Doubt, Caution & Questions Are Okay

A sermon based on John 3:1-17
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on March 12, 2017
by Rev. Scott Elliott

The Age of Enlightenment ushered in the notion we pretty much take for granted today that reason derived from empirical evidence is authoritative and serves to validate positions on almost anything. In short, facts in hand coupled with deductive reasoning– logic– lead to the best answers and point to truth. If you think about it this is how we in Western cultures tend to normally process information and react to things with this critical way of thinking.

Christianity arose in a time long before the Age of Enlightenment, which is also called the Age of Reason– it was only in the early 18th century that reason began to be the norm that eventually got overlaid onto virtually all aspects of our lives . . . or we at least think reason is supposed to be. Even though “critical thinking” sometimes gets questioned, even bashed about, most of us still tend to like the idea of having facts and reason be the source of information that we base decisions on.
We moderns grew up with critical thinking as a valued way of processing things. It is not that critical thinking did not occur in ancient times, it’s that it did not serve as a cultural norm for the arts and sciences, it wasn’t widespread among the mostly uneducated and illiterate populations.

The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking defines critical thinking as the “intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”1 Simply put, that means applying facts and reason to information to determine truths.

I’ll be honest with you . . . You know what I think I hear someone say that “I’ll be honest with you?” I think, ummmm why would I want you to be otherwise? And then I think, ummm are you not honest with me when you do not say that? And actually critical thinking is being willing to consider if what is being said is honest or true, whether we are told it is or not. It’s a process that requires a willingness to not just take something as gospel, but apply actual facts and reason to it. I guess we could call it “trained skepticism” until we can satisfactoryly derive a logical belief based on evidence.

And critical thinking is truly a gift from the Enlightenment (and God) that has driven the arts and sciences in our culture ever since, and many of our everyday living decisions. One side effect is we are a culture filled with doubting Thomases.
Again it’s not that others in history did not use critical thinking, it’s just that it was not infused into the cultural the way Enlightenment caused it to be in the West. Saint Thomas, of ”Doubting Thomas” fame, is the Jesus follower in the Bible who is often chided for doubting Jesus resurrection because he asked for proof before he would believe it. Notably Christ accommodated Thomas, showing him the proof.

Thomas is not the only follower questioning Jesus in the Gospels. Before the resurrection, while Jesus was still alive there was Nicodemus who we heard about in the lesson. He is often chided too for both his seemingly childish question about being born again (which I will get to in a few moments) as well and his stealthy visits to Jesus by night–keeping his connection to Jesus a secret.

Those night visits got Nicodemus into a lot of hot water later on. The Book of Revelation (2:6, 15) refers negatively to “Nicolatians” and much later by Calvin derisively used the phrase Nicodemites, to mean Christians who hide the fact they are Christians in the daylight, and only come to Jesus in the dark hours of the day . . . or secretly. Those who don’t want others to know they go to church or otherwise hide their religious beliefs, for whatever reason, are Nicolatians and Nicodemites.
Despite the long history of giving him grief, I am going to ask us to set aside our notions about Nicodemus . . . and think critically about him.

When stories of Nicodemus’ actions with and around Jesus were recorded, being a Jesus follower could be dangerous, a threat to both life and livelihood. Nicodemus, more likely than not was a wealthy Jewish leader and Sadducee at great risk just for being there with Jesus (day or night). This is more than worrying about being connected to say, this church, because we tend to have a progressive theology some of our neighbors don’t like. It may not go over well with our neighbors but no one is likely to arrest us or feed us to lions or stone us or crucify us, or take our jobs away or ostracize us from the community. But around the time the Gospel of John was written Nicodemus and other Jesus Followers could, and did, face such harsh consequences.

If we take the Gospel of John as truth then the stories about Nicodemus evidence that his hiding his connection to Jesus actually paid off and helped Jesus and the Jesus Movement. Following Jesus even in secret can lead to good and Godly acts.
Nicodemus appears to have remained a powerful enough man that later in chapter 7 (50-51) of John he is able to rather boldly challenge early attempts by fellow religious elite to persecute Jesus. To stymie them he holds up the laws that require hearings and testimonies of self defense for Jesus. Nicodemus makes the elite at that point face his critical thinking and they lose. They want to get Jesus by misusing the institution of the Temple, and Nicodemus puts in their face the fact that they have not complied with the law and the logic that they must. He required that they have a hearing and evidence and challenges to it. They back off. A very lawyerly like “win” if I do say so myself.

Later still, after Jesus is killed, Nicodemus comes out into the open and helps with the removal, preparation and burial of Jesus’ crucified body (John 19:39). In other words for all the grief Nicodemus has been given over the centuries, his hidden faith in Jesus bore good fruit and there is meaningful proof of it in the Gospel of John if we look for it and exam it critically.

And lets be frank and fair to Nicodemus how many of us have hidden or at least thought about hiding our association with Christianity because people tend to think we are all like Westboro Baptist Church, Focus on the Family, the 700 Club or some other misguided unholy form of Christianity that touts hate as love, oppression of others as required, and requires tossing critical thinking out the window and checking your brain at the door.

As a converted atheist/agnostic let me tell you I lost friends when I let it be known I was going to a church, not to mention seminary! And ordination? PFFFFFFT! My own father has gone out of the way to let me know he has no use of organized religion. Christianity has a bad reputation to many because some Christians have acted badly–and still do and we rightly want to deny we are connected.

And as I eluded earlier, it cuts the other way too. We are a progressive church involved in justice issues that a number of our Christians friends and neighbors do not agree with, and can be upset by, equal rights and love of God for everybody no strings attached is jarring, even counter culture to some. Rather than upset our neighbors we might sometimes hide our connection to progressive Christianity or parts of it . . . or keep quiet about it.

Nicodemus had reasons to hide his following Jesus from those who would hurt him with violence, but this sort of other stuff we face probably played a part too. It’s hard to follow Jesus he rocks the boat and it upsets people and exposes followers to upset and troubles, and what ordinary person wants more troubles?

That brings us to the famous “born again” line of questioning and teaching in the text. Most pastors, Christians and churches tend to look down at Nicodemus for not getting what Jesus meant when he claimed “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” But we have 2000 years of tradition knowing the term refers to new life in the resurrected Christ, giving us the gift of new understanding how extraordinary creation is and that we should act like it. How was Nicodemus to know what that meant before the death and resurrection and continuing life of Christ through the church?

The fact is, Jesus’ saying is odd. So it’s a fair question for Nicodemus to ask. And Jesus’ response need not be understood as a negative, but pushing Nicodemus (and us) to a new perspective. Jesus– like this church– does not require his followers to leave their brain or doubts or questions at the door. Nicodemus had questions. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” And hearing those questions in a non-literal way they can mean something akin to “Jesus, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” And literally, of course, it is critical thinking 101, no one old can be new born.

And the questions can be heard not as a naive response as is typically depicted but as a bit of intentional and funny sarcasm on Nicodemus’ part “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Literally we cannot literally be born twice in a life time. This guy Nicodemus is not stupid, which is Jesus point when he says “Are you a teacher of Israel . . .” But Jesus zings back some sarcasm adding “yet you do not understand these things?” Noting that the teachers are having trouble believing earthly things, let alone heavenly things. The un-understood things being

no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Jesus is punning on the Greek word “Pneuma” being the same for the words wind and spirit. At one level the author of John is recording that Christians are baptized by water and the Spirit and that spirit then blows their lives about like the wind, as actually we see with Nicodemus whose life crisscrosses with Jesus as he meets with him and later argues for him and even later tends to his body. The Spirit is blowing about Nicodemus – a follower of Jesus even if in secret.

Since our first birth by our mother is through waters of the womb and the spirit of life giving us our first breath, this water and spirit baptism metaphorically fits . . .as well as ritually. Metaphors can throw a kink in critical thinking for literalists because metaphors are often –like when Jesus used them– open to interpretation. Logic applied to a metaphor can lead to multiple answers, which is where critical thinking may need be satisfied, using it right that is the conclusion–since that is a metaphor’s function.

We can hear the metaphor “born again” as needing to follow a formula some churches require to be a Christian. But that’s one interpretation of the metaphor, not necessarily Jesus’ meaning—nor the one the Holy Spirit calls us too! Indeed “born again” can be understood as referring to becoming aware through Jesus’ Way and belief in the God who is still speaking that each new moment we are like a baby to God vulnerable, depended on our parent God, loved as we are, and that Way by a forgiving God also leads us to know we have a fresh new start, an empty slate.

By following Jesus’ Way we go from ordinary thinking that we and others and creation are ordinary to a fresh start, a new life with new ways of seeing that we, others and creation are actually extraordinary. And Christians are born into this new way of being through baptism by water and Spirit!

And this reality, that we can be saved from the ordinary path we were on yesterday, gives birth to a new extraordinary us that can grow outside the womb of our mother while being inside the womb of God, that is in our rebirth we now experience an extraordinary creation and life. Our new birth leads to new growth which leads to positive compassionate action like it did for Nicodemus– who whether he was quiet about his faith or not helped save the Body of Christ and he helped prepare the Body of Christ for the resurrection, which is itself an extraordinary rebirth of Jesus . . . because God so loved the world.

Church is the Body of Christ on earth now. And questions like Nicodemus had are fair and when allowed can lead to new followers to have new life and get that all the ordinary is extraordinary. Which can lead folks to not only help save the Body of Christ today, but also save self, others and creation from the lesser ways that might otherwise have been.

Asking questions got Nicodemus involved and instrumental in the continuing narrative of Christ. Questions can help us do that as well. So do not leave your brain or your questions or your doubts at the door (in this or any other church). They are very likely the Holy Spirit blowing, trying to get us to sail Jesus’ Way. As Jesus puts it “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” AMEN.