I am indebted to Jim Kast-Keat, a pioneering preacher who inspired me to open this sermon with the video below. I am also indebted to Bishop John Shelby Spong for teaching me more that I can articulate with words. His excellent book The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic opened the Gospel According to John in ways that have helped me to see aspects of the Divine to which I was once blind. Much of the sermon consists of extensive quotes from chapter 9 of Jack’s book.
Readings: John Chapter 2 and John 3:1-17
Watch the video below carefully before reading or listening to the sermon the sermon below.
So, before tackling the story of Nicodemus, I want to toss two balls into the congregation. The first ball I want to toss over here to this side of the congregation represents something all too familiar, biblical literalism. We know all too well that this particular ball has been distracting the church and most of the western world for the past few centuries. The second ball I want to toss over here to this side of the congregation represents historical biblical criticism. This particular ball is newer. It’s only been seriously tossed about for the past couple of centuries, but it is a really serious contender for our attention. But these balls have acquired a rather rhythmic bounce that tends to mesmerize us. Add to that these other balls the balls of church doctrine and theological dogma and before you know it we are so distracted that we forget what game we were trying to play in the first place as we try to keep up with the various passes made by players that have taken on a professional edge that leaves us watching from the sidelines unable to focus one of them.
None of these balls commanded the attention of the early Christians. They simply weren’t interested in taking the scriptures literally, nor were they particularly interested in the historicity of the scriptures. As for doctrine and dogma, well they were left to the professionals who only came to town on those unpleasant occasions when the league needed to ensure that it’s franchises continued to rake in enough money to keep the game on a sure footing. The scriptures, like all sacred writings, were about so much more than words scribbled on a scroll. The scriptures, like all scared writings, are about the mysteries of life. But these balls have been served up for us to play with and literalism and concerns about historical accuracy have done a magnificent job of distracting us from what really matters in these texts. Our fascination with the details of the fight-patterns of the balls that are tossed around whenever the stories in these texts play through our lives, have caused us to miss so many moon-dancing bears over the years.
Please don’t get me wrong, I love tossing these balls around and over the years I’ve learned to play ball with the best of them. But when a moon-walking bear dances onto the court, at the very least, we ought to notice the bear’s moves because the only way we’re going to learn to dance with these bears is by paying attention.
When it comes to the Gospel according to John, this bear’s got moves that will take your breath away. Unlike the video we just watched, the dancer in the sacred stories that have been woven together by the writer of the Gospel according to John is no clown in an ill-fitting bear costume waving his arms about, no this particular dancer is a beast of spectacular skill who has perfected the art of movement that before you know it, will have us all on our feet and wandering beyond the limits of our bodies, beyond the familiar dance-floors of time and space and out there into the midst of mysteries that have fascinated humans ever since we first crawled out of the primeval ooze of our origins to stand up-right on the stage to enact the play that is undoubtedly the greatest mystery ever staged, the mystery of life. The mystery that is life cannot be depicted by words on a page it must be given flesh by actors, dancers, singers, artists, poets, and play-writes who have the chops to move us beyond the literalism of the familiar, beyond the history, beyond the doctrines and dogmas, to a place were the Mystery that lies at the very heart of our existence thrives, and, moves with such beauty that you can’t help but join in the dance.
Ok, I’ve stretched this particular metaphor about as far as I dare. But I hope by now you are beginning to get the idea that the Gospel according to John is full of moon-dancing bears that we all too often fail to see because we are so taken up with the balls being tossed into the air. If our friend Jack Spong is correct about the Gospel according to John, and this The Fourth Gospel is indeed full of Tales of a Jewish Mystic, then perhaps we had better shake our heads and pay attention to the mystical creatures that moon-dance their way across the pages of this sacred texts.
Jack Spong is so good at spotting moon-dancing bears that I can’t think of a better way of approaching the story of Nicodemus than to dip into Jack’s latest book to see just what kind of moves Jesus and Nicodemus are up to. For those of you who don’t know, here’s a copy of Jack’s bestselling book: The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. In case you have forgotten you are all mentioned in this book. There you are, right there on page 19, where Jack thanks this congregation for providing a place where Jack could present these ideas to the public for the very first time. Any time a congregation manages to make it’s way onto the pages of a bestseller, well we ought to at least take a good look at what the author had to say, especially as Jack has written an entire chapter on the story of Nicodemus. But before we move to Nicodemus let me just remind you what Jack taught us so well, and that is that the Gospel of John was written sometime during the last decade of the first century, nearly 70 years after the life of the man Jesus of Nazareth. We don’t know who wrote this gospel. The oldest manuscripts don’t include the author’s name. Over the centuries the text acquired the name of “The Gospel of John”, and so just because tradition has applied this title, we’ll continue to use the name John, when we speak of this gospel’s author. We do know that the writer wrote this text for a Jewish audience. We also know that a Jewish audience at the end of the first century would have found it a lot easier than we do to see dancing bears in the stories of this gospel. It has been said that when it comes to the Bible, people who live in the 21st century bring so much baggage to the text that the stories have lost their ability to move us.
Can you imagine reading the great stories of literature with the kind of blinders on that we impose upon the bible? Would Shakespeare’s characters be able to get under our skin if we held their stories to the same historical, or ideological standards as we hold the bible? Think of your favorite author, your favorite playwright, or for that matter your favorite movie or tv show, would you get as much out of them, if you interacted with them the same way you do the bible?
These days, one of my favorite tv shows is a sitcom: The Big Bang Theory. Now, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy that show if its characters had to remain true to the characters they play. I know that scientists aren’t as quirky as Sheldon and engineers aren’t nearly as ridiculous as Walowitz. But I’ve seen a lot of real-life reflected in the stories that follow the lives of those fools. Nicodemus is kind of like Sheldon. Nicodemus is just as much a mythical character as Sheldon is. Like Sheldon, Nicodemus never really existed and yet Nicodemus has always existed. Like Sheldon, Nicodemus is a professional, an educated man who can’t see past the facts. The mysteries and the subtleties of life elude them both. Both Sheldon and Nicodemus function in the realm of the literal word. Nicodemus can no more understand Jesus when he talks about being born again than Sheldon can understand sarcasm. The irony of his situation eludes Nicodemus.
Nicodemus that great religious leader comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness to find out what living in the light might be like. Nicodemus is just as much of a literary construct as the hapless Sheldon. Both of these literary characters are designed by their authors to help us to see our own blindness. These characters have been designed to reflect our inability to see what’s before our very eyes.
The author of John sees in the life and teachings of Jesus a new way of being in the world; a new way of being human and he knows that in order to see this new way of being people will have to put away their old way of seeing things. Jesus is a leader like no other. Jesus does the unexpected. Jesus doesn’t act like we expect him to act. So you think religious leaders are wrapped up in rules and regulations, well the author of John want’s us to look closer, so right out there in the very beginning of his gospel, he tells a story like no other. Jesus turns water into wine. Jesus turns over the tables in the temple; wine, the best wine you can imagine, gallons and gallons of it, so that the feasting can continue. Tired of the excesses of religion, well Jesus has had enough as well, so he marches right into the belly of the beast and gives the powers that be a case of such indigestion by overturning their whole system and scattering their treasures all over the place. The author tells his story in a way that would have alerted his listeners to the fact that Jesus was about to open them up to the deepest mysteries of life. No messing about here with details. Jesus is going to get right to the heart of their deepest questions about life.
Our friend Jack Spong writes, “John was writing as a Jewish mystic and must be read in this way. He was speaking about a new dimension of life, not a new religious status. His words, however, have been read and interpreted against the background of a dualistic Greek worldview that contrasted the high life of religion and God, and the lower life of desire and humanity. “These ideas are not what the Fourth Gospel is suggesting. Jesus is from another realm, which he called the realm of God, but this realm must be understood experientially, not spatially.” Jack insists that the realm that John is talking about is, “Mystical, not dogmatic, theological.”
Unfortunately, according to Jack, John’s stories were “destined to be interpreted inside a Greek dualism that suggested there was an external realm of God to which Jesus belonged and that he had left that realm to enter the realm of flesh and blood. Jack believes, that our way of reading this Gospel, traps us into seeing things in the same way the ancient Greeks did, and like them we end up reducing everything to black and white in our material understanding of flesh and blood versus the spiritual or sacred. According to Jack, “This view makes Jesus something of a divine visitor masquerading as a real human being. Nothing could be farther from the mind of the author of the Fourth Gospel.”
Historically the church has created and entrenched doctrines like the doctrine of the Trinity and tried to fit the life and death of Jesus into a mold so tightly that there’s scarcely any room for the possibility of mystery. Listen to what Jack writes, “The author of the Fourth Gospel would have understood none of this. John was a Jew, not a Greek. He was a mystic, not a rational theologian. What he did understand, however, is that Jesus represented a new dimension of humanity, a new insight, a new consciousness, a new way of relating to the holy; and all of this he place into Jesus’ conversation with his mythical character named Nicodemus. For you, Nicodemus, to understand who I am and what I am about, Jesus was saying, you must enter a transformative experience. You must see with insight or second sight. You must open yourself to a totally new perspective. Nicodemus, who is portrayed as enjoying the darkness of his own religious night, is incapable of making sense out of these words. His response, the response of eyes bound by the limits of his own mind, is almost predictable. It was a frequent response present in the audience for which John was writing. So, John has Nicodemus say, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb?”
Listen to the way Jack describes the response of Jesus in this story, “John’s Jesus tries again, once more employing the “Truly, truly, formula, hoping to gain new understanding. “Unless one is born of water and the spirit, he or she cannot enter the real of God,” Jesus says. “Water” in this phrase is not a secret reference to baptism, which according to traditional church teachings is to be undergone at or near one’s birth in order to commit the child to the Christ path; nor is “spirit” a secret reference to that conversion process when a decision is made to accept Jesus “as my personal saviour,” to use standard evangelical language, which is supposed to guarantee to the convert the gifts of the spirit.
According to Jack, “To be “born of water” is simply to be born into the life of this world, a process achieved in the breaking of the maternal waters. To be “born of the spirit” is to step into a new dimension of what it means to be human. John makes that abundantly clear in the next sentence, when he has Jesus say: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the spirit is spirit.”
Then Jesus identifies the spirit with the mystery of the wind “that blows where it will and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or where it goes.” To be born of the sprit is this same kind of mysterious, mystical experience.”
Then Jack goes on to argue that, “to be human is to enter into self-consciousness. It is to live knowingly in the medium of time. It is to remember the past and to be able to relive it in one’s mind. It is to anticipate the future and to revel in it before it arrives. To be human is also to embrace finitude and mortality. It is to know that while your mind can roam beyond the limits of your body, your body is bound in time and space. To be self-conscious is to view all of life from within the center of the self, to look out to the world from the perspective of one who is somehow separated and distinct from that world. To be self-conscious is to feel loneliness, to know anxiety and to be engaged in a chronic struggle for survival. It is to see oneself as related to the whole, but without losing one’s identity inside the whole. It is not to be a raindrop in the sea of God. Self-consciousness, however, does open up the possibility of escaping all boundaries and touching, seeing and experiencing a universal consciousness, a radical new awareness of connectedness, a mystical sense of identity with that which is ultimate.”
“That” according to Jack, “is an experience that only self-conscious human beings can have. That is also what John’s Jesus is talking about in this conversation with the character Nicodemus, who has used religion to bind his ability to see inside his predictable boundaries of security. That is not what John believes he himself has experienced in Jesus, and so he has Jesus seek to open the eyes of the earthbound and flesh-limited Nicodemus. According to Jack, “Nicodemus is blinded by his potential vision. “How can these things be? Nicodemus asks.
Jesus points to the limitations of religion in his response: “You are a teacher of Israel,” a member of the religious elite,” and you do not understand this?” Jesus insists, “I represent another realm of reality, I have seen a new vision. Unless you are willing to undergo a transformative experience and thereby escape your self-imposed boundaries, you will not believe.”
Jesus is a moon-dancing bear who dances into our perception or does not it all depends upon whether we are willing to take our eyes of the balls long enough to see what is dancing in the midst of the game. Our finely executed passes mean nothing if we miss the wonders of the mystery. Jesus opens us to a new way of being in the world. Jesus frees us from our obsession with religious game playing. Jesus points us toward a deeper level of consciousness, a more expansive way of being human.
So let us do more than just notice the mystery. Let us join in the dance. Let us embrace the mystery. For as our friend Jack always reminds us, “If God is the source of life, let us worship God by living.
If God is the source of Love, let us worship God by loving. If God is the ground of being, let us worship God by having the courage to be more fully human; the embodiment of the Divine.