Second Sunday in Lent
05 March 2023
Sermon By: Rev. Rose Sapp-Bax
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Sunday Cycle of Prayer
Church of the Province of South East Asia
Christ Episcopal Church of Suntree Viera, Melbourne
St. John’s Church, Melbourne
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Today’s readings are rich and full . . .
The old testament reading about the faith, obedience and blessing of Abram, soon to be known as Abraham, renamed by God. The psalm - a testament to God’s protection of His people Paul’s letter to the Roman’s - how faith, works, righteousness and the Law play into (or perhaps DON'T play into) our hope of salvation. Then the gospel reading - Nicodemus - a Pharisee, the teacher of teachers, a member of the Sanhedrin - the supreme religious body in the Land of Israel, comes to Jesus by night, in secret. Does he come at night because he does not want his fellow Pharisees to know? Does he come to attempt to get Jesus to say something that could be used against him? Does he come out of curiosity? Or does he come because he sees something in Jesus that he cannot explain and doesn’t understand? For Nicodemus, the conversation with Jesus may create more questions than it answers.
Knowing that the Pharisees had no faith in Jesus and even accused him of performing miracles in the name of Satan, they wanted nothing more than to discredit Jesus and turn the people away from him. So why would Nicodemus come to Jesus - and why would he acknowledge that because of the signs he performed, Jesus must indeed come from God? Was Nicodemus indeed trying to trip him up? Trying to get Jesus to say something blasphemist? or was he truly looking for something his Jewish background could not provide?
What strikes me most about the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus is what they do NOT talk about. As a pharisee, the law was everything to Nicodemus - for him, strict adherence to the law was the only way to obtain eternal life. And yet, the law never enters the conversation. Wouldn’t you expect that to be the major focus of his conversation with Jesus? So why did he not bring it up? Perhaps Nicodemus, like many, began to realize that even he could not adhere the rigid requirement of the law. Perhaps, he was looking for another way, and he hoped Jesus would provide it.
For Nicodemus, there was nothing more important than the law - it was, the only means of salvation. But this Jesus, spoke of something else - of being born again - being born of water and the spirit. He spoke of becoming new again and that only faith in Son of Man could bring eternal life. We wonder what Nicodemus thought of this new teaching.
Then Jesus speaks what is likely the most well known verse in scripture, ”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.” and the verse that follows: (3:16-17) "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.’ This ends John’s account of the interaction. What was Nicodemus’ response? Did he leave Jesus a believer? While we do not know the answer to that question, we do hear about Nicodemus twice more in the gospel of John.
At Jesus’ trial, Nicodemus speaks up to the other pharisees in the Sanhedrin reminding them that the law required them to hear what the accused had to say before condemning him. A comment for which he is ridiculed. Then, after Jesus death, Nicodemus provides the spices for embalming and helps Joseph of Arimathea to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.
We do not know what becomes of Nicodemus after Jesus’ death, but what is obvious through what we do read in scripture is that Nicodemus was searching for answers to questions he could not answer. He was, at the very least, sympathetic to Jesus and at some point, most likely a devoted follower. Nicodemus is an example for us that even he most educated among us have questions - questions we cannot answer without Jesus. We can only hope that Nicodemus found what he was looking for - faith.
The very conversation that does NOT take place in the interaction between Jesus and Nicodemus is covered in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul tells his listeners that God’s promises to Abraham were not because Abraham adhered to the law, but because of his faith ‘which was counted to him as righteousness’. Paul goes so far as to say that the law brings wrath, and that only through faith, which brings the grace, that God’s promises are fulfilled.
In reading these passages, it is clear that our salvation comes only through faith - not the law, not works, but only through faith and the grace that follows faith. This is indeed THE GOOD NEWS! And yet - elsewhere in scripture - In the second chapter of James, we hear that faith without works is dead! So, which is it? Is it faith? Is it works? What brings eternal life?
We have talked about righteousness, about faith, about grace, about God’s promises. What we have not talked about is the glue that holds all these things together - Love. Love is in many ways the catalyst that binds them all together. A catalyst is defined as that which causes change. The very change that Jesus spoke about with Nicodemus - being born again, to change the way we think, the way we live. Faith powered by love. Or perhaps it is love that is powered by faith. Either way, it is that love that brings us to the desire to be like Jesus - to follow in his footsteps. It is this desire that brings us to works.
Love, true and honest love, causes us to act. God’s love is the perfect example - look back once more on that well-known verse - For God so loved the world - that he send his son. God loved and his love moved him to action. Abraham obeyed God, left his home and followed God out of faith and love. Working for the kingdom is not a means to make God love us more - we can never make God love us more. But rather, our works are done out of our love for God. Our desire to be more like Jesus - to love those whom God loves - all those whom God loves. Just as Jesus spent time with those alienated by society - so our love should spur us on to love and serve all those whom God loves. It is this love that makes the law null and void - or perhaps better put, it is love that would make the law unnecessary. If indeed, everyone followed the way of faith and love - there would be no need for law at all. But we still live in a broken world, often void of love and faith.
We are called to bring that love - the love of God - to this broken world. It may often feel like an impossible task, but it is true that we can only make the change we want in the world by starting with ourselves.
This is the work of Lent - to bring ourselves to that place of transformation - to deepen our faith, our love for God, that through that love, we would serve others, to spread the GOOD NEWS and create the change we long to see in our world, to bring others to redemption - one heart at a time. Are you ready?