Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday in Lent.
I have decided to try something different this week (and for the next few weeks). Instead of footnoting the scriptures, as I have done in the past, I am simply going to list them up front. The scriptures for this week are Genesis 12: 1 – 4, Romans 4: 1 – 5, 13 – 17; and John 3: 1 – 17.
As I have noted in the past, I bowl in the USBC Open national bowling tournament. I have also noted the connection between bowling and the church (see “Bowling and the Church”).
This year is scheduled to be my 31st consecutive tournament. This is by no means a record, not even in my own family. My mother bowled in 36 WIBC national tournaments and so I still have a few years before I hold the family record.
Back in 2002, I received my award for participating in my 25th tournament and my mother was there to see me receive it. Since it was a rather unique situation for a mother and son to have such a participation history, a reporter from the local paper interviewed us. We both noted that when we were struggling, we went back to the fundamentals.
But when one speaks of fundamentals in bowling or in any other sport for that matter, one is speaking about the basic understanding of the sport. It should be the same in religion as well. When one speaks of the fundamentals in religion, it should be a discussion of the basic understanding of what one believes and what one does.
The fundamentals are the starting point. They are what you start with so that you can grow. But fundamentalism in religion has taken on an entirely different meaning and those who call themselves fundamentalists miss the point.
To me, the Bible is a living document. Its message is one that resonates throughout the ages. It grows with you and provides the means for one’s own growth. But fundamentalists speak of the Bible as unchanging and inerrant, fixed in time and meaning.
When Clarence Jordan wrote his series of books, The Cotton Patch Gospels he took original Greek translations and translated them into words that the people of Georgia could understand. Instead of faraway places that no one knew about, he put the localities on a map, the people understood. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians became a letter to the Christians in Atlanta; Paul’s letter to the Galatians became the letter to the churches of the Georgia Convention; Paul’s letter to the Ephesians became the letter to the Christians in Birmingham and so forth. Instead of writing to the Romans, Clarence Jordan wrote to the Christians in Washington. The words of the letters may have changed but their meanings did not. In his letter to Washington, Clarence Jordan still has Paul pointing out that it is faith, not an adherence to the law that brings salvation.
As I noted two weeks ago (“Where Do We Go From Here”), Clarence Jordan’s translation of Matthew 28: 19 (go into the world and make disciples of all the nations) became “As you travel, then, make students of all races and initiate them into the family of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to live by all that I outlined for you.” It makes a difference, don’t you think?
And how much trouble would we have avoided if we understood that the first syllable in Adam is pronounced with a soft “a” and not a hard “a” sound. How much trouble would the churches of today have avoided if they understood that Adam is not the name of a single man but the name for all mankind?
To understand the Bible takes more than simple acceptance of the words that appear before you. You must seek and explore what is written. There are contradictions in what is written but they are only contradictions to those who do not study the words. And when you demand strict adherence to the words, without understanding what they mean, you are just like those Paul was referring to the passage from Romans for today. Faith is more than adherence to the Law and adherence solely to the Law will not gain you anything.
It is that dilemma that faces Nicodemus when he visits Jesus that one night so long ago. For he has heard of what Jesus is doing and he has seen what Jesus is doing but he cannot understand how such things can be done according to the Law. And when Jesus tells him that he must be born again, he is further confused.
I would classify Nicodemus as a concrete thinker, one who can only explain what is in front of him in terms of what he already knows. To understand what Jesus is doing requires a further step in intellectual development, a step from concrete thinking into the realm of abstract thinking.
There is nothing wrong with concrete thinking. It serves us well in so much of what we do in our daily lives. It has been shown that we can live almost entirely without changing the structure of our thinking.
But concrete thinking is limited. It cannot explain the motion of Mars in a backward motion across a field of stars when all the other visible planets move forward. The earlier version of the solar system had the earth as the center and it made sense. The sun and planets moved across the sky in an orderly fashion. But on occasion the planet Mars moved in what we call retrograde motion; in other words, it moved backwards. To explain this within the framework of the geocentric model of the solar system took some doing. Copernicus offered an explanation that was rejected by the church and the political establishment as essentially heretical. But when Galileo saw moons orbiting Jupiter, the explanations of Kepler and Copernicus made sense and a new explanation, a new theory for the solar system was developed. It, of course, met with resistance because it was radical and it challenged the mindset of the time.
We live in two worlds, one of physical reality and one of faith. We have to have these two worlds if we are to be a complete person. We cannot live in only one of these worlds. There is a wall between these two worlds.
But too many people today are trying to tear down this wall and merge the two worlds into one. Some try to do this by creating law after law that will dictate what we are to believe and how we are to act. Others try to tear down the wall by arguing that everything can be explained by its physical evidence and if there is no physical evidence, then it cannot exist. But when you try to tear down the wall between faith and reality, you remove the completeness of the person.
What is required of us is not to remove the wall but to rise above it. Being born-again means thinking at a higher level, of thinking “beyond the walls”, or as, as George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “to think of things that never were and ask ‘why not?’”. Being born-again means transcending the wall and opening one’s life to both worlds, not destroying one or the other.
Some may disagree with my explanation of being born-again but what does it mean to be born-again if not to see the world in a different way?
This is what Jesus is telling Nicodemus. When your thinking is limited to the world around you, you can see things but you cannot explain them. And you cannot go beyond this present world if your thinking is limited. In coming to Jesus, your perception of the world changes; you see things differently.
That is, I think, what faith is about. It allows you to do many things that could not otherwise be done. It was Abraham’s faith that allowed him to move from his homeland to a new and uncharted country. It was Abraham’s faith that fulfilled the promise of mankind. Nothing Abraham saw would give him the answers that faith would. Nothing that Abraham did would guarantee the results that God promised.
Paul’s words to the Romans ring true this day. We can never gain salvation by limiting our lives by the law or by physical evidence.
The fundamental truth is that we must open our hearts and our minds. The laws provide the structure for growth, not the answers to the questions that lie before us. And if we seek to find answers in the physical evidence (if we seek to know why the wind blows where it chooses or why it makes the sound it does), we will fail. The only way we are going to find the answers is that moment in our life when we open our hearts, our minds, and our soul to the Holy Spirit.
During this season of Lent, we are constantly reminded of our need to repent, to return to God and lead the life He would have us live. We are asked, essentially, to go back to the fundamentals. But the fundamentals are only the starting point.
The fundamental truth is one that we were given that night that Nicodemus sought Jesus. God loves us so much that He sent His only Son that who would ever believe in Him would not perish but gain eternal life. He sent His son to save this world, not condemn it.
It is our choice. We can live in a world restricted by law and a lack of understanding and die. Or, we can follow Jesus and teach what we were taught so that others will know; we can believe and be saved.