There is a beautiful interchange in Niall Williams new novel called This is Happiness between a man in his 60’s who is trying to undo the wrongs of his past, and a boy of 17 who has already failed at his attempt to train as a priest. The story is set in a small village in Ireland at the time when electricity first comes to the parish.
It’s late Saturday night before Easter Sunday. Christy, the older man, hatches a plan with Noe, the 17- year old, to go to all the Easter Masses at church so he can “bump into” his long, lost love. But, Noel, wrestling with doubt and crises doesn’t want to go.
Noe: “I’m not going.” Christy: “It’s Easter Sunday. Even thieves go Easter Sunday.”
Noe: “How will you know her? Mrs. Gaffney. After fifty years, how will you know her?”
Christy: “I’ll know her.” Noe: “Well. I can’t help. I’m not going to church. I don’t believe in God.” Christy: “Sshhh.” He patted down the thought with both hands like it was a small fire. He came closer, whispered: ‘Don’t say that. He could lame or blind you. Just to prove Himself.’
Noe concludes, “How do you answer that? I put down the book and extinguished the lamp. Christy got into his bed, crossed his hands on his chest. He said, ‘‘For both of us, wonders are coming…Wonders are coming for Noe and Christy.’” The next morning, they both biked to church.
There is another richly layered interchange between two people in our gospel reading for this morning. A Jewish leader named Nicodemus wants to meet up with Jesus. For reasons guessed at, but undisclosed in the text, he comes to Jesus in the dark of night. Like Noe, he may have had his doubts about God. He certainly had his doubts about Jesus. Yet there was something that compelled him to slough off his pharisaical respectability and set up a meeting in the moonlight. But from the recorded conversation, is appears that Nicodemus must have slunk home more confused than ever.
That Jesus confused or astounded people should not surprise us. The one people have called the “great moral teacher” says outrageous things. Like, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Or “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you will not have life within you.” Or, “Truly, truly I tell you, before Abraham was born, I am.” Not a single person I know could comprehend that kind of talk right off the bat.
Today’s version of apparent lunacy is “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.” Or, as some translations say, “born from above.” Nicodemus interprets this strange saying literally, asking how one can crawl back inside one’s mother’s womb. Jesus meets his question with straight-up ridicule. “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?”
So, what are these things that Nicodemus does not understand? The term “born again” has now woven its way into the vernacular of the evangelical wing of the church. It is coterminous with “being saved”, “meeting the Lord”, “becoming a Christian”, or “having a conversion experience”, depending on your context and all of which feel slightly distasteful or embarrassing for most Episcopalians.
Which reminds me of this joke: Q) What’s the best thing about being an Episcopalian? A) Being an Episcopalian never interferes with your politics – or your religion! Episcopalians, however, like Nicodemus are not exempt from the truth of Jesus’ words. If we are to see the Kingdom of God, we too must be born from above. So, again, what can this possibly mean?
There is a great saying in the AA community that says something like “this is where your best efforts have gotten you.” Those who have tried to break free from the bonds of addiction using their strongest willpower have only failed and found themselves in the wreckage of their own lives. In other words, our best efforts just aren’t enough. I’m sure you have some corollary of this in your life too. Your best efforts have landed you well short of any solution.
Theologically speaking, the Law is this world’s best effort. You can’t get better than the 10 Commandments. It’s just that we habitually do not follow them. In fact, the apostle Paul tells us that the Law provokes the opposite response.
I was just in Baton Rouge visiting my friend Drew. We grew up as best friends and he is the episcopal chaplain to LSU. I tell this story with his permission, a story he has used in his own sermons. Opposite the LSU football stadium, there what have been designated as “Indian Mounds” – a spot identified a sacred to Native Americans. Students would climb up the Mounds and careen down them in various states of sobriety. Finally, the administration had the sense to restrict access to the Mounds. Signs were put up that said, “No Trespassing on Indian Mounds.”
You can guess where this is going. In the Sunday paper on the day after a Saturday home football game, Drew looked on the front page and saw a boy sledding down the Indian Mound using the No Trespassing sign as his toboggan. As Drew looked more closely at the picture, he realized the careening trespasser was his own 10-year old son!
There is a commonly held belief that if only we were all taught the right things, then we would shape up, and the world would be ship-shape. But you don’t have to be a cynic to look around – or look inside – and realize that we are not ship-shape, despite our best efforts. Maybe that is what drove Nicodemus to Jesus under the cover of darkness. He knew the Law for sure – he was, as Jesus calls, him “a teacher of Israel.” But his best efforts weren’t enough. Rightly, fairly, he asks, “How can this be?”
Jesus “answers” – if you can call it that – Nicodemus with one of the best-known verses in the bible. It is even one of our Episcopalian “comfortable words” after the confession of sin. “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.” Jesus tells us the Kingdom of God is seen not by the Law, or our best efforts, but simply by belief. Believing in Him. That’s all.
I just mentioned that I have been in Baton Rouge. If you asked me if I flew to Baton Rouge, I would say yes. But technically that is not true. I did not, with my best efforts, fly to Baton Rouge. I could try. I could flap my arms as hard as I could. I could get out on the runway at the Charlottesville airport, sprint my fastest, beat my arms in the air, and leap off the ground for all I’m worth. And for all that effort, I would still be at the Charlottesville airport out of breath and a yard or two from where I took off, unless, that is, the authorities had already escorted me off the premises.
Of course, I did not fly to Baton Rouge. The airplane on which I sat, while doing absolutely nothing, flew to Baton Rouge. In terms of the Kingdom of God, flapping your arms with your best effort gets you nowhere. Jesus is the plane who flies you there. All you do is sit back and do nothing, believing that He will do it.
In fact, through his cross and resurrection, He has done it all. In Him, wonders have come and are coming still for you and me. He proved this not by laming or blinding you, but by laming and blinding Himself for our sake. And how can this be? Simply, because “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.”