Beyond the boundaries of literalism- Neil Carver, Lent 2, Mar 12, 2017

“By faith Abraham . . . went out, not knowing where he was to go.”  Hebrews 11:8

Genesis 12:1–4a; Romans 4:1–5, 13–17; John 3:1–17

Paul wrote his letters to followers of Jesus who identified themselves as Jews and Gentiles within the Jewish community. It was natural for him to mention the patriarch Abraham. Recipients of Paul’s correspondence would have regarded Abraham as the friend of God. However, Paul recognized that the basis of Abraham’s divine friendship was not in the keeping of the Torah – for, in Abraham’s time, the Torah did not exist.  The basis of Abraham’s divine friendship was faith. Paul writes that it was faith that made Abraham not only the father of Israel, but of all people, Jew and Gentile, who live by faith.

In what did Abraham place his faith? He placed his faith in the great promises of God. The childless and landless Abraham simply trusted the faithfulness of God and he set out into the unknown. The remainder of the Book of Genesis, indeed the rest of the Torah, records the fulfilment of these promises. God is portrayed as the divine cause. God brings into life and existence that which others consider to be dead and of no consequence.

Have you ever wondered how we received this moving story of God and of human faith? Initially, it was retained in the oral tradition and memory of a people. It was ultimately written down for posterity as a result of that people’s experience of exile, dislocation, gloom and despair. The Torah, or the Law of Moses, of which Genesis is a part, was written for the Jewish community after their return from exile in Babylon.

The main thrust of the Abraham story was that, what God had done once, God could do again. Just as God had long ago led Abraham from Ur to Canaan, so also God would restore the faithful Jews from Babylon to Judah.  Just as the supposedly ‘dead’ Abraham became the ‘father of many’, so also the remnant of God’s faithful people would become a restored nation in Judah and Jerusalem. This story is written as a summons to faith. It is about having faith in a God who brings the dead to life, and calls into being what which hitherto did not exist.

That’s also the theme of today’s gospel from John. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” The message of the cross and resurrection echoes the story of Abraham. We live by faith in a Creator who brings the dead to life, and who calls into being what which hitherto did not exist.

If you sincerely ask “How can that be?’, you’ll be identifying with Nicodemus and his encounter with the Rabbi Jesus. Nicodemus was a sincere religious seeker. As a teacher within the religious institution of his day, Nicodemus was a mover of theological boundaries. In order to explore something new, he was willing to risk leaving behind the certainties he and his colleagues had hitherto been taught and understood. Jesus encouraged Nicodemus, to respond to ‘the new’ or ‘the different’ by rethinking and re-constructing his assumptions. It is in following the faith of Abraham and the probing of Nicodemus, that you and I may look toward the future through the eyes of new possibility – to be born anew, metaphorically, and to consider how life might be different!

Each of our gospels, in their own way, invite us to make their stories of Jesus our stories. Over these next weeks that lead us up to the death and resurrection of Jesus, we shall be told that Jesus opened the ears of the deaf, that he opened the eyes of the blind, and that he raised up the dead to life. If, like Nicodemus, we ask “How can that be?”, Jesus says, “You must be born all over again.” In other words, “Look around you with new insight. Let go of your assumptions.” The word “gospel” means good news. Don’t allow yourself to get stuck in a literal interpretation of this good news. Open your eyes and gain new insight.

Like Nicodemus, we are invited to set aside previously our held religious assumptions. There are multiple theologies within our New Testament. They attempt to interpret the message of Jesus in a way that addresses the issues of their day.

Paul’s epistles date from a decade or more of what we assume to be the time of Jesus’ ministry. For the most part, his letters address social and theological issues of identity. These were the concerns of a Jewish diaspora scattered throughout the Roman province of Asia Minor (modern day Syria and Turkey). They included Jews who followed the way of the Rabbi Jesus. They met in synagogues to reflect upon the writings in the books of Moses and of the prophets. Although they hadn’t opportunity to participate in the temple rituals of sacrifice in Jerusalem, they still thought in those terms. On the basis of a few verses within Paul’s convoluted letter to the Romans and in the epistle to the Hebrews, Western Christianity has had a field day with its various theories of the atonement that claim God sacrificed Jesus as the price for justifying us. It was a concept written for first century Jews. It neither addresses my contemporary needs nor my understanding of human nature and existence.  Nevertheless, the over-all emphasis throughout Paul’s letters is that Jesus saves us by his radical faithfulness, even to an ignominious death upon a cross,. It is when we are faithful as he was faithful and when we are prepared to identify ourselves with his sufferings, that we can trust in God’s eternal love and presence.

The gospels, like Paul’s epistles, need not be received as about God who as an external being chose to invade this world to offer a sacrifice an rescue “fallen” human beings, lost in their sin and unable to rescue themselves. The gospels circulated, either during or soon after the Jewish uprisings and reconquest of Israel by Rome in the year 70 CE. Jerusalem had been raised to the ground, the temple completely destroyed. As scattered refugees, the Jews grieved the loss of their temple. This influenced the theologies that shaped our gospels. The temple had been a literal sign of the Shekinah, God’s glory and presence in their midst. The gospels describe how those who encountered Jesus and who remained with him, they rediscovered the Shekinah that they had assumed had been lost or destroyed.

They stress that Jesus disclosed the reign of God and that the divine is always in our midst. Jesus urges us to tear down the walls we tend to build in our human quest for security. Jesus calls us to step beyond those boundaries and to discover the meaning of God and joys of living in a boundary-free world. Some of us, like Nicodemus, will be required to step beyond the boundaries of literalism. Jesus offers us the good news that we can move forward day by day knowing that we dwell in the eternal love and presence of God.

Life is a journey in faith. We walk through this life never fully knowing what lies before us. Abraham stepped out and placed his faith in the promises of God. Nicodemus was challenged to set aside his literalism. Jesus invites us to do much the same – to place our utter dependence upon God who is always somehow just beyond our reach, yet always so intimately close at hand. We have this divine promise offered in the name of Jesus.

This is the week we recall our Celtic heritage and the faithfulness of St. Patrick of Ireland. Our Celtic saints followed Abraham’s example. They were prepared to journey beyond their immediate horizons. Their natural landscape was a doorway to heaven. Their outward wanderings expressed their inner journey to the place of resurrection. They lived by a faith that claimed “On the hill, in the valley, in the islands of the sea, everywhere you may go, before blessed Christ there is no desert place. God is with you.”

Let us pray:

God be in my head, and in my understanding;

God be in mine eyes, and in my looking;

God be in my mouth, and in my speaking;

God be in my heart, and in my thinking;

God be at mine end, and at my departing. Amen


 Carver 12.02.2017 The Church of the Holy Saviour, Waterloo