I Want To Walk As A Child Of The Light

We’ve heard some tough readings today, haven’t we? I feel as if I’ve just heard a load of bad news. And maybe you. A whole lot of judgment  of a humanity deemed fallen…even depraved.

And fallenness just isn’t the lens  through which most of us see the world. Most of us tend to see the world as composed  of a whole bunch of people generally trying their best, rather than as a whole bunch of sinners  in desperate need of redemption.

And this worldview makes some parts of scripture really hard to hear, and even harder to interpret. Because the Bible contains passages that seem unavoidably judgmental, passages whose basic harshness can’t easily be explained away.

And God knows, when I sat down to write this week,  I really, really wanted to explain everything away. Well, first, I just wanted to throw these texts out  and get some better ones. Ones that are more congenial to my worldview, more amenable to the generous, spacious approach to faith, that feels most good and true to me. I wanted texts that provoke less confusion and less alienation. I wanted to just talk about something nice, instead of the Bible. Next, I got nervous.  I couldn’t find a commentary on the Gospel of John on my bookshelf. And I definitely felt in need of a commentary because I needed to EXPLAIN things to you. I needed to tell you about some better way of interpreting all of this. I needed to help you sort through the mess that 2000 years of preaching about John 3:16 has got us in.

Jesus cannot possibly be condemning people  who do not believe in him, can he??? There has to be room for people of other religions and people with no religion, right??? There has to be another way, a less exclusionary and more compassionate way.

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Now, one thing that might not be evident is that the portion of the Gospel that we just heard is actually the tail end  of a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Jewish religious leader, and unlike many such leaders, he approached Jesus with apparent interest and openness. Yet, at least to my ear, it seems as if the conversation between them quickly degenerated.

Hear again those verses from the beginning of John Chapter 3:

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Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.

He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”

Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?  “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.  If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  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. “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.”

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Now here’s the thing. To my ear, Nicodemus was really trying. He wasn’t there to test Jesus. He was truly trying to understand what Jesus was all about, which was so far outside of his training and tradition as to seem preposterous. Nicodemus was there under the cloak of night because it would have caused quite a stir had his peers seen him consorting with Jesus. Nevertheless, Nicodemus was engaging with Jesus  in seemingly good faith…trying to make sense of Jesus and his message. I experience Nicodemus as genuinely trying. And I like people who try. Which means that I kind of like Nicodemus. Because Nicodemus and I have a lot of the same questions. Jesus was talking a really big game, you see. A cosmic game. So I really don’t find it surprising at all that people had questions, concerns, uncertainties. Because, like Nicodemus, most of us aren’t thinking very cosmically  most of the time. We’re just keeping our noses to the grindstone, trying to make the best of the here and now, coping as well as we can with whatever life dishes out. Most of the time, we just don’t have time or energy for transcendent, cosmic things.

Which means that we certainly don’t have time or energy for this “light and darkness” business, for John’s polarizing way of talking about good and evil. We don’t have time because most of us  are pretty well finished with good and evil. We’re sophisticated enough to know that everyone and everything is a mix of both–in varying proportions, of course–but generally trending toward the good. So we can basically just leave all the bigger moral questions alone.

We’re pretty sure that the arc of the moral universe  really does bend toward justice, all on it’s own. That everything will turn out all right, if we just keep chugging along with all the thoughts and prayers and good intentions we can muster. It’ll be enough, eventually, we hope. If we just want a better world badly enough, and talk about a better world long enough, it will have to happen eventually.

Won’t it?

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Well, the Jesus we meet today in John’s Gospel says, “no.”  It won’t just happen. There are real choices to be made. Choices between good and evil, between light and darkness. Jesus, taking no prisoners, declares that: “all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.”

Now, this is a really strong way of speaking. In our vernacular, we tend to reserve the word “evil” for some pretty specific people and circumstances. The Holocaust was evil. Slavery was evil. Depending upon your politics, some of the recent goings-on in Washington might be classifiable as evil. But that’s about the extent of it. Evil is over there. Somewhere else. Where there’s not all that much we can do about it.

Evil, we think, has little-to-nothing to do with our hum-drum, everyday lives. Nothing we do or don’t do could really be significant enough to merit as strong a designation as evil.

But Jesus is using evil in a much broader, wider, more all-encompassing way than we tend to.  And I think there’s something that can be quite liberating about speaking more easily of evil. Because in so doing, in being willing to try to differentiate good from evil, we gain a more nuanced capacity to name and expose that which is broken in ourselves and in the world. We gain a capacity to more accurately and realistically describe the human condition, in which, as Martin Luther teaches us, we are always simultaneously both saint and sinner. We don’t much like this diagnosis, of course. It generally feels pretty unfair to be called a sinner. “Sinner” doesn’t seem to account for how hard we’re trying. For all the good that is in us. “Sinner” feels diminishing, negating.

But I’ve come to see it a bit differently. Talking about evil and sin is ultimately about being honest. It’s not about putting down oneself or others. It’s not about casting blame or judgment. Rather, it’s about telling the truth that Things Are Not As They Should Be.

Because only when we’ve told this hard truth, only when we’ve finally seen and admitted that things Just Aren’t Working…only then are we able to begin to envision a new way, a better way. Only then are we able to risk stepping into the light. Only then are we willing to risk exposure. Because we have come to know, deep in our bones, that we truly need something different, something better.

Even though we know it can be healing, however, most of us hate the idea of exposure. We hate the idea of others seeing all the less-than-wonderful pieces of us. So we end up designing our lives in ways that reduce the risk of exposure. We do this especially in our many refusals of intimacy and self-revelation. It’s so much easier, in many ways, to remain hidden. To live a compartmentalized life.

And it is this very way of living that Jesus is inviting us to relinquish. Jesus is inviting us…to stop hiding. To come into the light.

“Be in relationship with me,” Jesus invites us. “I refuse to collude with your hiding. And in and through this refusal, I will save you. There is so much freedom to be found in the light.”

And that’s what this is really all about, isn’t it?

Jesus is telling us that if we refuse exposure, if we insist on hiding, then we are ultimately condemning ourselves. Condemning ourselves to whatever it is that happens in our darkness. To all the secret and sordid ways that we flee from abundant life.

So Jesus invites us into the light, into the truth, and thereby into freedom from all that binds us.

But like Nicodemus, we have a lot of questions. And questions are good things, mostly. But when we’d rather ask questions than receive new life, well, Jesus gets a bit incredulous, a bit indignant.

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Jesus is offering a new way of life. A way of life so committed to the truth that it risks the pain of exposure again and again–so that all that is broken in us may receive light and air, so that all that is broken may be healed.

Believing in Jesus, then, means trusting in this eminently truthful way of life, this way of walking in the light. And even though Jesus has shown me the way, shown you the way, I know that we Christians aren’t the only ones walking in the light. There’s more than enough light to go around. The point is to find a way into the light.

You and I have Jesus. A Jesus who says, with maddening love: “I will not collude with your hiding. I will help you bear the risk of exposure. Come into the light. Arise, shine, your light has come.”

 

Amen.

 

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