Sermon: Trinity Sunday, May 27, 2018 – John 3: 1-17
Ralph Connor Memorial United Church, Canmore AB – Rev Greg Wooley
In the game of golf, there is a long-standing tradition known as the mulligan. While not existing in ANY of the official rules, and in fact completely contrary to them, a mulligan is a do-over – re-taking a shot that you flubbed the first time. For those of you who may be wondering, the term traces back nearly 100 years to an amateur golfer named David Bernard Mulligan, born right here in Canada.
Across the history of sport, there are countless individuals who would give anything to have been given a Mulligan on an unfortunate play that has defined their legacy. Championships have been won and lost on the big interception, the big fumble recovery, the tricky bounce or the crucial penalty call, and while us sports fans might remember the name of the short-term hero who was on the receiving end of the good fortune, chances are extremely good that the name of the long-term goat who made the ill-advised play in the first place will live on forever.
But it’s not just in sports, is it? There are countless pivotal moments in life where, if we could look to the heavens and be granted a Mulligan, we would do so. Those whose lives have been marked with addictions can certainly attest to this; many can tell you when and where they had their first drink, smoked their first cigarette, played a VLT for the first time. And I would be safe in saying that 100% of those gathered here today have spoken words that we want to take back almost immediately, or have made decisions that have changed the entire course of our lives or someone else’s life, that we would do differently if given the chance. Along with the many high points of life, when we are filled with gratitude and joy for the gift of being alive, are those embarrassing moments when we hope that nobody was looking, and those regretful moments when we know full well that somebody was looking.
One night, a high-ranking Pharisee named Nicodemus came to see Jesus. He came by night, because his standing, as a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, would have been deeply compromised if he’d been seen turning to Jesus for advice, but also because the gospel of John wants us to see the contrast between the darkness that Nicodemus is grasping around in, and the illumination that comes his way in Jesus. We really don’t know what question was on the mind of Nicodemus when he came to Jesus, for he led not with a question, but with a statement of confidence in this new young preacher from Nazareth. Their discourse (John 3: 2-7), as presented in The Voice Bible Translation, goes like so:
Nicodemus: Teacher, some of us have been talking. You are obviously a teacher who has come from God. The signs You are doing are proof that God is with You.
Jesus: I tell you the truth: only someone who experiences birth for a second time can hope to see the kingdom of God.
Nicodemus: I am a grown man. How can someone be born again when he is old like me? Am I to crawl back into my mother’s womb for a second birth? That’s impossible!
Jesus: I tell you the truth, if someone does not experience water and Spirit birth, there’s no chance he will make it into God’s kingdom…Don’t be shocked by My words, but I tell you the truth. Even you, an educated and respected man among your people, must be reborn by the Spirit to enter the kingdom of God.
Experiencing birth for a second time – or in its more common phrasing, being “born again.” Starting with Martin Luther’s emphasis on this scripture 500 years ago, picking up steam in the Great (evangelical) Awakening of the 17th century, then coming to full expression in North America with the Pentecostal movement then the rise of Fundamentalism in the 20th century, this term of being a “born again Christian” has come to be more and more identified with one particular wavelength on the Christian spectrum, rather than being something that to be embraced by all of us. And while that is understandable, it is also unfortunate, because what Jesus is offering here is not a narrowing of the community that will have full access to God’s forgiving grace, but a broadening. What Jesus offers to Nicodemus, and to all of us, is a re-do, a great big Mulligan in life, and that is worth both contemplation and celebration.
In another encounter, recounted in the other three gospels but not in John, a rich young ruler came to Jesus and, unlike Nicodemus, he did have words for the question: ““Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” After some clarifying questions, Jesus answered him with the memorable words, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mark 10: 17,21) If you remember what happened next, the young man went away disheartened, because he knew that his attachment to his current way of life was just too strong to let go of. Yet here, again, Jesus offered a Mulligan: there was a way for this young searcher to find life in all its fullness by starting over again, just as there was a way for devout old Nicodemus.
In both cases, these people searched Jesus out; and in both cases, Jesus calls them to practice “non-attachment:” relinquishing those things that they are most attached to in order to experience life in all its fullness. In putting this concept in front of these people, and us, Jesus stands amidst the religious traditions of the world, saying something that resonates with the devout everywhere. Within Buddhism, for example, all of life’s suffering is said to emanate from our attachments to things, and not just bad things – even our commitment to our families, or to being informed & knowledgeable about the world, can draw us away from the serenity of the moment. Roman Catholic theologian and mystic Richard Rohr describes non-attachment as “clean-heartedness” – not clinging to anything (or avoiding anything) but being in touch with “the eternity of consciousness” and “holding the world just as it is.” Jesus invites the rich young ruler to such non-attachment, to not be controlled by his wealth and his pursuit of success, to let go of those things and to follow that release with a new life of learning and discipleship. Jesus invites Nicodemus, at a later stage in life, to such “clean-heartedness”: to not be controlled by his status or his connections or his doctrines, to let go of those things and to follow that release with a new and re-born life that trusts the love of a nurturing, mothering God. The do-over offered by Jesus will not erase the consequences of the past, but they will open up an extraordinarily new future.
Returning our focus to Nicodemus alone, it is significant, that Jesus uses the language he does in this evening encounter. As 21st century liberal Christians we hear the call to be “born again” in a particular way, but how would Nicodemus have heard it? Some of them would have been familiar with the baptismal practices of Jesus and his disciples or of John the Baptist, some may have been worldly enough to have heard of the idea of karma and rebirth within the Hindu tradition, but more than likely these words of Jesus would have pushed them right back to source… as they were intended to. Any time we hear a Biblical reference to water, we are brought back to the creation story, of God infusing the entire created order with goodness as the swirling waters were brought under control, as water and dry land are defined and separated, as the unknown perils of the deep were tamed. The cleansing, refreshing goodness of water, without which life could not exist, reminds us of our reliance on the love of God, which has brought us everything from the air we breathe which brings us life, to the presence of Christ Jesus which brings us hope.
And in using the metaphor of being born once more, of going once more into the amniotic waters that gave us life, Jesus intentionally chooses an image that we cannot engage without engaging the feminine aspects of the divine. Jesus invites Nicodemus, not just to forget what he has learned and start afresh with new understandings, but to rewind all the way to being safe in the womb, completely reliant on Mama God, having experienced nothing yet of human living. In those waters, we return to a state of knowing only the protection and nurturance of God’s love for us and for the whole world, and from there re-enter life as a new person. In the metaphor of being born a second time, of water and spirit, Jesus reminds anyone who is willing to listen that we can come back to a state of relying on God’s holy love, trusting in God’s ways of harmony and mercy. That is a pathway available to all. But it is not simply tinkering with what already is. This is not running a quick disk clean-up, this is reformatting the hard drive. Jesus calls Nicodemus – and the rich young ruler – and me – and you – to examine the ways that our current thoughts and life patterns alienate us from one another and from God’s best intentions for our lives, and to take the plunge; to give ourselves over, completely, to the freedom of liberation rather than continuing to live under the burdens that we have volunteered to live under. We are called, at a number of points in life, to let go of everything that so adeptly removes us from God, in order to be reunified with that indwelling goodness.
There are times in life, when we know that starting over would be a great thing. Often, unfortunately, the things that weigh us down are things we can’t just release: disease, poverty, sacred commitments to our children, or inescapable circumstances that trap us where we are. But even then, there is much we can do to declare who we are and whose we are, that I am defined not by the shape of that which oppresses me, but by the love of the one who was my source and is my destination. This past week, Christian leaders from a wide range of Churches in the US – including Michael Curry, the Anglican Bishop we heard preach at the royal wedding, including Richard Rohr whom I quoted earlier, including Vashti McKenzie, the first female bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church – held a vigil at the White House, calling for nothing less than a rebirth of those who claim the name of Jesus, to actually start behaving that way. This movement, called “Reclaiming Jesus,” has posted a long, moving confession of faith, which includes these words: “In Christ, there is to be no oppression based on race, gender, identity, or class (Galatians 3:28). The body of Christ, where those great human divisions are to be overcome, is meant to be an example for the rest of society. When we fail to overcome these oppressive obstacles, and even perpetuate them, we have failed in our vocation to the world—to proclaim and live the reconciling gospel of Christ.” I would endorse those words completely, nothing that breaking down those divisions is what’s at the heart of the Affirming Ministries project that we have undertaken here at Ralph Connor. There comes a time when we, as followers of Jesus, need to survey the landscape of the world around us, and the landscape of our own hearts, and go back to the beginning – give ourselves back to the love that is entwined in each strand of our DNA. We are, in the loving eyes of the Divine, children of love in a world of life, and that reality is ours to claim if we so choose.
Each day we rise, we have the opportunity to say, this day is of God and so am I. Each sunrise gives us the opportunity to identify love as the overarching theme of our lives, and choose thoughts and actions in this day that claim that love as our essence and proclaim that love as our future. Each day, we can release images of God that keep us away from being renewed in love, and entrust ourselves into the mothering embrace of the divine. Each day can be the day that we seek reconciliation, wherever our lives are broken. Each day, Jesus offers us that re-do, that life-sized Mulligan we need, in order to make the life that begins THIS day, a life that will not be conformed in the shape of greed or protectionism or prejudice, a life that will not be subdued by addiction, a life that will not be defined by unworthy masters. Those changes do not come easily, but they can begin once we let go, and let God.
Whether we recognize it or not, each of us stands on the precipice of a life that can be fuller than the life we are living right now. Embracing the opportunity to take a positive, scary step forward, is our decision to make. And for that opportunity of new life, and the future hope that comes with it, we offer God, our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, our lives and our praise. Thanks be to God, Amen.
References consulted or cited:
Jarayam V. “Understanding your attachments.” www.hinduwebsite.com/divinelife/essays/attachment.asp
Quora: discussion about “born again” terminology. https://www.quora.com/When-did-the-popular-Christian-religious-notion-of-being-born-again-emerge
Reclaiming Jesus: “A Confession of Faith in a time of crisis.” http://www.reclaimingjesus.org/
Rohr, Richard, adapted from Russ Hudson, The Enneagram as a Tool for Your Spiritual Journey (CAC: 2009), disc 5.
© 2018 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.