Growing in Grace

[A sermon preached on John 3:1-21 at Hermon Presbyterian Church.]

Have you ever experienced one of those awkward moments at a wedding? If you’re anything like me, you’ve been to a fair share of weddings where you only know the bride or the groom, and so inevitably, you’re left mingling with strangers at the reception, struggling to make small talk, while waiting for the couple to make their grand entrance. Now, if there’s one rule for these sorts of conversations, it’s never mention money, politics, or religion, otherwise things are bound to go wrong. But I can remember one such occasion, sitting with five or six folks I’d just met, when my neighbor turns to me and, completely out of the blue, asks “So, when was your spiritual birthday?”

Since I’ve never had the best poker face, I’m sure I gave her a quizzical look or maybe even took a sip of my drink to stifle a giggle. Perhaps she didn’t know I was a Presbyterian pastor? Maybe if I had answered, “excuse me, what?” or asked for clarification she would have attempted to proselytize or share the Gospel? It’s possible that this was a less-than-tactful attempt at ferreting out my religious background or expressing concern for my salvation (a lead-in akin to the cliché question, “If you were to die tonight, do you know where you’re going?”). I have to confess that these types of conversations aren’t my preferred method of evangelism. It’s an awkward and impersonal way to delve into what’s often a sensitive subject. It’s presumptive, particularly when it’s a stranger posing the question.

Nevertheless, these types of uncomfortable conversations are often what we think of when we hear this familiar text. Many of us can quote John 3:16 by heart: “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.” We find it on bumper stickers and billboards, Sunday night football and chain emails. Often this verse is cited as an evangelism tool, something that lays out the Gospel and reinforces the need to profess one’s faith in Jesus in order to avoid hellfire and damnation. But in addition to being pushy and preachy, my neighbor’s “gotcha” approach, likely buoyed by this verse, completely misses the point of our text this morning.

Believing in Christ, trusting in him, and becoming a disciple is often more of a process than a single, one-time event. To tell you the truth, I probably couldn’t answer my neighbor’s question about the exact date I “made a decision for Christ” because that’s not typically the way Christians in the Reformed tradition articulate their beliefs about salvation. Presbyterians tend to emphasize the Love of God seeking us out even before we’re ever aware of God or are capable of turning to Christ. We trust in a God who actively pursues us and claims us, not a God who waits on our decisions and whims. Drawing closer to God is the work of a lifetime, and throughout the journey there are ups and downs, faith and doubt, moments of clarity and assurance and moments of uncertainty. Like the saints before us, we believe that the prayer of the faithful is “Lord, we believe; help our unbelief!”

Nicodemus, the Pharisee who seeks out Jesus in this morning’s Gospel reading, provides a compelling example of what this incremental process of becoming a disciple can look like. In this passage, we overhear the first of his three encounters with Jesus, and afterwards we’re left scratching our heads as to where Nicodemus stands. On one hand, he affirms Jesus as a teacher and expresses his belief that God is at work in and through Jesus. Throughout the conversation, he asks honest questions and wrestles with his faith, though Jesus is seemingly speaking in riddles and metaphors as he tends to do with his disciples. On the other hand, Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of night for fear of losing his status as a religious leader. Jesus also comments on his lack of understanding, and we wonder if he might be so wrapped up in his religious training that he doesn’t have ears to hear Jesus’ message. At this point in the story, Nicodemus is an ambiguous character at best, but this encounter is only act one, and God isn’t done with him yet.

Later on in chapter seven, the crowds in Jerusalem are divided in their perspectives on Jesus. Some called him a prophet, others thought he was the Messiah, and some assumed he was just a hoax, a fraud, like the other magicians and street preachers of their age. The religious leaders had already sent temple police to arrest him multiple times, but they had come back empty handed and the Pharisees were at a loss. They look around the room and ask “Has any one of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him?” (7:48). I can just picture Nicodemus sweating in his seat, wanting to speak up about his clandestine conversation with Jesus, longing to share his mixed feelings about him – his doubts and hopes, his struggle and curiosity, yet fearing the reaction of his peers. Does any one of you believe in him?

Remember those words of John 3:16 – “everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (3:16)? Unable to say “Yes, I believe,” nor able to say “No way, arrest him,” Nicodemus argues for a middle ground. “What about due process?” he blurts. Taking a deep breath as a hush settles over their assembly and all eyes turn to look at him, he explains that it’s not their custom to judge people without at least giving them a hearing. It’s not the answer we’re all rooting for – the hero’s answer wherein he stands up for this condemned man, this unlikely Savior, this one to whom he’s entrusted his life. But by the grace of God, he’s a step closer than he was in act one, and Jesus is off the hook yet again, free to teach and heal and serve God’s people for ten more chapters. Nicodemus, it seems, is no longer hiding in the shadows, but not yet basking in the light.

The next time we see Nicodemus, though, things have drastically changed. Jesus has succumbed to those who had plotted against him. He has died a horrible, agonizing death, surely not a fate befitting a Savior. And as chapter nineteen draws to a close, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who John tells us is one of Jesus’ secret disciples, show up to prepare Christ’s body for burial. Commentators explain that after crucifixion, most bodies were left to rot on their crosses as dogs and vultures took their fill – a warning to those who would dare to defy the powers-at-be. Yet, Nicodemus tenderly prepares Christ’s body for burial, bringing a costly gift, a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloe to anoint his body. Here we can see the care he takes in cleaning the body and wrapping it in spiced linens, then finding a fitting resting place – a garden tomb rather than a hangman’s display.

In this achingly beautiful Good Friday scene, Jesus is so intimately cared for, so lavishly attended to, that we can’t help but wonder if Nicodemus has transitioned from skeptical seeker to devoted disciple – flawed and fearful as he might be. We can’t help but notice that every encounter with Jesus has brought forth transformation. Journeying with Jesus on the way to the Cross, Nicodemus draws closer and closer to the very heart of God. One of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott, often reminds me that grace meets us where we are but never leaves us there. I think that’s true for Nicodemus and for all of us.

If we take anything from Nicodemus’ faith story, it’s that God’s transforming work in our lives doesn’t come with prerequisites. Nowhere in the story do we hear a clear articulation of what Nicodemus believes about God. He hasn’t exactly penned a treatise enumerating his perspective on the essential tenets of the Christian faith. But believing in Christ – trusting him, following him, losing ourselves in service to him – is a whole lot different than believing facts about him. Jesus isn’t asking us to pass an entrance exam; he’s simply inviting us to walk alongside him in love.

With that being said, I invite you to hear again Christ’s words to Nicodemus, his message to all those who pray, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” Christ assures us, “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.” This self-sacrificing love is unconditional. As I read with the children just a few moments ago, it’s a love that welcomes our inside and our outside, our happy side and our sad side, our silly side and our mad side, our fears and our hopes, our faith and our doubt. It’s a love that goes through and through, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, too. A love that bears with us as we grow in grace, calling us deeper and deeper into God’s eternal embrace. It’s a love wherein find a voice that speaks out, a boldness that enables us to show up for others, and a heart attuned to the movement of the Spirit in our midst. And the process of writing that love story within each of our lives never ends. Thanks be to God. Amen.