my miscellany

Lent II, 2023 — 5 Mar 23

Lent II, 2023

Tanner, Henry Ossawa, 1859-1937. Nicodemus, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57924 [retrieved March 1, 2023]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Henry_Ossawa_Tanner_-_Jesus_and_nicodemus.jpg.

RCL Year A, Lent 2
Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5 and 13-17, Saint John 3:1-17

Last Sunday, I declared to you that the Church had given us a feast of rich readings whose subjects and themes were so closely connected that they almost preached themselves. Today those connections are harder to see, but they are there. The way to see those connections is to imagine a structure of two layers, one on top of another. If you will, put that two-layered structure in your mind as we have a look at the Scriptures today.

First, let us look at the Gospel, arguably the most famous of Jesus’ interviews ending with the verse in the Bible best-known to Christians.

The Pharisee Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. He is serious; he is sincere; he believes that Jesus has come from God because of the signs Jesus has done; he wants to know more; he is on the fringe of Jesus’ followers. Today we would call a lurker. He might become a follower.

The pivotal thing Jesus says to him is, “What is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”[1] There is the two-layered structure: spirit, above, and flesh, beneath. Nicodemus in the flesh has seen the kingdom in the signs Jesus has performed. Jesus is telling him that to do more than just observe the kingdom, to be part of the kingdom, one must be born from above; one must be born of water and Spirit. Nicodemus never comprehends what Jesus is saying; he is mired in the world of sensory perception. He never glimpses the spiritual world.

Jesus and Nicodemus never really get past this divide. They talk past one another, Nicodemus speaking of earth and physical things, Jesus speaking of heaven and spiritual things. They never really meet. The spiritual world has a glass ceiling that Nicodemus cannot crack, unless he cracks it in the end, when he joins Joseph of Arimathea to bury Jesus.[2]

Then, there is Abram in the First Lesson. He is living with his father in a far-off land when God calls him from that land to another land where he will become a great nation and a blessing. The reading tells us, “So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.”[3] There is the two-layered structure: by obeying God, Abram surpasses life as he knew it and breaks into life as God promises it.

When Saint Paul gets his hands on the story of Abraham, the layers have different names, but they are similar layers. Life as he knew it becomes the law or works, and life as God promises it becomes faith or righteousness. Abraham surpasses law and works to live a life of faith and righteousness.

In this Eucharist, in these readings, and in the holy Season of Lent, Jesus tells us of heavenly things. He gives us the promise he came to give sinners eternal life and to save the world. And we can live the life of his promise. As he tells Nicodemus, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”[4] Lifted up Jesus will be. And we shall break through and live the life of his promise if we say, with Saint Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”[5]

[1] Saint John 3:6.

[2] Saint John 19:39.

[3] Genesis 12:4.

[4] Saint John 3:15.

[5] Saint John 20:28.

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