Tuesday, March 18, 2014
Born again or baptism or the same?
Except you be born of water and the Spirit, you cannot see the Kingdom of God. . . Can it be that we hear Jesus' words in this Gospel and NOT think baptism? It is amazing how much we miss as we spiritualize texts that are meant to be concrete and real! Nicodemus understood water and washing. Every Jew dealt with water used practically and symbolically all day long – from the washing of the feet to the cleansing of the food from the market. Nicodemus also understood the Spirit. As a vaunted teacher, he knew better than to deny the expansiveness of God who fills all things whether we see or acknowledge this or not. What he did not get is water AND the Spirit. This was new. That the Spirit of God would be attached to a concrete earthly element like water was the surprise of grace Nicodemus did not get. . . and maybe we miss it, too.
The greatest danger to the faith is the spiritualization of the Kingdom of God and the grace that gains us entrance into that kingdom. Unless we have the concrete forms of the means of grace, we meet God only on the plane of feelings, choice, and emotion. Jesus insists that God is only known where He reveals Himself. We know that He has revealed Himself and tied Himself to the concrete forms of the means of grace – the Word and the Sacraments.
The kingdom of God is about grace but this grace is tied to mortal form –in the flesh of Jesus. The incarnation is behind all sacramental theology – from the water of His promise to the bread and wine of His body and blood to the living voice of His Word that speaks and bestows what it says. What surprised Nicodemus and us is that God hides Himself in earthly forms and works through them.
Born of water and the Spirit, says Jesus. I think Nicodemus knew that Jesus was pointing not to some vague spiritual idea because he asked how he was to enter his mother's womb and be born anew. Jesus points to a new womb, the womb of baptismal water and a birth not of flesh, from below, but of the Spirit from above. But here is where it gets pointed. Refuse the earthly form that gives this heavenly grace and there is no kingdom left.
This is the shock. If you will not meet Jesus where Christ has chosen to be met in the Word and Sacraments, then there is no Jesus to know, no kingdom to enter, and no access to grace. But. . . and here the but awakens our hope. . . but trust the mystery of the grace of God hidden in earthly form and the Kingdom of God is YOURS forevermore.
We have disfigured the face of faith and turned it into an individual's feeling, emotion, or choice. It is all me. My feeling, my choice, my emotion, my decision. Where is God in this? Where is His grace? If we choose it, then we can unchoose it. If we create it by believing, then we can destroy it by our refusal to believe. This is not how Scripture speaks. This is not what Jesus says. The Kingdom of God comes in the concrete forms of the means of grace. It is there or it is no where at all. It does not depends upon our believing but our benefit from that grace comes only to those who believe.
To be saved is no private relationship or choice. It is God bringing us into His kingdom through the entrance of baptism. We do not come to God. God comes to us. God opens the door through which we enter into the community of His chosen people, the people of His promise. We wear the promise as the mark of baptism and the sign of the Kingdom. We belong not by choice but by God's call and by the door to that kingdom which we enter through the means of grace, specifically, baptism.
It is here we meet the promise of an eternal future prepared for us. Nicodemus did not challenge this but asked the typical question of those who would confuse faith with understanding. How can this be? Jesus ridicules the question by asking him how a teacher of Israel could have forgotten this most basic truth. Jesus points to the preview of the sacraments when Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. How were the people healed? By faith. They trusted in the promise of the Lord visible and accessible in the sacramental form of that staff and bronze serpent. Jesus says so it is with Him.
Faith meets God where God has promised to be. Faith does not create or establish this meeting. Faith trusts the promise of God. The promise of God comes to us not as vague words but the specific Word attached to water, to bread and wine, and to the voice of absolution. It is outside of us and comes into us by the work of the Spirit. We are its objects. This Lent we are called to return to the place where we met the Lord and entered His kingdom – returning to His baptismal promise in water.
The sacraments are not given to us to understand. God does not ask us to understand Him but to meet Him upon the plain of simple trust. The means of grace are and remain mysteries to us. But they are the mysteries where the Kingdom of God comes to us like an open door, with the voice of God's Word bidding to us come. . . be baptized. . . and believe. What baptism calls to us, the Spirit makes possible. We come not to understand God but to trust in Him.
Our strength in temptation, our refuge in trouble, and our confidence in doubt are not a decision or a choice we made or a feeling we have. Temptation, trouble, and doubts rob us of these things and call into question everything we want to believe. There is only one thing that endures. The Word of the Lord. The seal and promise of baptism is that whatever befalls us, we belong to Him. His Word is not conditional. His promise is not temporary.
Nicodemus thought he understood water and thought he understood the Spirit. What he did not understand was Water AND the Spirit – baptism. But this was not given to us to understand. Baptism was given to us that we might meet the Lord where He has placed His promise, that through this means we might see the Kingdom of God, enter it by grace, and be equipped by the work of the Spirit to live in this grace. It is our assurance that we are God's people now and it is the pledge and promise of the eternity He has prepared for us, the people of God.
As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up. In baptism there He is, lifted up, that believing we might see and seeing we might believe and be saved. Amen.