A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli at St. Matthew’s UMC, March 20, 2011,
2nd Sunday of Lent.
Texts: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, Matthew 4:1-11
If I had superpowers and could hear the swirling questions that you all live with every day, I imagine I might hear some of the following:
- What kind of God would create a world in which earthquake and tsunami kill thousands of innocent people?
- Why was I sexually, emotionally abused?
- What difference does my life make?
- Why do I have to feel so lonely?
- When will I be able to overcome my fear? Or my addiction?
- How will I pay my bills?
- Why did this happen to me?
- Should I stay or should I go?
- Where is God?
The list could run on of course; and for those of us who are part of Christian community, our questions often involve issues of faith, doubt, God, the absence of God. One of the great perversions within the Church is the teaching—either explicit or implicit—that questions are not welcome, that if you have doubts you’re supposed to pretend you don’t, that if you struggle with teachings of the faith or with issues in your life, then you don’t really belong in the Church. I can think of nothing further from the truth. Sadly, there are those who stay away from the life-giving experience of Christian community because no one has ever convinced them that they don’t have to have all the answers—or that they don’t have to blindly go along with what they’ve heard or been taught about the Church, about Jesus, about the Bible. Also, sadly, there are those who have been part of the Church for years who have never felt it was OK to admit what they don’t understand. And so they never ask their questions and so they are never able to develop or deepen their faith.
Poet Rainer Maria Rilke provides us with a wonderful alternative to this way of thinking. He writes, “Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves…live the questions.” When we think about some of the questions we struggle with, the concept of “loving” those questions may seem absurd. But what might it mean to love our questions, to live our questions? Well, it certainly doesn’t mean that we just have to find the easiest, tidiest answer available and then hold on to that for dear life, even when the answer is unsatisfying. Have you ever had someone give you the “pat” answer to a question of life and death, or suffering or God? The thing is, even when there may be truth in the “pat” answer, as soon as we begin to think that’s THE answer, we set up a scenario in which we either buy it or don’t. And if we don’t, then we necessarily find ourselves either buying God or not. “The” answer, in essence, cuts us off from wonder, from mystery, from God. We may want to have THE answer, we may want things to be black and white, concrete, yes or no. It creates anxiety to acknowledge that there are some things we may never fully understand—things like suffering and death. But to love the questions, to live the questions means that we give ourselves permission to admit what we don’t know, to ask our questions, to struggle with easy answers; and this encourages us to search our own hearts, to talk with and lean upon friends, to study the scriptures, to look to the experience of the saints, to keep learning.
It has been suggested that the question mark is a profound religious symbol. Because the question mark is the sign of an explorer, a seeker, a wonderer. Just think of our children at that wonder-full age when everything we say is met with “Why?” or “How?” This is the posture of one who is growing and learning and being formed in the questions—by the questions—of life. To sit in the questions provides an opportunity for all sorts of new insights. To love our questions is to recognize that the questions bring opportunities for growth, maturity, deepening faith, a more profound experience of life itself.
We see Nicodemus being offered this opportunity to learn and grow as he encounters Jesus in his own questions. The question at the heart of our Gospel passage today is: how can we believe something that doesn’t make sense? When Nicodemus is faced with the teaching of Jesus about being “born from above…by water and Spirit,” Nicodemus asks the question we all ask at one point or another: “How can these things be?” One of the things we’ve gotten away from in the last century or so is that much of the Christian faith is mystery. While there is much that is concrete and verifiable—the historical fact of Jesus of Nazareth for one example—the truth is that Christianity is a mystery religion at heart. Our faith is the place where earthly things and heavenly things meet—and there is mystery in that meeting. Much of what lives at the center of our faith simply doesn’t make rational sense—if by “rational sense” we mean that it makes sense according to the familiar, modern, scientific ways of the world.
In a world that has increasingly tried to categorize and rationalize everything, including mystery, we find ourselves ill-equipped to deal with the more mystical aspects of our faith. So what do we do with this teaching of Jesus about the unverifiable, unquantifiable movement of the Spirit (don’t know where it comes from or where it goes)? What do we do with the famous verse, John 3:16? “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.” For a few minutes, I want to focus on just one word in this verse: “believes.”
In our rational, prescriptive way of thinking, to “believe” something has to do with words. And do we ever get hung up on words! We struggle to think of “believing” as something other than working down a checklist of statements and checking the box “yes” or “no.” But Jesus does not say whoever believes in what will be said about me will have eternal life, Jesus says, “everyone who believes in me will have eternal life.” Think about the difference between believing a statement and believing in a person. What does it mean to say to another person, “I believe in you”? This is about a relationship…The invitation is to believe in a person, in the person of Jesus, who not only speaks words about God, but who shows us in the way he lives his life God’s goodness, who shows us God’s mercy, who shows us God’s inclusion of all, who shows us God’s care for the poor and oppressed, who shows us God’s vision for a Kingdom of peace, love, and justice. Theologian Jon Sobrino speaks of believing not in Jesus, but believing in God’s goodness and love through Jesus—that is, Jesus shows us that we can believe that God is alive, that God is working in the world to save the world from itself, that God is love.
All the words of the creeds and affirmations of our faith are simply trying to capture the story of this person. And as we know, words point to, but never fully contain personal experience. Words can’t fully capture what it means to say, “I believe in you.” Every person—including the person of Jesus—is not completely definable or understandable, but always also mystery. This invitation to believe in Jesus is an invitation into the mystery, into the questions…because it’s not all defined or understood.
If you find yourself wanting an answer to your questions—and who doesn’t?!—you need not despair. Part of the mystery of our faith is that we ARE given an answer, but the answer isn’t simplistic or a checklist. The answer is a person…Jesus is God’s answer to all our questions. Suffering, loneliness, hunger and thirst, relationships, betrayal, difficult choices, fear, death. God has entered into our human experience in the person of Jesus, has lived the questions with us, has shown us that God’s presence, God’s purpose, God’s love is at work even in the midst of the most difficult and painful experiences of our lives. The invitation is to enter into relationship with Jesus and to take the risk of hope, the risk of love, the leap of faith that the God and the Kingdom that Jesus speaks of and embodies is not only real, but that we can believe in it and share in its life. The invitation is to live the questions of our lives, open to the Spirit who in ways unknown brings new life, new learning, growth, and an experience of God that is transforming.
And if you struggle to believe that God has come to us in the person of Jesus to give us the most concrete answer to the mysteries of human life that we will ever get, then you’re invited to simply sit with that struggle, to live that question with an open mind and heart. Our Gospel shows us that when Nicodemus comes to Jesus with his questions, Jesus doesn’t blow him off or discount him or judge him. Jesus engages him, enters into relationship with him, speaks not of God’s condemnation, but of God’s love.
As those who recognize that the question mark is a religious symbol, the symbol of the explorer, the seeker, I hope we will honor Nicodemus who came to Jesus asking the question we all ask at one point or another: “How can these things be?” Evidently, Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus made a difference in his life because Nicodemus’ journey with Jesus didn’t end on this night with these questions. He continued to live the questions, open to the Spirit’s transforming power. We know this because he was there with Joseph of Arimathea at Jesus’ burial (John 19:39), gently and generously caring for the body of the crucified Jesus, the person through whom Nicodemus believed in a God who doesn’t always make sense.