Sermon by the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh
March 12, 2017; Lent 2A Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17
The other day I downloaded a new program to my computer from the internet. It was a large file and I spent several minutes watching the progress. Once it was all loaded, I went through the sequence of setting it up. Once I pushed “finish,” there was one final message: “In order to start this program, you need to restart your computer. Restart now?” Not wanting to lose other things I was working on, I chose to restart later. That, I think, is a good metaphor for what happened to Nicodemus in the gospel story we just heard. Nicodemus, our text tells us, was a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews. His life had been saturated in the scriptures, the law, and the worship of the temple. In other words, all the data had been downloaded. He, however, needed to reboot his computer in order for the program to run. He needed to reboot his life in order to experience the Kingdom Jesus was talking about… but he wasn’t sure he wanted to do that yet.
Nicodemus was stuck because he was trying to figure it all out. He made the mistake of thinking that “belief” meant agreeing to a set of facts and missed the mystery and metaphor that would have brought his faith to a deeper level. As I have said before, the word “Credo,” the Latin for “I believe”, which begins the creed comes from the same root as the word “cardia” (think “cardiac” or “heart”). The Greek word for belief is not about assenting to truth. It is about consenting to trust. When we say, “we believe” in the creed, we are not agreeing to something we know in our heads but someone we know in our hearts. Religious faith is about relationship. Think about this in your own family. When I tell my kids that I believe in them, I am not telling they that they exist or that even that everything they say is true. When I tell my kids that I believe in them, I am saying that I love them, that I trust them, and that I know they can be all that God has called them to be and accomplish all that God has called them to do. “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.” This most famous of passages starts with love and ends with life. Jesus was trying to teach Nicodemus that religion was about relationship rather than rules, about the right brain rather than the left, and about what was in his heart rather than is head. Going back to my original analogy, Nicodemus had downloaded all the data. He just needed to let the Holy Spirit restart his computer for the program to run. In order to experience the new life Jesus was offering, he needed to trust with his heart that it would work.
Belief is a powerful thing. In Matthew 17:20, Jesus says that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed, we can ask a mountain to move from here to there and it will. Just last Sunday, one of the 7:30 parishioners talked about how he saw this passage as talking about the potential of the human mind, about what could happen when we fully used all parts of our brains. I want to push his idea and suggest that Jesus is talking about the power and potential of what could happen if we fully use all of our brains working together in community. In 2014, a government primer described the Amazon Cloud as one of the world’s fastest distributed networks, capable of reaching the speed of early super computers simply by linking regular computers together.  We experience this every time we go on the web. We can also experience it every time we go to church and every time we pray. Jesus said that whenever two or three are gathered, he would be there. (Matt 18:20) His point is that God believes in you as much as you believe in Him. If you have just a mustard seed of belief and are willing to share it – if you truly believe in a cause and put your faith in action — others will join you, and no mountain can stand in your way. Putting the power and potential of passion to use is the theme of this year’s Lenten Series. Just knitting a pink hat can change a country. Weaving God into the mix will change the world. John 3:16 tells us that putting together love and belief will change lives for eternity.
This is great stuff. Unfortunately, the belief described in John 3:16 has been often misinterpreted as a private and exclusive thing. It’s hard for us to remember that the individualization and personalization of Christianity is a product of Northern European and American culture, not its Middle Eastern roots. Christianity and Judaism were tribal religions, not expressions of individual piety or spirituality. John 3:16 says “For God so loved the world” – not a subset of individuals in it. Have you noticed how we say “we” in the creed instead of “I.” Belief is a responsibility of the community as a whole. We don’t have to have it figured out by ourselves to say “yes” to God. The tragedy is that many people ignored this message of inclusion around and used John 3:16 as a threat. You are “in” if you believe and if you don’t believe, you are not only out, but you are condemned to hell for eternity. The fact that over history many have become Christian out of fear rather than love is a huge indictment of the church. Using the words “I believe” as some sort of “fire insurance” or “get out of jail free card” misses the message that John 3:16 starts with love. It completely misses the message of John 3:17 – that God sent his son into the world, not to condemn the world but that the world through him might be saved.
This is the theme of our second reading from Romans. While Paul’s words are a bit convoluted, his point is clear: God’s grace is given to all who share the faith of Abraham. Since the election, we have seen a huge uptick in hate crimes against Jews and Muslims. Just last week there were more bomb threats made against Jewish Community Service centers. I am boggled that this seems to be coming from people who call themselves Christian. As fellow descendants of Abraham, we need to stand up and condemn these actions, reminding the world that Muslims, Jews and Christians are brothers and sisters who are worship the same God. This morning, I want to push Paul’s words and suggest that the faith of Abraham extends even farther than that. As we heard in our reading from Genesis, what Abraham did was to leave his home, his family, and his country in order to follow where he felt that God was leading him. This tells me that anyone willing to strike out on their own to find and follow God, willing to leave their comfort zone to explore their faith, or willing to the Holy Spirit lead them a spiritual quest has the faith of Abraham. To put it differently, if you are willing to follow your heart, you like Abraham will be blessed. If you are open to the Spirit, you, like Nicodemus, will find Jesus. Nicodemus came by night and left in the light. He came with all kinds of religious information and questions swirling in his head. He left with relational love forming in his heart. He came sure of his path. He left with the spirit leading him on a path of discovery. He came in thinking he knew everything. He left realizing he was known… and found himself believing in a whole new way. This was Nicodemus. May what happened to him happen to you.
 My first exposure to this idea came from Jim Adam’s So you think you’re not Religious . I used it in my Easter Sermon, March 31, 2013. http://s3.amazonaws.com/dfc_attachments/public/documents/3173648/EasterC_2013.pdf
 This article describes the Amazon Cloud as the fastest distributed network in the world, comparing it to supercomputers. https://www.datainnovation.org/2014/01/supercomputing-vs-distributed-computing-a-government-primer/