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Children of God

Hillary Bergman Cheek

Children of God

May 27, 2018

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John 3:1-17:

1Now 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?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 “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. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

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.

17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

 

 

Last week, The New York Times reposted a video from 2007, highlighting the unlikely friendship of two boys, Dante, a nine-year-old having grown up Decatur Georgia and Soung, an 11-year-old Burmese refugee, having arrived in the US just five months prior to the filming of the story. The story begins with the two boys playing soccer together, using few words, but pantomiming each English word they speak. Their joy is apparent in their laughter, silly sounds, and pats on the back. Through a language barrier, they have formed a great friendship that their parents and teachers know is strong and vibrant, but one that many find difficult to explain.

Dante and Soung attend fourth grade together at International Community School in Decatur, GA.

As the county faced a sudden settlement of thousands of refugees within a decade, the school decided its mission would be to bring together refugee children, many without formal education or English language skills, and American children in the same classroom. Their aim was to create a learning environment in which students would learn from each other; enriching their worldviews and equipping them for greater success in the future. It’s through relationship and curiosity that these boys are pursuing a greater understanding of the world around them.

As the video ends, the two boys are sitting side by side, laughing and estimating how many years they will be friends, each following the prediction of the other with a larger number, first agreeing to one hundred years and then settling on one million. From curiosity grows relationship and understanding. [1]

 

I suspect it was curiosity that led Nicodemus to go to Jesus that night, hidden by the darkness. He knows this man is sent by God, but he also knows there’s something more about this man that is beyond his understanding. As someone who has devoted his life to honoring God and helping others to do the same, how could he be missing something so fundamentally important about this teacher whom he believes God has sent?

However, to Jesus, Nicodemus is acknowledging the obvious. Of course, God is with him. Jesus is not looking for an acknowledgement, but instead seeks from Nicodemus an understanding that cannot be gained through teaching. Such an understanding must be reached through experience. He is asking people to believe and follow him, to reorient themselves and their lives, to believe that he is the Messiah. Jesus is asking Nicodemus to see that he is not just a teacher sent by God, but he is the very presence of God.

 

Randall Zachman writes,Søren Kierkegaard described Nicodemus as an admirer of Jesus, as opposed to a follower. Like Calvin, Kierkegaard saw Nicodemus as someone who only partially associated himself with Jesus, but who held back from a full and public commitment to him because of his fear of persecution from his own people.”[2] However, I wonder if perhaps it is a bit unfair to lay such a judgment upon Nicodemus, to fault him for not understanding Jesus immediately when few others did. Should we not give him credit for his curiosity? Should we not give him credit for seeking understanding, for the great strides he took, for the way he ultimately came to better understand Jesus? He begins here by recognizing Jesus as a teacher sent from God, and from here he begins a trajectory toward faith, following, and believing those final two verses of their conversation. He begins the trajectory toward believing that God loves the world so much that God sent his son, and whoever believes in him will have a life more full and abundant.

The idea of being born anew seems to be the barrier that prevents Nicodemus from understanding Jesus. He can’t seem to get past the literal interpretation of this phrase to begin to sort out the metaphorical meaning that Jesus intends. However, this change of which Jesus is speaking is so transformative that the only way to describe it is through language that conveys such a sense of vulnerability and humility. To be born anew requires one to relearn how to view, interact, and live in the world.

Nicodemus cannot move beyond his own understanding of God in order to realize that God might be doing something new, God might be found in a place he isn’t expecting, and God may be found in a form that runs counter to what Nicodemus has been taught.

In that moment, he missed what God was giving him. He was unable to see that he was standing in the midst of God.

Fortunately, the Holy Spirit is strong and patient, moving in our lives in different ways, revealing God at different times, moving us away from a holy curiosity and toward a recognition of the Holy Spirit in our midst. Through time, through experience, and in community, Nicodemus begins to further understand what this means to be a child of God. He begins to understand what it means to be born anew.

 

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that one in four Iraq war veterans suffer from PTSD and has subsequently found that there is no single, easy method that seems to provide adequate treatment. This has inspired the exploration of different treatments and research of numerous new methods in hopes that a combination might bring even some semblance of relief to those suffering from this disorder.

Journalist Amy Standen reports that at the VA Medical Center in Menlo Park, CA, various methods of meditation are being explored. One method is a guided meditation and discussion group, labeled ‘Compassion Cultivation Training’. The goal of this training is for veterans to relearn compassion through meditation. She writes, “in combat, the way to stay safe is to think of everyone as a potential threat. Fear and distrust are default. But with PTSD, it stays that way, even after combat is over. The soldier with PTSD has lost the ability to relate to people as just people. Compassion meditation is about getting that ability back, learning to see oneself in others.”

Leah Weiss, the developer of the training, begins by asking participants to bring to mind someone for whom they care. Beginning with three deep breaths, she says, “consider that person is just like me. Consider that, just like me, this person has had ups and downs. Just like me, this person has goals and dreams. Just like me, this person wants to be happy and free from suffering.”

After a period of meditation, the group transitions into a time of discussion. During the conversation, one participant, Esteban Brojas, is thrown into a memory of combat. He is heard rubbing his hands together impulsively, and his voice quivers as he chillingly describes a traumatic experience from his time in combat.

Dorene Loew, the director of the trauma program, knows that every time Brojas relives this memory, he falls deeper under its spell.  She begins to speak to Brojas, but another veteran, John Montgomery steps in. Having lived with PTSD since serving in Vietnam, he identifies with Brojas. “You’re not there. You’re right here. It’ll take time. It’s like a wave coming, but it’ll subside” he says. Another participant chimes in, “You’re not alone”. Slowly and carefully, Brojas appears to be transported back to the present.[3]

To me that sounds a lot like a church community.  We walk together through life, reminding one another that “we’re not alone”.  It’s in those sacred spaces that we find hope, and it’s in those moments that we see God.

That sounds so simple, but when put into practice, it isn’t so simple. Such work is difficult and messy. It requires humility, vulnerability, courage, and patience. If the worldly understanding of hope is the lens through which we see God, we’re going to have a difficult time ever getting past the cold, hard, surface of many situations.

However, if the knowledge of the sacrificial, relational love of God for us and the world is our starting place, we begin to see the world differently, finding hope and beauty in places and situations we once understood to be barren and hopeless

Being born anew takes time. Such transformation is the work of the individual, the work of the community, and the work of the Holy Spirit in us.

 

We meet Nicodemus three times in this gospel. We meet him in this passage, at Jesus’ arrest, and at the tomb after Jesus’ death. First, he is seeking understanding. Next, he is speaking up for a fair trial for Jesus. Finally, with Joseph of Arimathea and a very large amount of Myrrh in tow, he is carefully preparing the body of Jesus for burial and laying him in the tomb.

The first instance is in secret, the second is among peers and he speaks on behalf of Jesus with a voice that runs counter to the dominant opinion. Finally, he is seen with Jesus, in the open, treating him with great honor and respect. We see a transformation from curiosity in the darkness to freedom in the light.

For Nicodemus, like many, faith takes time. Reading just one chapter further in John, we hear the story of the Samaritan woman who comes to believe in Jesus in her first encounter. Because of this placement, one may find it easy to dismiss the journey of Nicodemus, holding her up as the exemplar model of true faith. However, humans are complex. Faith is complex. The Holy Spirit is complex. It seems to be more helpful and truer to the human experience to carefully hold these stories together.

The hope of God is all around us, and reminders of the love of God are all around us. With a knowledge of God’s love for us and the world as our starting place, we’re able to see beyond despair and brokenness, instead seeing hope. In knowing that God transcends our own understanding and yet calls us into deep relationship by whatever means necessary, we see that God wants to be known by us.

It is through holy curiosity and relationships that we experience the character of God. In the friendship of two fourth graders, in the support of combat veterans who sit in the pain and encourage one another through the darkest times, we see glimpses of hope in situations that could be seen by many as hopeless. In these moments, we see the ability for relationships to break through our own expectations and offer us glimpses of the kingdom of God.

In therapy with other veterans, Joel Montgomery, has done something he thought he had forgotten how to do: feel compassion. It was his hope that after leaving the program he would leave as a different man.

 

As children of God, isn’t that our hope? Isn’t it our hope that, while here on earth, we learn more about one another, learn more about the human experience, grow closer to God, become agents of changes, live as bearers of hope, and leave this world as better people than when we arrived?

 

Let that be our hope.

 

[1] “An Unusual Friendship” accessed 5.22.18 at  https://www.nytimes.com/video/us/1194817103175/an-unusual-friendship.html

[2] Randall C. Zachman, Feasting on the Word: Year B, ed. David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara B. Taylor, vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 44.

[3] Amy Standen, “Through Meditation, Veterans Relearn Compassion,” National Public Radio, November 21, 2012, accessed May 21, 2018, Through Meditation, Veterans Relearn Compassion.

Hillary Bergman Cheek , Interim Associate Pastor

Email: hillary@upcch.org

Phone: 919.929.2102 ext. 112