Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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            Gifts, true gifts, can utterly baffle us. We can understand the economy of gift exchange – you invite me to dinner, I owe you a return invitation. We can understand the notion of merit – I love her and she’s great, I really ought to get her something, she deserves it. It would be mean or unloving not to do so. We understand the idea of gifts to encourage people – the kid is a budding musician, I want to support her by buying her a good instrument. We can understand gifts for consoling people or even buttering them up or because we feel guilty. That sort of mutual give and take that has reasons is what we can anticipate and expect from certain kinds of relationships. But a gift given for absolutely no reason but the generosity of the giver, given out of the blue and that is utterly unanticipated, and that expects nothing in return, we really have a hard time understanding. But, I would like to suggest, that if it is the case that we cannot understand them, such gifts, though, do have the power of expanding and renewing our understanding.

            What that means may itself be baffling, so let me explain by recounting this morning’s Gospel lesson about Nicodemus and Jesus. It is a story about a true gift, and about Nicodemus’ question at the center of the story when he asks, baffled, “How can these things be?”

            The opening is promising. Nicodemus, a Pharisee and thus a religious authority, recognizes that there is something going on with Jesus. He has seen the signs that Jesus has done. God is somehow involved, and Jesus would seem to be a teacher from God. That is what he says. His expertise has led him to that conclusion. But there seems to be an unasked question somewhere here, too. It seems to be implied that he has come to Jesus to ask, “What is going on?” “How are you doing these things?” Whether he does so because he is interested and not sure what is going on or because the Pharisees have asked him to investigate is not clear.

            If he means to ask that question, though, he never gets to it, as Jesus responds before he can ask it. What Jesus says doesn’t answer it, anyhow. Instead, Jesus goes straight at Nicodemus’ ability to understand any answer that Jesus might give. For, he tells Nicodemus that no one can see what God is really doing unless one is born anew. Now, the word he uses could mean “again” or “anew” of “from above” which is the way our Bibles translate it. It seems to me that “anew” really may be the better translation, because, what Jesus is telling Nicodemus is that, unless one has a fresh understanding of things, unless one quits trying to understand them as one understood things in the past, one isn’t going to get it at all. One needs a new mindset. The old way of understanding, and Nicodemus’ and the Pharisees’ education are what seem to be at stake here,  simply won’t capture whatever the relation is between what Jesus is doing and God.

            This is underlined pretty quickly as Nicodemus takes Jesus to mean “again” not “anew” and goes into a ridiculous line of questioning, wondering how anybody can re-enter into one’s mother’s womb and be born again. He seems bent on proving Jesus’ point. But now Jesus says what the issue is. Whatever God does is like the wind. We experience it, but we really don’t know where it comes from, nor where it is going. That is what it is like with the Spirit, and if Nicodemus knows anything from being a teacher in Israel, and it is something that a teacher of Israel above all should know, for it is what sets him apart from other teachers, is that God acts in surprising ways. From Israel’s first encounter with the Lord when the Lord appeared to Abraham, the Lord has always given unbidden and unanticipated gifts, which is to say, grace.

            Rightly, then, Nicodemus, responds by asking, “How can these things be?” He thought he knew how things worked. It turns out that, according to Jesus, there is something much more going on than Nicodemus’ education had prepared him for. He has hit a wall. It turns out that, with the God of grace and with the grace he bestows upon us, which is often unimaginable and certainly unexpected, that is all that we can say. “How can these things be?” God’s grace does not fit into any of our theology as it were. Our theology, if it is any good, needs to bear witness to the fact that God is like that.

            Okay. That is a general point. But, I said that it is a genuine gift that baffles us. Nicodemus is baffled. But where is the gift? Is it the works that Jesus is doing and that Nicodemus is impressed by? Is Jesus just telling him to accept this and to not think about it too hard? No. For, what Jesus ultimately wants to do is to get Nicodemus to see that there is a gift here. He points straight at it when he finally summarizes what he is trying to tell him. He says explicitly what it is when he says, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus is the gift, not the works he is doing, and until Nicodemus and his crew can see that, they will not have any real sense of what an answer might be to “what is going on?” or even “how can these things be?”

            On the other hand, and this is the important point, once someone does see things anew and sees that he is the gift, and that what God is doing God is doing in his only begotten Son Jesus Christ, then it is possible to understand the whole world anew and in a brighter, clearer light. How? Because suddenly one begins to see that this gift, this life, is the key to everything. Jesus is not just a wonder worker because God wants wonders worked. He is not just a teacher, just better than the Pharisees. He is, as St. John reminds us in the very beginning of his Gospel, the Word that was with God in the beginning, the one through whom all things were made, the light and life of all people, and the one through whom grace and truth come. He is not a vehicle; he is what God gives us for our lives and God gives nothing less than him. He does not come to show us that God loves us; he is God’s love to us, and to the whole world.

            William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury in the early 1940s, sheds light on what this means. In his commentary on the Gospel of John, Temple wrote that the summary “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” is “the heart of the gospel.” He went on firmly to underline how particular and distinctive this is. He said: “Not ‘God is love’ – a precious truth, but affirming no divine act for our redemption.” “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son: of course, the words indicate a cost to God’s heart. He gave: it was an act, not only a continuous mood of generosity.” This is to say, the heart of the gospel is not a general truth about God, namely, that God is love. Rather, that general truth, which is truly important, is only really known in the very particular and the unique gift of Jesus Christ, God’s Son. We will not know what God’s love is, no matter how piously and sentimentally we say those words, until we have embraced the gift and realized that God’s love is in the Son, fully and completely. In that way, Jesus is the entire key; he is not the key to the key.

            Now, that I think can baffle us. We ask quite sincerely, “How can these things be?” We want to give reasons from outside our religion to justify it and explain it and bring it into our lives as we live them now. We give these same reasons to others in order to show why what we do might be attractive to them, too. Thinking that way makes things so much easier to grasp. Think about how we do talk about our religion. One, we talk about it as a religion, not as a unique gift and opportunity. We also, thinking that we are being as inclusive as God himself is, frequently go for the most abstract expression of who we are, and note that we really aren’t all that different than anybody else. We say we all believe in the same God. We talk about the social importance of religion as the glue that holds us together, and gives us a common purpose and set of values, as if God’s purpose were national cohesion. We talk about religion as a civilizing force, or how individually it makes us better people. It gives us values. We return to church after a hiatus between being confirmed and the birth of our second child because we want our children to have values. Our religion gives us a sense of hope, we say; it provides consolation, and it provides community. It gives us a sense of depth, a sense of awe that goes right through our being. Now, all those things may well be the case. They are the case, for the most part. But in trotting them out, we are treating our religion as being good for something else. Its value is justified by the value of something else. If that is the case, then, as many thinkers now say, if you could get these things some other way without all the religious baggage, then that would really be the better way to go. But it is none of these things which we use to explain our religion that is really the key. Something else is really the key. Jesus Christ is the key. We will miss that, if we keep talking this way.

            So, we ask, “How can these things be?” Well, there is no answer in terms that we are already comfortable with. The gift which changes reality itself, and is meant to do so, is free, given out of God’s love. It is outside the box, as we say in an overused cliché. But that doesn’t mean that we are simply to stand in front of it in slack-jawed stupefaction and incomprehension. There is a possible response to a gift, and it is faith. Remember the full summary: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but  have eternal life.”

            Faith here is not an ideology, nor a part of a quid pro quo mutual gift exchange. It is not a cheap way around understanding and education. It is the response we can freely give to the gift. And that means? It means listening to what is said, even if we can’t anticipate it, and that means to think anew. Jesus tells Nicodemus that no one knows where the wind comes from or goes, and so it goes with the gifts of the Spirit – except that the one who has come from heaven does know. So, if you want to know how these things can be, then listen to the one who does know.

            St. Augustine once defined faith as “thinking with assent.” What he meant is that accepting the gift, which we don’t have to accept, nor do we have to love it – and many don’t, gives a new birth to understanding. It doesn’t shut our minds off. It enlightens them and teaches us new things to think about that we never thought were possible before. It gives them a key that they were missing. It means that we can understand if we first love, for faith and its assent to the gift is at its root a movement of love. That then means something like this: that we can see that what is going on behind, and in and through the world, and all its confusions, is that God is acting and is always acting to redeem the world in Jesus Christ. He is giving himself, even at great cost. That is the reality that created the world, that gives it its truth, and that will bring it to its perfection. It means that in giving his Son that God does not want to be love from a distance and through intermediaries. He wants us to be his friends, to be in communion with him, children of God because we are now sisters and brother to his Son. He wants a community that lives this way, and that the Lord will always be with, even to the end of the age.

            It also means that if we think through the world with this assent, and this community with Christ in our midst, that we will learn to be gracious, too, that we will give our lives as gifts for the good of the world. For, this gift was given not only to us, but to the whole world. If we accept it in love and faith, and think the world through it, we can reach no other conclusion about our own lives than that we are to do everything that we can, by grace, to make sure that it goes out to the world, giving it light and life. It means that we, too, can go beyond the economy of giving gifts as a matter of mutual give and take. It means that we can start to understand that grace is the key to life and that we can start to baffle the world in the hope of renewing it.