"What Spirit Does To Our Vision"

Sermon Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler – March 20, 2011

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 121; John 3:1-12


     This morning we are going to consider what it means to be born again. Throughout many of our lives, we have heard people use this definition to describe their pedigree as a Christian. Often they do so with the same enthusiasm as an individual who just received a Ph.D. in Economics.

     Let us consider what Jesus was illustrating in our lesson this morning when he was talking to Nicodemus.  This lesson is so important because it illustrates perfectly what Jesus meant when he said, “The gate to life is narrow and the way that leads to it is hard, and there are very few people who ever find it.”  (Matthew 7:14)   Why did Jesus use being born again to describe the path that leads to vital and creative life-patterns?  And, will we really try the patience of God if we do not find this path?

     Nicodemus was a brilliant teacher.  He was an educated Pharisee and a member of a ruling body known as the Sanhedrin.  What is interesting about him is that Nicodemus knew that Jesus was a very unique teacher.  He said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher sent by God. No one could perform the miracles you are doing unless God were with him.”  Nicodemus was mystified by Jesus’ abilities and he wanted to understand their origin.

     Think about this.  If understanding the source of Jesus’ orientation toward life and faith was this difficult to grasp for a highly educated scholar like Nicodemus, what must it have been like for the thousands of Jesus’ listeners and for centuries of his followers?    

     Even today Christians do not fully understand how to define their discipleship.   For some Christians “being born again” is their way of communicating to others that they have been saved by Jesus Christ.  Others of us focus on the cross and what we believe happened there when Jesus sacrificed his life for the salvation of humankind.  What is interesting is that no salvation theology existed during Jesus’ ministry – at least the way Christians today interpret the event on the cross – and it certainly was not part of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus.  What was it, then, that Jesus was teaching?

     Think of how challenging it was for Jesus to bring clarity to an aspect of life that would always remain invisible.  He had to use verbal symbols like, the Kingdom of God to explain this powerful hidden world within us.  Living in the kingdom meant that people would love one another spontaneously.  They would respond this way without having to think about it. 

     One of the first impressions Lois and I had of Bermudians was that they said, “Good morning” to everyone when they boarded our bus.  Greeting others is a spontaneous response.

     Nicodemus was thoroughly rooted in the world that was defined by his ability to see, hear, touch, taste and smell.  Perhaps we would develop a greater empathy for the problem Jesus faced in his teachings if we tried to explain electricity to a child that was curious about what makes a light bulb light up when we flip the switch.

     Today we are seeing the results from fear generated by the possible meltdown from several Japanese nuclear reactors.  People are afraid of radiation, an energy they cannot see coming from a source they do not understand.  We are intelligent people but many of us admit that we have no idea what authorities are talking about when they try to explain how highly radioactive rods generate electricity.

     Inside each of us is a powerful reservoir of energy that makes visible the spirit by which we live.  If people never develop control over this reservoir, they can have a meltdown every bit as volatile as that of a nuclear reactor. 

     For example, this past week, I received an email from a friend in the States that described a very tragic event that happened to a couple whose wedding ceremony I performed several years ago.  The two were involved in a heated argument while driving in their car.  The husband asked his wife to stop the car because he wanted to get out and walk home.  She stopped the car abruptly.  She was so angry with him that the moment he stepped out of the car she depressed the accelerator to the floor and sped away.  He instantly spun to the pavement sustaining massive head injuries.

     He had to be transported to the shock trauma unit of the hospital where he immediately underwent extensive brain surgery.  They could not stop the swelling of the brain, and, after spending many hours on the operating table, he was pronounced brain dead. 

     The lives of countless people have dramatically changed because of the radiation spewing forth from a human reactor that was in a state of a meltdown. Think about the implications that have resulted.  He was 29 years old and the couple has two children.  An employer lost a productive employee.  Such meltdowns happen repeatedly with individuals even though many of them live in highly civilized cultures. We have had numerous incidents here in Bermuda where lives have been lost because of such meltdowns.

     During this Lenten season, let all of us begin concentrating on what people are making visible by their attitudes and behavior.  Observe them without bringing judgment.  Let us also examine what our own inner-reactor is producing.  This invisible world controls the spirit by which we live.  Sometimes what we radiate is more like an instant reflex than a thoughtful response.

     While coming to church two Sundays ago I was the first in line at the traffic light outside of our church’s front door.  Five cars had lined up behind me.  Cars on South Road had just started to turn left.  A motor cyclist began making a third lane between those behind me and the on-coming traffic.  He then pulled in front of me to be first when the light changed.  We see this happening every day.

     I honestly believe that his need to be ahead of everyone else has almost become an involuntary reflex.  He may do this so automatically that if someone asked him why he does that he might not have a consistent answer.  To change him and scores of other drivers on our narrow roads, people need to be born again. Can you imagine what life on Bermuda’s roads would be like if people set aside their need to hurry and began to practice patience? 

     Being born again means that we must change the invisible rules and the unrecognized beliefs and values that prevent our love from becoming visible.   Our attitudes and behavior every day communicate to the world the contents of our inner world.  Electricity will produce light.  What do our lives produce?  This is what Jesus was trying to teach Nicodemus.

     This week, talk to people without giving them the impression that we need to be somewhere else.  Think about our own automatic driving habits even when people are following us 18 inches from our bumper.  In spite of how out of control other people appear to be, concentrate on showing them the values you wish they had.  This is another version of the Golden Rule being made visible.  Lent is a time for such self-reflection.

     This week, our attention has been diverted to the unrest in the Middle East and the earthquake, tsunami and the nuclear disaster of Japan.  In fact, the news media has surfaced the unhappiness of people from nearly every society in the world.  The one timeless quality to which many of us have been a witness is the spirit of the Japanese people during these events.  They clearly exhibit a collective consciousness that is remarkable.

     Their inner world was not shaken by the catastrophes in their external world.  There are high levels of anguish and pain.  There is suffering and the mourning for their enormous losses, but the Japanese people are responding to these events with a common spirit that communicates, “Together, we will repair what was destroyed and put everything together again so that it is better than it was.”

     Their culture is built on a heritage of beliefs that has taught them to not judge external events.  They understand that any judgment they make will not change what has happened.  There has been no looting, no angry protests and no demands that government representatives be the first on the scene.  They knew help would arrive. Together, they are engaging in problem-solving with resilience and determination.     

     One episode featured on the evening news showed long lines of people patiently waiting for food and water.  When the last truck was unloaded, the driver emotionally apologized that their supplies were exhausted. The people still waiting in line quietly disbursed without anger and resentment. What a contrast this was from people pushing and shoving, screaming and grabbing that we have seen in other countries where people were equally as hungry and thirsty. 

     Quite often the only aspect of life over which we have control is the response we give to everything that happens.   There is little doubt that Nicodemus took away from his meeting with the Master an understanding that completely changed his orientation toward life.   

     There was a time when the Chief Priests and Pharisees wanted to arrest Jesus, and it was Nicodemus who said to this group, “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what it is he does?”  (John 7:51).   Nicodemus was also the man who financed the one hundred pound mixture of myrrh and aloes that he and Joseph of Arimathea used to anoint Jesus’ body.  The two men wrapped his body in linen and placed it in the garden tomb.  (John 19:39)

     While the presence of Nicodemus faded from Scripture, he may have gone on to play a significant role in the early church that helped to spread Jesus’ message.  In fact, there is a gospel that bears his name that reports that Nicodemus defended Jesus before Pontius Pilate.  He told Pilate, “Jesus has performed many useful and glorious miracles that no man has ever witnessed before he came.  I doubt that they will ever see them again once he is gone.”

     Just how difficult is it to teach someone how to look at their life’s circumstances differently?  That is all Jesus was trying to do.  He was offering Nicodemus a tool he could use to interpret life differently.  This was the same course-correcting compass that he offered a chief tax collector named Zacchaeus. Again, how difficult is it to change someone’s direction?

     A man who lived across the street from us had developed bladder cancer.  He went to Johns Hopkins Hospital to have a specialist perform the surgery.  When he came home, he told me about an extraordinary thing that happened the night before his operation.

     Around 9:00 p.m. his surgeon came into his room and said, “Mr. Lewis, I want you to relax so you will have a good night’s sleep.  We are going to get you up early tomorrow and take you down to the operating room.  I will introduce you to the team that will be assisting me.  Mr. Lewis, I don’t know what your religious beliefs are, but before I leave, I want to pray with you.”  The doctor took his hand and asked the divine healer to bring peace to Charles and to guide the medical team to focus their undivided attention on him during the moments he was under their care.

     Charles said, “Do you believe that a doctor would do that?  My anxious moments left me immediately.  I had been so preoccupied with my all my fears of dying, and it was my surgeon that reminded me that I was in God’s hands.  I had a great night’s sleep and was filled with trust that I would be fine.” 

     My point is that the spiritual energy that comes from our inner world can bring peace to a troubled friend.  It helps us produce creative ideas, brings passion to what we do, keeps smiles on our faces, lifts our spirits as well as those around us and keeps our vision focused on the reality that our glass is always more than half full.  All these treasures become ours when we change our orientation toward life, when we are born again.  Such treasures grow in value the more we use them.  As we continue our walk through Lent, take this understanding with you and use it everyday.