Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Real Change

Real Change
Jn 3:1-17[1]
  There are many in our world who talk about the Christian faith as if it’s the simplest thing in the world.  All you have to do is to take the step to walk the aisle and pray the prayer and you’re “born again.”  Unfortunately, that kind of approach to the Christian life makes it so that many “Christians” don’t look very “born again.”  Many of us live our lives pretty much just exactly like everybody else.  From how we spend our money to what we do with our free time to whether or not we stay married--the statistics don’t really show much difference between those of us who identify ourselves as Christians and those who don’t.
  But it seems to me that approach to the change that Jesus was alluding to in our Gospel lesson completely underestimates how hard it is.[2]  Change--real change--is incredibly difficult for most of us.[3]  We have to be willing to take a hard look at ourselves.  Unfortunately, many of us don’t like what we see when we look that closely, so we don’t look and we don’t change.  Like Nicodemus, I’m not sure we understand what being “born again” is all about, and therefore we’d rather not have to go through it, whatever it is.
  Changing the way we live can be incredibly difficult.  We’ve all been programmed with the way we’re supposed to live our lives.  We’re supposed to do well in school.  And afterwards we’re supposed to get a good job.  And get married, settle down, and have children.  And raise our children.  And be successful enough that by the time our children are having their children, we’re about ready to enjoy retirement.  But as most of you know, that “script” for the way life is supposed to go doesn’t always work.  And yet, it’s incredibly difficult to change our habit of thinking that our lives are supposed to follow one of these “scripts.” [4] And so it’s incredibly difficult to change the way we live.
  I’m not excluding myself from this challenge.  Here I am--I’m up here doing my best to relate the teachings of the Bible week after week.  Every once in a while I have an insight into my own life that makes me think that all these years I’ve been preaching and teaching I’ve just plain missed it myself.  It’s very humbling when we see our own shortcomings. Most of us don’t much like to feel humbled. Most of us don’t like the discomfort of feeling like we’ve missed it.  It can be  unpleasant to really expose our lives to the light of God’s truth.  When we do, we see all the flaws and weaknesses that remain inside us.  And so we resist change.  We fight it tooth and nail.
  I think real change frightens us.  It can push us to the very edge of our ability to cope.  And yet, when you’re talking about the Spirit of God blowing through your life, I daresay no one should assume it’s going to be easy.[5]  I think when we hear Jesus saying “the wind blows where it wills, and you neither know where it comes from or where it goes,” (Jn. 3:8) we tend to imagine a nice Summer breeze that softly rustles through the trees.  But sometimes the wind of the Spirit blows through our lives like a tornado or a hurricane.  I don’t know anybody who likes going through that.
  And yet, as Jesus said, “no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (Jn. 3:6).  It’s only when we let the Spirit blow through our lives--and perhaps strip away that which keeps us from really changing--that we can experience the new life of the Kingdom of God.  More than that, I don’t believe that this is a once-for-all kind of experience, like a lot of people make it out to be.  I find that the Spirit blows through my life whenever he deems it necessary--whether I’m ready for it or not![6]
  The real change that comes when the Spirit causes us to be born again, or born from above--or both--can be painful.[7]  It can be frightening.  We may find ourselves holding onto our “old selves” for dear life rather than having to undergo real change.  But real change is what it takes to find the new life of God’s Kingdom that Jesus was talking about.  As Jesus said, “no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above” (Jn. 3:3).  That’s rarely something that is easy.  It’s usually difficult, and painful, and humbling.
  And yet, Jesus calls us to open ourselves to the blowing of the Spirit in our lives--to take the risk of letting everything we thought we had nailed down get blown away--in order to experience the new life that God has for us.  It takes courage to open ourselves to that kind of real change.  We have to admit that the things we thought we were “supposed” to do may have been all wrong.  But the end result is lasting peace, real joy, and hope that gives us a reason for living.[8]  And hopefully, we become more authentically Christian in the way we live. I don’t know about you, but I think I’m willing to let the flimsy structures I’ve built for my life get blown around to find that kind of life.[9]  The good news is that Jesus calls us all to open our lives to the real change that the Spirit will bring.[10]  The process may be one that is scary at times, and difficult, and even humbling.  But it seems to me that it’s worth it to find the new life Jesus promised us.

[1] © 2014 Alan  Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/16/2014 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf., similarly, Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” New Interpreters Bible IX:554-55.  She says (p. 555), “By codifying the expression ‘born again’ and turning it into a slogan, interpreters risk losing the powerful offer of new life contained in Jesus’ words.”
[3] Cf. Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, 6: “What the ego hates more than anything else in the world is change ... . Instead, we do more and more of what does not work ...”
[4] Cf. Gail R. O'Day, “New Birth as a New People: Spirituality and Community in the Fourth Gospel,” Word & World 8 (Winter 1988): 54, “We are afraid to embrace newness, to accept transformation, because such acceptance would mean letting go of the things that defined our lives before newness was offered. We stubbornly cling to our definitions of life, because we are afraid to accept God's offer of new identity.”
[5] Cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 9, where he observes that our encounter with God moves us “beyond the sphere in which we have some mastery…”  Cf. also Donald G. Miller, “John 3:1-21,” Interpretation, 35 (Ap 1981): 178, where he observes that “We prefer God's dealings to be less drastic, to come within the range of our own rational processes. We want reconciliation without redemption, attunement without atonement, amnesty without amends, the olive branch without the rod, truce without truth, mercy without holy majesty, love without holiness, a God who is a friend but not a Redeemer. But we cannot have it so.”
[6] Cf. Henri Nouwen, Here and Now: Living in the Spirit, 56, where he says that the deepest meaning of our history is “a constant invitation calling us to turn our hearts to God and so discover the full meaning of our lives.”
[7] Cf. O’Day, “New Birth as a New People,” 56: the double meaning of what is usually translated as “born again” emphasizes that Jesus “speaks of a newness that challenges even the conventional capacity of language.”  Cf. also O’Day, “Gospel of John,” NIB IX:549.  On Nicodemus’ misunderstanding, cf. Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, 138-41, where he points out that while there was only limited background in the Jewish tradition for becoming children of God, there was ample background for the idea of the outpouring of the Spirit in preparation for entering God’s kingdom.
[8] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:563: “The man involved in the act of conversion is no longer the old man. He is not even a corrected and revised edition of this man. He is a new man.”  Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, 152.
[9] Cf. O’Day, “New Birth as a New People,” 55: “The true sign of the fullness of God's gift of grace may be that God’s grace can form new persons even in the face of our resistance.”
[10] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God , 104; cf. also Rohr, Breathing Underwater, 8-14, where he describes the process of opening up three inner spaces: our minds, our hearts, and our bodies.  He says (p. 8), “To finally surrender ourselves to healing, we have to have three spaces opened up within us--and all at the same time: our opinionated head, our closed-down heart, and our defensive and defended body.”

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