole series of events and a gradual awareness of God's love and grace. Some would say we've always known God to be a part of our lives, since we were very young…we can't remember a time when we didn't know God's love for us. Others of us continue to struggle. We keep trying to figure it out. We have questions that we wish could be answered.
That's what Nicodemus is doing. He is still trying to figure it out. He wants to understand. But at this moment, it is too much for him to put together.
As we talk about being born again, there's an interesting text in scripture that I'd like you to consider this morning: It's Acts 2:47. The preceding verses describe the life of fellowship the apostles are living—how they live together, share their possessions, give to those who are in need, praising God—and in this final verse it reads, "And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved."
Other people were watching these Christ-followers, and they could see changed lives. Following Christ had created a community that truly cared for and about one another. The Spirit was working, not only in the community of faith, but also in those who witnessed how that community lived together…preparing these observers, moving them into the place where they could ask questions, come to know Jesus, and become a part of his Body.
In the process of being saved, the Spirit was working within them.
The Spirit was working in Nicodemus as he watched Jesus, as he saw the disciples and how they were doing life together. The Spirit brought Nicodemus to Jesus for this conversation, and continued to work within him.
We don't really know more about Nicodemus, but he reappears two more times in scripture, both in the Gospel of John. In John 7:50, Nicodemus defends Jesus in a conversation with the chief priests and Pharisees, which is significant, I think, as we compare this conversation that happened under a veil of darkness. Then again, we read in chapter 19:39 that he brings myrrh and aloes for preparing the body of Jesus after his crucifixion.
That's all we know about him…but it would appear that the Spirit is working in Nicodemus. In the same way, the Spirit has been working within us, long before we were ever aware.
John Wesley talks about three kinds of grace: prevenient grace, which is the grace that surrounds us from the very beginning—forming us, shaping us, preparing us for the time in which we recognize our sinfulness and hand it over to God. That's the work of justifying grace. From there, we're tucked under the wing of sanctifying grace—as we continue to grow in our knowledge and love for God and one another. Wesley says that with this sanctifying grace, we are each moving onto perfection. He believed it is possible for us to reach perfection in our lifetime. I'm not sure (I admit that I am not yet perfect ), but maybe that's when all our questions are finally and comfortably answered.
Another way of describing these 3 kinds of grace—prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace—is simply interchanging the word grace for the word LOVE. God loves us so much that God is working in us, even before we're aware of (I love Jeremiah's call—when God said to Jeremiah, "Before I knit you in your mother's womb, I knew you…") God has loved us from the very beginning, even before we took our first breath—and God will continue to love us until the very end.
God's grace is all about God's love.
The last 2 verses of today's text are a shortened and condensed version of everything else that we've come to know or ultimately need to know about scripture, about our Christian faith, and why you and I are here in this place this morning: "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. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."
It's all about God's love. For us. For our world. For all people.
"God so loved." Maybe the tense of that statement is important: God loved us before we knew that God loved us. God loved us before we got our acts together. God loved us and continues to love our world, despite our confusion, our lack of understanding, our unfaithfulness, our questions, our tendency to stray and do our own thing. God isn't waiting for us to be perfect, for our world to be perfect, for us to get all the right answers on a final exam. We don't even need to make reservations. No alternative plans necessary. The gate is open. We're all welcome.
Because of love.