Flesh and Spirit

Lent 2

Year A
Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

At Diocesan Convention… in Dayton, OH… perhaps fourteen years ago… I was volunteering with Integrity… the Episcopal Church’s LGBT advocacy organization… and while I was at the booth… a deacon came up to me… when no one else was there… he looked around… I’m pretty sure to see who might have been able to over hear… and he quietly… I think self-consciously… asked me… how did you do it… how did you come out

I wasn’t sure how to answer him… I had sought counsel with two therapists… three priests… and several other gay dads… I had read some books… though I couldn’t find a copy of Coming Out for Dummies… but I had mostly done it on my own… had mostly forged my own path out of the closet… out of hiding… out of the confines of shadows and darkness… and into more light… into more truth… into more authenticity…

And so the answer to his question… of just how I… physically and emotionally and spiritually… put one foot in front of the other… didn’t really matter here… because he wasn’t me… because our circumstances were different… because no one who comes out… does it exactly the same way as everyone else who already has… but I think we are ALL… no matter who we love… called out from whatever inhibits the boundlessness for which we were created… from whatever kind of bondage that ensnares us… and into where… and how… God wants us to be… this is one of the most powerful meanings of the Exodus… it is escape from the constraints… from all that enslaves us… and it may seem that we move into increasing freedom solely by ourselves… it may seem that we earn that on our own… but we can do it only with God’s help… only with the Spirit…

Our Epistle from Romans makes a distinction about what is earned… through work… like wages… but says… but to one who without works… trusts him who justifies… such faith is reckoned as righteousness… and in our theology… we talk about how we reject works righteousness… which is a way of saying that we reject the idea… that we can work for… or earn our salvation and God’s redemption… it is gift… and as gift… God expects nothing from us in return for it…

But still… Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night… under the cover of darkness… in the shadows… cautious about who may see… or hear… a leader of the Jews… fascinated perhaps with Jesus… as Herod was fascinated with John the Baptist… but as a representative of the Pharisees… one who speaks for them when he says… 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… he has a mindset which focuses on externals… like seats of honor at banquets… being seen praying on street corners… having beautifully made robes… and drinking out of polished cups… in fact… he is so focused on externals… that looking within… being introspective… may be difficult if not just plain impossible for him…

Theologian John Shea writes… seeing the signs… is the domain of physical sight… because the signs are manifestations on the physical level… of truths available on the spiritual level… and it is the external which has attracted Nicodemus…

When Jesus says he must be born from above… Nicodemus gets caught on the idea of a physical birth… he becomes mired in the physical… stuck on the least refined level of blood… even though John wrote in the first chapter of this Gospel… but to all who believed in his name… he gave power to become children of God… who were born… not of blood

Jesus parries… he tries to explain to Nicodemus that no one can enter the Kingdom without being born of water and Spirit… that’s why Jesus refers to the wind… how it blows where it chooses… and how we don’t know where it comes from… or where it goes… Shea adds… to be born of God is to experience God’s being sustaining your own being… and at the same time… like the wind… you realize you cannot control this life… its origin… and its destiny… just like we cannot control the wind…

When Jesus says… we speak of what we know… and testify to what we have seen… he’s referring to those around him… who are also open to Spirit… Nicodemus is not… Jesus knows that flesh can understand only flesh… but that Spirit can understand Spirit… Nicodemus came to Jesus at night… Nicodemus came to the Light of the World… at night… and however we determine or describe how much darkness or light we’re in… there is always more light… and it’s that light to which we’re drawn…

Our reading from Genesis reminds us that… Abram went… and Lot went… and Sarai… and the persons they had acquired in Haran… they all went… they ventured out from the place they knew… into an unknown place… sometimes the place we inhabit is dark… like slavery… and the place to which we travel is brighter… like freedom… sometimes it doesn’t seem too dark where we are… like in Haran… and the place to which we’re called only seems darker… like Canaan… so we can also ask… how did Abram come out… of the place he knew… how did he do it… and one answer… is that he too was drawn to God’s light… ]

We all know… that at many public events… like football and baseball games… someone almost invariably has a sign that says: John 3:16… 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… now I have it on good authority… that a lot of people focus way too much on v. 16… and not nearly enough on v. 17… which affirms that… God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world… but in order that the world might be saved through him… not condemned… but saved…

We shouldn’t repent… we shouldn’t turn away from sin… because we’re afraid that if we don’t… we won’t earn God’s forgiveness… and God will really punish us… because we have already been forgiven… and we continue to be forgiven… forgiveness is woven into the fabric of creation… we may forget that… or we may not really believe it… or we may think that we’ve turned away from sin more than some other people I won’t name now have… but that’s part of the game of works righteousness… comparing… adding points… keeping score… but we turn away from sin… simply to revel in the freedom… that is God’s gift to us…

And scripture affirms this… Psalm 103:12 says… As far as the east is from the west… so far does he remove our transgressions from us… Isaiah 43:25 says… I… I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake… and I will not remember your sins… Hebrews 8:12 says… For I will be merciful toward their iniquities… and I will remember their sins no more

Sadly… we’re the ones who hold on to sin… we’re the ones who don’t forgive… because so many around us don’t forgive… we’re the ones who remain locked in the closets of animosity… in the wardrobes of belligerence… in the lockers of antagonism… and it’s tragic… because God has already forgiven us…

We can look back at our lives… and recount some of what we did… or didn’t do… to get where we are… but we cannot know where the Spirit will blow us… and as we begin to internalize this truth… as we ask the Spirit’s help in putting one foot in front of the other… as we begin to inwardly digest this reality… both individually… but especially corporately… we can have no other response… but to consciously move… more and more… out of every kind of closet which keeps us in lack or in bondage… and attached to sin… and more and more open to God’s gift of radical grace… unmerited forgiveness… and immeasurable love… and we will move more and more towards discerning and enacting God’s will in our time… so that justice rolls down like waters… and righteousness… like an ever-flowing stream…

About the author: The Rev. Mike Wernick

The Rev. Mike Wernick is a second-career Episcopal priest who grew up in a Reform Jewish family, and who believes that diversity was never intended to be divisive. He serves as the Ecumenical and Inter-religious Officer for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Michigan and the Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Michigan, and on the ELCA's North/West Lower Michigan Synod’s Task Force on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, "Open Hearts, Open Church."