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Hello, friends, and welcome back. I’m the Rev. Sare Liz Anuszkiewicz and this is the Sunday Sermon. If you’re looking for the bits of the bible I’ve referenced in this sermon, you can find the link right here on the website where you found this audio file. For the nerds in the know, this is the Second Sunday of Lent, and here’s the sermon I preached on March 5, 2023.
Good morning! Today in the readings we hear a clash of cultures and it is a big one. Now, the language is sometimes a little murky, especially in Paul’s letter to the Romans, so this major clash, this big-time throw-down of epic proportions… it can be a little obscured. Like trying to watch a pro wrestling match through a fog, or watching the Super Bowl with a glitchy, fuzzy connection and it seems like every five seconds something interesting might have just happened, but you kinda missed it. That’s what this morning’s readings are like. So let me describe to you the two sides of this epic throw-down.
In corner number one! We have over here the incumbent, the long-lasting powerhouse. This fighter goes by the name of God’s Law. Millennia have passed and nothing has knocked down this prize fighter from the top of the heap. Just follow God’s Law and everything will be fine. Fail to follow God’s Law and it’s going to be ugly and it’s also going to be all your own darn fault. God’s Law beats all comers, and it has since Moses.
In corner number two! We have over here the plucky upstart who thinks it can trump God’s Law, and it calls itself Faith & Love! Faith & Love declares that following a bunch a rules is an empty business without Faith & Love. This contender thinks that without Faith & Love you get corruption, you get people who can twist the rules to suit themselves, you get people who follow the rules in public but not in private, you get people who rebel against the rules because they don’t understand them. Faith & Love thinks it’s got a better way!
And then we see the arguments.
First up: The calling of Abraham, before he was even renamed Abraham. It’s a short little reading, so you might have blinked and missed it, but it’s just God instructing Abraham to do something specific, and then promising Abraham heaps and heaps of blessings for… having faith and doing it. And the little bit we don’t see, but that we get a reference of later with Paul, is that Abraham had faith and that equated to righteousness, and righteousness is a buzzword in the corner of God’s Law. You follow God’s Law and you’re righteous. You don’t and you aren’t. But Abraham came before God’s Law was given to Moses, way before. And so he couldn’t possibly have followed God’s Law. But he did have faith, and that was good enough.
And then we have St. Paul, bless his heart, making complex logical arguments in Romans, which is a thing he likes to do, and he does it in a bunch of his letters. And he’s trying to explain to a bunch of Jewish people who might be considering Christianity, as well as a bunch of Jewish people who have already accepted that Jesus is Messiah but they’re still kind of freaking out about the details like, ‘how do we live our lives,’ and ‘but aren’t we still Jewish?’, he’s trying to tell them that God’s Law got beaten down in this epic fight, by Faith & Love, but that it’s okay! It’s okay because our ancestor Abraham did it, too! And it was okay then, and it’s okay now! And he throws in a couple of other arguments that maybe were helpful, and maybe were a little distracting, but he ends this little bit we’re reading with a mic drop, he really does. He points out that God has ultimate power; God can give the dead life, and God can create things that have never existed before.
Like a new way of being: Faith & Love.
And then in our final reading from the Gospel we see this wrestling match, this super bowl of concepts happening in real time, in a conversation between Jesus and a Jewish Elder who was very, very sympathetic to Jesus and his ministry, but also still very, very confused.
And it’s worth saying that we see this Jewish Elder named Nicodemus confused now and we don’t really get to see Nicodemus’ own ah-ha moment, where it all comes together for him and he finally gets it, but we do see Nicodemus two more times in this gospel, the Gospel of John – and by then, he totally gets it. He’s totally on board.
So this conversation Jesus and Nicodemus have: so, Nicodemus is stuck in literal thinking, the kind of literal thinking that is encouraged when your entire spirituality is based on whether or not you perfectly follow a very long list of rules. Because rules are very black and white, right? Yes, no. Done, not done. And Jesus is never one to be stuck in literal thinking, not in any gospel account, not the four canonical gospels, and not the other gospels that have been found later in Qumran, like the Gospel of Thomas. Jesus can speak literally. Occasionally. When he feels like it. But he uses the whole host of language before him willy nilly: allusion, storytelling, metaphor, allegory, parables, and yes, occasionally he speaks literally. But today he’s talking with Nicodemus (who likes to dot his ‘i’s and cross his ‘t’s) about a totally mystical and deeply spiritual truth and it is just going right over Nicodemus’ head. And then Jesus tries to explain it and he apparently does a very convincing job of it, because like I said, we see Nicodemus later and he’s totally on board. But what Jesus is trying to explain is that living with Faith & Love is like being born into a new life, even as you sit there. To use a slightly different metaphor, but one I think Jesus would approve of, it’s like waking from a dream, or waking from a nightmare. And he ends with the most often quoted passage perhaps in the whole bible. And it’s point for Nicodemus isn’t that Jesus is the Messiah. Nicodemus already knows that. Jesus’ point is that under the old system of God’s Law, you mess up, God’s going to condemn and punish you. And Jesus’ point is that it’s simply not true.
“…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.”