Unlikely Unbelievers

Wesley Chapel Episcopal Church, Wesley Chapel, FL
Preacher: The Rev. Adrienne R. Hymes
March 8, 2020 ● Second Sunday in Lent (Year A)
Gospel: John 3:1-17

Mother Hymes’ sermon at WCEC this morning, “Unlikely Unbelievers” (John 3:1-17).

Posted by Wesley Chapel Episcopal Church on Sunday, March 8, 2020

I speak to you in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Many years ago in Los Angeles, I had a unique dining experience at a restaurant called Opaque. What made this restaurant so unique was that the servers were all blind—some were born blind and others had lost their sight.  From the time guests enter the dining area to the time that they leave, guests become temporarily blind in a simulated pitch-black world—the sighted being led by the blind, single file, hand to shoulder, into the darkness.

Throughout the three-course meal, it is not possible for the sighted to see, even with their eyes wide open. It was not long before my own eyes ached as I struggled to see the person’s face next to me. Adaptation happened quickly, as I found it easier to navigate the table and the space around me with my eyes closed. In a very short amount of time, my hearing was heightened, making me keenly aware of the conversation at my table; those at tables surrounding us; and even the sound of the air that brushed past me as a server glided past.  My sense of awareness deepened. Choosing to abandon my reliance on my human sense of vision in the beginning, made it possible for me to truly “see,” if you will, the invisible activities in motion around me.   In that setting, reliance on my sight for understanding and guidance was useless.

I am reminded of the recurring theme throughout Epiphany about those who walk in darkness have seen a great light (Isaiah 9:2). When I encounter that phrase, “those who walk in darkness,” images of people in church pews or clergy persons, faithful people, don’t come to mind. Just who are those people who walk in darkness? Our gospel passage today is disturbing as we are challenged to consider that people of faith are not immune from the walking in darkness.

We witness a private encounter between a religious leader of the Jews, a Pharisee, by the name of Nicodemus, and Jesus. We are told that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night—literally walking in darkness.  He acknowledged Jesus as a Rabbi, one who had come from God based on his awareness of Jesus’ “signs.” Nicodemus said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” (v.2). Now, scripture does not indicate that Nicodemus himself saw the signs.

However, signs are inherently visible—they must be witnessed and seen. Therefore, Nicodemus’ statement to Jesus pointed to a faith that necessarily relied on what he believed he knew by the signs done by Jesus—an inadequate faith.

When Jesus told Nicodemus about the spiritual birth—by water and Spirit—necessary for anyone to see and enter the kingdom of God (what we know as Baptism) Nicodemus responded with questions framed by the human experience—how can one be born after they are old? How can one be born from the mother’s womb a second time? How can these things be?

Remember, Nicodemus was a “teacher of Israel” and Jesus essentially said to him, “Wait, how can THIS be that you, Nicodemus, a teacher of Israel, don’t believe me when I tell you about earthly things? Surely, you will not believe me if I tell you about the heavenly things.”

Jesus exposed Nicodemus, a religious leader of the Jews, as an unlikely unbeliever, stumbling in the dark, unable to see beyond that which is visible to him in the earthly realm. And, his unbelief will keep him stumbling in the dark.

Belief is not solely a head experience or solely a heart experience; both join together for belief to ultimately be what it is—the work of the soul. It is this work of the soul that ensures that believers experience eternal life lived in the presence of God now, and after our human lives are over. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).

The Gospel writer holds up the unlikely unbeliever, Nicodemus, for us as a warning.  As a Pharisee, Nicodemus was a strict observer of the traditional and written Jewish law, but that was not the same as true belief. Going through the motions and checking off the worship “to do” list is not synonymous with the soul work of true belief.

In Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension the judgment of the world is set in motion AND humankind has a role to play in that judgment—that role is to choose to believe in Christ or choose to reject belief in Christ.

The final verse in our passage, verse 17, reminds us that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world; he sent him to be our lifeline. The verse we don’t read in the gospel this week is verse 18, “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”  Jesus died on the cross for the salvation of ALL people, but it is those who believe in Him who in their belief accept the gift of eternal life.

Throughout this Lenten journey through myriad wildernesses we must nurture our belief in Christ, lest we, like Nicodemus, show up in the world as unlikely believers who testify to our belief in Christ by the light of day yet struggle with that same belief in the darkness of night.

As faithful believers in Christ Jesus, we have been given limited time to seek and find those who walk in darkness. But if we, as the church, are not seeking lost sheep and helping to bring them to belief; helping to restore unbelief; or strengthening existing belief in Christ, we are complicit in the stumbling of souls in the darkness.

When we fail to make belief in Christ the priority of our own lives, even as we worship in church on Sundays, we fail to be effective disciples who are empowered by the Holy Spirit to live Jesus’ Great Commission to make “…Disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” (Mt 28:19).

And, when we fail to companion people through the darkness of their wilderness journeys to the light of the resurrected Jesus, so many souls are abandoned to the darkness, left to perish in the wilderness.

In the limited time that we have been given, my prayer for us, the gathered faithful, is that we, having chosen belief in Christ, live life, nurturing one another in the fullness of God’s presence; and that that undeniable life force draws those who walk in darkness (and sometimes we may discover that we are they) out of that darkness.  For we know that while we have the light of Christ, the darkness will not overtake us (Jn 12:35).

Amen.