Lent 2 – Paschal Mystery

Abraham by Ephraim Moses Lilien (1908)

Lent 2 2020
Katie Whitmire
Genesis 12:1–9, Psalm 33:12-21, Romans 4:1–17, John 3:1–16

After an intense season of rain, we finally had the first break a few weekends ago. It was a beautiful day, cold, but we still felt compelled to get outside and soak up some much needed sun. So we wondered through the trails in the MC woods and eventually came to an opening, finding ourselves standing in an orchard.

Despite the fact that the tress were completely bare, just straight sticks shooting out of the trunk with no sign of life, it was still clear by the way the trees were planted, intentionally in rows, that these were fruit bearing. Despite the appearance of death, there was the hope of what they were becoming– a promise of fruit in the coming season.

As we walked closer, there was a sign indicating the variety of trees represented. It read “ Apple, Pear, Cherry and Nectarine,” and below this was a Rachel Carson quote that said, “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature… the assurance that dawn comes after night and spring after the winter. “

Reading about this pattern of transformation, I couldn’t help but reflect on this Lenten season and the paschal mystery; Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension.  

The Paschal mystery is the pattern reflected over and over again in our lives– a path of descent and ascent. In some seasons it may look like obvious and devastating loss, but we also experience everyday rhythms of smaller dying and rising. We daily encounter suffering, longing, loss, and pain, and when we let go and enter in to what the Spirit is doing with a posture of trust rather than resisting these little deaths, it makes way for transformation and new life– ever ascending deeper into life with Christ.

In the gospel reading this morning Jesus invites Nicodemus into this Paschal mystery. It requires a letting go, simple trust, which as we see in the text, and likely know from our own lives, can be much harder than it sounds. Nicodemus was a man of power and privilege. He was a really good man, marked by the righteousness of the law as evidenced by his title of Pharisee. To be called a Pharisee there would have been a pledge taken committing to the observation and interpretation of the law. An earnest man, who we are also told is a member of the Sanhedrin, the court system that upheld the Jewish law, making him a harbinger of justice. Born into the right family, he was a child of Abraham. You might say that Nicodemus was “doing life right.” Successfully checking the boxes of a life committed to the knowledge of God. Yet the implication from the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus in John 3 is that Jesus and his teaching has left Nicodemus unsettled, seeking something, perhaps longing for more.  He was compelled to go to Jesus for answers. It would have seemed absurd to those in Nicodemus’s circle—he held so much more authority on knowledge and truth according to the systems that were in place, but could Jesus have a knowledge that Nicodemus did not posses? 

So he comes to Jesus and he says,  “We know that you are a teacher from God, no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Rather than directly confirming this Jesus responds, “I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” This reply could appear somewhat cryptic, but if we look back at the verses immediately prior to this interaction it sheds some light. We read that Jesus has just been performing signs like those Nicodemus refers to and this has resulted in many believing in him, yet we are told that Jesus did not put a lot of stock in these masses or capitalize on this following because Jesus knows exactly what is in a person, their motivation for believing, where they place their trust, what they truly seek. He sees us. This is both everything I have ever longed to hear and simultaneously rather daunting. In this moment, I believe that Jesus sees right through the observation that Nicodemus makes about his signs and wonders validating Jesus’s authority to the heart of what he wants. Nicodemus comes seeking, longing for a deeper experience, not just jumping on the signs and wonders bandwagon, and Jesus says the way to this deeper experience, to seeing, really seeing, the kingdom of God, is to be born again—a transformation, life, death, and rebirth—trusting Christ in the paschal mystery.

The original language that Jesus uses here for being born again is layered. It can mean born anew, radically; born again, a second time; born from above, of God, and, if heard holistically, the implication would be that major transformation must take place internally, a rebirth in to the family of God. But Nicodemus latches only onto the literal meaning and in his response I hear exasperation and earnestness. “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb?” A man so used to doing the right thing, it is as if he says I’m open to what you are talking about but I don’t know how to DO it. Jesus elaborates, further explaining that this is a birth that is not of the flesh, but of the Spirit and birthed within. Membership into this new family is given by God, not through lineage but by trusting Christ in the mystery, by grace through faith. Jesus equates the Spirit’s work birthing life in us to the wind, something we must trust rather than see, we must submit to rather than control. Nicodemus continues to respond with “How? Tell me what to do,” and Jesus is telling him it is about transformation not information, experiential knowing vs. intellectual knowing. In this context, Nicodemus must descend from his current way of knowing in order to ascend to a deeper knowing from God, participating in the pattern of transformation presented in the paschal mystery. Jesus uses language to explain this mystery to Nicodemus that connects tangibly to his everyday world—the process of birth, the movement of wind—yet Nicodemus struggles to receive Jesus’s words. He is having difficulty, I would propose, not with understanding but with letting go of his systems, of how he has made sense of and exerted control over his world. The spirit’s movement like the wind is something invisible only felt, unpredictable and uncontainable and that mystery would have challenged Nicodemus and all of us who like a world and a system that is measured, sorted and listed out. But, it is no new work that Nicodemus can do, it is not his commitment to the law, it is not his implementation of justice, and not even his claim to the lineage of Abraham that will bring about the new life and the transformation that he seeks, but rather Nicodemus is invited to let go, surrender to the work of the Spirit and make space for new life.  

Jesus recognizes the difficulty that Nicodemus is having and in verse 11 he says, “I am speaking of things we know and what we have seen and you won’t receive it.” In other words, if I am speaking of tangible things like birth and wind and you can’t accept it, how will you enter into the mysterious, to the things of heaven?

Then it is as if Jesus stops the conversation and simply says that’s why I’m here. I am here as the visible symbol of the invisible God, coming directly from him so that you might be able to enter in. Jesus goes on to reference an account from Numbers 21, a text that would have been intimately familiar to Nicodemus, to make plain the purpose of the coming cross. In the account referenced, the Israelites are plagued by snakes after a season of unbelief and with death among them they beg for mercy. God offers them the visible image of the serpent to look on in an act of trust and be healed. In answer to their cry, God could have simply taken away the death, taken away the problem from the Israelites, but he allowed them in his great mercy to participate in his healing with an act of trust. In much the same way, Jesus says it is necessary for me to endure the paschal mystery, lifted up in death, that humanity might see the true nature of God’s love and in looking on it in an act of trust receive healing and participate in the mystery of life, death and resurrection. The promise is not just for Nicodemus, but for everyone. He says God so loves this world, that Jesus is here, the visible representation of the mystery of God, that we might look on him, believing and in this act of trust receive life. We are invited in.

In the passage in Romans Paul offers that this has been God’s intention all along– that the family that God has been creating through His promise to Abraham is a family born of trust. It points to Genesis when Abraham was told to leave all that was familiar–his family, his home—and step into the unknown. As Abraham faces this loss, this small death, he believed God. He entered into what God was doing in an act of trust and from this comes the promise of new life.

I love the image on the front of our bulletin referencing the passage from Genesis. It is a if Abraham looks out into the mystery of the unknown, the momentary darkness, but with his staff and his hand on his heart he journeys forward in trust and scattered across the night sky are stars here now echoing the promise of the not yet, life to come. What is a death for Abraham is also full of the hope of what is becoming.

Paul draws on Abraham’s example to assure us that God is not responding to what we do, to our works, in order to grant us this promise of new life. In verse 17 he says “It is God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that do not exist,” reiterating that it is the work of the Spirit, and by believing, we enter in to what God is already doing, ultimately allowing us to receive God’s promise of new life. There is such freedom in that and also a great letting go, a willingness to journey the path of descent. God has been and continues gathering a family marked by acceptance, grace, mercy and trust. Filled with members who participate in his mystery by living our own stories of life, death and resurrection.

In Lent we have an opportunity to practice the surrender to the rhythm of the paschal mystery. Through fasting we offer a small death in order to enter in to what the Spirit might be doing within. Leaning into this loss in prayer, we create space for new life. And as Christ births new life in us, we pour out through almsgiving sharing with others God’s generosity towards us.

We can carry this experience with us, resting in the promise that trusting this rhythm of transformation we will see God’s kingdom in our lives, by entering into the work that God is doing, We can trust that he will make something out of nothing, that there is a promise of fruit in the coming season.

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