Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn
Nicodemus came knocking on Jesus’ door in the middle of the night. Something was bothering him; it is usually late at night when that thing which disturbs the soul comes to the surface. Something was bothering Nicodemus. There was dissonance in his soul. As far as he could tell everything was as it should be; yet still there was a sense deep down inside that he wasn’t quite seeing things as they were. So he knocked on Jesus’ door.
Nicodemus was a blessed man. He was a professor of theology and a Senator in the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of the Jewish people. He was a religious man, with the resources to fast twice a week, pray two hours a day, and tithe a 10th of his income to the Temple without any sacrifice to his lifestyle. And while I don’t know all the details of his personal life, I am willing to wager that he had a bunch of sons, and the wherewithal to marry them off to well-connected Jewish women.
The rabbis of Nicodemus’ day would have said that he was blessed. They would say that God loved him and valued him more than other people. And that his inheritance, the structures of the life he was born into, was the metric by which God’s love was measured. This line of reasoning can be found in the Bible. It is what Jesus pushed back against. The 9th chapter of John is a good example. The Pharisees ask Jesus (remember Nicodemus was a Pharisee) in the presence of a man born blind, “Who sinned? This man or his parents?” To which Jesus replied, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” (John 9:1-3)
We can assume that Nicodemus heard Jesus say this kind of thing before; and we can also assume that the dissonance in his soul began to surface during prayer and fasting. It had to, whether he wanted it to or not, because that is what happens when we set aside the time to listen for God. God speaks to us whether we want God to or not. Here is a secondary lesson in this morning’s sermon, if you don’t want to hear God, don’t set aside time for prayer and fasting.
Nicodemus fasted and prayed, and something stirred in his soul that came to a crescendo in the middle of the night. He had a suspicion that his way of viewing the world was not quite right. He knew it in his gut. He knew in his heart that there was more to a relationship with God than the architecture inherited at birth.
So he knocked on Jesus’ door.
Nicodemus will be our guide this morning in exploring this idea that sin is inherited, and salvation is chosen. That is what Jesus reveals in this 3rd chapter of John, that sin is inherited, and salvation is chosen. My claim is that while we might not be “wicked from our mother’s womb,” to quote Psalm 51 we are born to circumstances which set the parameters of our life, and each of us is free to choose where this fits in the kingdom of God.
Almost all of what we have has been inherited, and this is what gives us our position and our power and our prestige in the world. These are the things that measure the length of our reach and the influence of our words. Our inheritance defines the architecture of our kingdoms, and our kingdoms are defined as: “where what we want to have happen happens the way we want it to happen.” We inherit a particular kingdom architecture at our birth: from our names to our gender; to our parents, and our grandparents; to the city of our birth; the generation of our appearing; to the color of our skin, the size of our bones, and the bandwidth of our brain; to our siblings; economic status, and religious heritage.
We are endowed with particular kingdom architecture and it is not equality distributed amongst all people. I don’t know why that is, but I do know that it is the case, and so did Nicodemus. Which is why he came knocking in the middle of the night. He came under the cloak of darkness, having a sense that he was reading the map wrong, and knowing that if this was true, if he was wrong and Jesus was right it could have real consequence for his life. It made him nervous so he came at night.
He had been watching Jesus. Jesus seemed to know something that he didn’t know. Jesus seemed to encounter the world from a different paradigm, from a different point of view that seemed better, healthier, and more liberated. Jesus seemed to be free from the parameters of his inheritance. Nicodemus wanted some of that freedom; so he came in the middle of the night and he said, “Rabbi, I know you are from God, for no one can do what you have done apart from God.” Jesus responded, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being from above.” Or another translation can be read “to be born again”. Which returns us to today’s thesis: that sin is inherited, and salvation is chosen. That is what Nicodemus and Jesus are talking about late at night.
But before getting further into this conversation, I want to say something about sin, so it doesn’t become too distracting. Sin is such a loaded word that it can cause the mind to spin off into a litany of historic gibberish. So here it is: Sin is that which calls our attention away from God. Sin is that which becomes more important than our relationship with God. There are three categories of sin: There are sins of the heart; there are sins of relationship; and there are sins of the community. Sins of the community, or structural sins, are what I am talking about today. Structural sins perpetuate systems that are not pleasing to, or designed by God.
Let me give you a modern day example: the caste system in India. It works on the assumption that one’s place in the social hierarchy is based on predetermined status established before birth. So if someone is an outcaste, that is a divinely ordained state of being, and should not be messed with nor should it be changed. Sorry outcaste, better luck next time. It is fairly easy for us to see from the outside how structural sin supports a cultural preference in favor of the status quo. Sin is inherited, salvation is chosen.
Each generation and then each person within each generation is invited to freely ask, “do I choose God?” There are two certainties that God carved into creation: 1) that we all die, equally, irrespective of our inheritance and 2) that no one is born having already been saved. Salvation in Christian parlance means saving our souls from the consequence of sin. There is sin and there is salvation, and salvation is not inherited. Each generation has to choose anew. Each generation has to ask the question: “Do I choose God?” Which is why Jesus says: “You must be born again!” Now this little sentence can unlock in our minds a vision of wild-eyed Christians charging the altar, with a preacher shouting “You must be born again!”
Today that is exactly what I’m going to do… minus the Altar call unless you count the Eucharist. Today I am going to invite you to consider your salvation and ask: “what have I inherited that is standing in the way of my salvation” and “what have I inherited that can help in moving me toward salvation?” After all, the man was born blind to reveal the works of God.
Whatever we were born with, whatever gifts or talents, whatever struggles or impediments, whatever structures of privilege or structures of poverty we have inherited, this is enough to move us toward salvation. By the standards of the world inheritances are not equal; but in the eyes of God, whatever we are given is equally capable of bringing us salvation. We have what we have been given at birth to be used to move us toward God. It is enough… but the choice is ours.
We have a great example today of how Jesus used a piece of Nicodemus’ inheritance to move him toward salvation. Jesus asks: “Do you remember Moses in the wilderness?” This is a story incorporated into Nicodemus life from his Jewish heritage. “Do you remember,” Jesus asks, “how the poisonous snakes bit the people of Israel? And how Moses made a serpent of bronze and put it on a pole, and said, “if you look upon this serpent the snake’s venom will not harm you!” Now that is foolishness, but the people believed, the venom was thinned, and they were saved. If salvation from a serpents bite can be found in a bronze figurine, imagine what life could be like if we choose to put our faith the Son of God.
Which is why Nicodemus came knocking. When he did he heard Jesus say, “That the Son of God will be lifted up so that whoever believes in him shall have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” God did this so that everyone, and that means everyone – the point that soothed Nicodemus’ soul – regardless of the inheritance of their birth, who “believes in Jesus would not perish but have eternal life.”
Now I don’t know about people who don’t believe in Jesus, but I do know that people who do believe in Jesus are on the move toward their eternity. Salvation is a choice made each generation and then by each person within each generation and then by each person within each generation over and over again throughout their life, up until the point when their temporal meets the reality of their eternal. That is the equality of salvation, and it is a choice.
Lent is the season for considering how we choose God, and how we use our inheritance, the random, mysterious inheritance of our birth, to be born again.
Salvation in Christian term means saving our souls from the consequence of sin. This is not a one-time event; it is a lifelong process of being born again. Which is the process that Nicodemus entered into that night when he came knocking on Jesus’ door.