One of the readings last week (4-28-11) from the gospel in the Eastern Orthodox lectionary was the story of the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3:1-15). It is significant for many obvious reasons. I would like to briefly explore one of those reasons. Let me do so by posing a question: “What difference does the death and resurrection of Jesus make to the way I live my life right now?” Another way to put it is: “Where do I go from here?”
Implied in that question are a couple of presuppositions. First, the dissatisfaction with the conviction that the saving death and resurrection of Jesus is just about accomplishing the forgiveness of sins. Okay, so I am REALLY grateful that my past sins are forgiven and my sins in the future are forgiven. But, dare I say it? That is not enough! I am just the same old sinner racking up sins as I go along. Grateful but not changed.
Second, if the death and resurrection of Jesus is about MORE than just forgiveness of sins, i.e. “eternal life” then to what degree is the rest of my life on this side of my physical death not just “waiting around” trying to “not sin” with no hope of ever succeeding until I am released from the torment of trying not to sin and never succeeding?
Third, quite frankly, it is hard, “well nigh impossible,” to keep the Pascha flame burning inside me in the midst “this present darkness” that is all around me and very much inside me. The glow is inevitably fading. At least it feels inevitable. And, it will be inevitable unless there is more to the gospel that just: 1) right the scales of justice 2) a promise of something better out there somewhere.
Get the idea?
The “Dynamis” reflection on John 3.1-15 (4-28-11) establishes an essential aspect of the Easter/Pascha proclamation. The death and resurrection of Jesus is about more than just forgiveness and the promise of eternal life. It is about NEW LIFE…
The proclamation of Pascha is that the risen Christ Jesus desires to bestow on all who come to Him NEW LIFE which includes the forgiveness of sin and eternal life.
Let me share an excerpt from the reflection. And then comment on it to establish the gospel point.
‘…one must be ‘born again’ to ‘see the Kingdom of God.’ Nicodemos understood the Lord’s miracles or signs as a function of God being ‘with Him’ (vs. 2). ‘Rather,’ intervenes the Lord, “…the Kingdom of God is present, but is not seen nor perceived,” because those, like Nicodemos, who see only results or effects are not ‘born again.’ Because they are not spiritually regenerated, they do not see the Kingdom. Nicodemos completely fails to understand.
The Lord then proceeds to deepen the topic of regeneration further, speaking of how one becomes spiritually regenerated. New birth is required by ‘water and the Spirit’ (vs. 5), by receiving what we have learned to call the Christian Mystery: Holy Baptism, Holy Chrismation, and Holy Communion. Subsequently, the Lord Jesus explains how it is that these Mysteries transform a person spiritually. Rebirth is an action of the Holy Spirit: ‘that which is born of the Spirit is spirit…” (vs. 6). It is beyond human manipulation or management. “So is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (vs. 8). Nicodemos is utterly baffled and perplexed (vs. 9).
The Lord Jesus continues into the depths of spiritual regeneration: He Himself is the One by Whom men are reborn, and it is He Who teaches men how to receive the Mysteries of regeneration (vs. 11). These ‘earthly things’ by which men may find the ‘heavenly things’ must be learned from the One “Who came down from heaven, that is, from the Son of Man” (vss. 12-13). The Lord concludes this teaching with the life-giving message that Nicodemos and all men need: “…whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (vs. 15).
NEW LIFE is the point of the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is not just a motivational story to rev me up to “try harder” or to “make it all better” when I screw things up or a “pie in the sky by and by” promise to invigorate me to grit my teeth and tough it out until I am “raptured” by the Lord one way or another out of the miserable tribulation of living in a broken world that has no hope of getting better.
The point of the death and resurrection is also not just about me. It is about what God is doing to and in the midst of the whole universe. It is about change. About new birth. About the new that replaces the old. Not just with regard to me. Not just regard to even us. It is about everything being new – all things!! A new heaven and a new earth. I new universe – invisible and visible – spiritual and material.
NEW LIFE is a change. Opps, I said it. CHANGE… NEW LIFE requires change. But, it would be incorrect to just assume you know what is meant by the word “change.” It requires TOTAL change not just some “adjustments.” The death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ mandate my death and resurrection not just a methodology of moral or ethical improvement. Not just resolutions to “do better this time.” Not just adjustments. Not just starting over as the same “me” that I was before. Why? Because if I am just a “well adjusted me” I will find a way to become a “not well adjusted me.” There is really nothing in the gospel thus portrayed that offers me any hope of having things turn out the same this time as last time, if not worse.
I must die and be reborn. The story of Nicodemus and Jesus joins the baptism of Jesus with the death and resurrection of Jesus. The events that serve to initiate and fulfill the ministry of Jesus are found in the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. The “would-be” and “long-standing” disciple of Christ Jesus must die and be raised with Christ Jesus. The epistle reading that goes along with the gospel reading, Acts 2:38-43, is perfect – “repent and be baptized” Peter says to the crowd on Pentecost when they ask, “What must we do?” It is what begins and fuels the ongoing Christian life. Without Pentecost, the Christian life is just one more “motivational” methodology or “self-help” formula. Without Pentecost, the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus is relegated to the “spectacular and powerful” event I admire but in which I have no investment or participation. That is blunt but true. I must participate or it is just an big “Divine drama” that fails to change humanity no matter how much it changes the rest of the created universe. If I do not enter into the baptismal waters and stay there by living a Eucharistic life then I am not part of the NEW LIFE in which the rest of the created universe is participating.
In Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist I offer my essential participation. Baptismal regeneration that results from the union of Divine initiative and my essential participation is, simply put, really dying to the old life and being born again – raised to new life not just “fixing up the old life in a major way.” The old life is not fixable. It must be discarded – die and be buried – completely. This is what baffles Nicodemus. He has (I have) been taught to “try harder” in so many different ways, all of which appear to be, and are to some degree, commendable. But, they are not the Christian life. They are a shadow. They fall short. They are not what Jesus is talking about with Nicodemus. That is why the story is, I believe, like so many other stories in which Jesus seems to be talking about something completely different than what the person has asked, jarring and upsetting. The disciples are talking about making the old better and Jesus is speaking about complete newness of life!! No wonder the stories seem so disjointed and nobody “gets it” – Nicodemus or us.
So, where does all of this place me? It places me (and you) in the position of needing to ask “how?”… And that, brothers and sisters is the point of the fifty days between Pascha (compels us) to go. The Holy Spirit drives us – prods us (one of the connotations of the verb “comfort”) – toward Pentecost.
Rebirth is an action of the Holy Spirit: ‘that which is born of the Spirit is spirit…” (vs. 6). It is beyond human manipulation or management.
The point of the resurrection of Jesus is for me to do the same!! I am enabled by grace to be all that Jesus is by nature – resurrected. The resurrected life – NEW LIFE not just renovation or sin management – is the point of Pascha or there is no point to Pascha.
The empty tomb points me to the Holy Mystery of Pentecost – baptism by water and the Holy Spirit and the ongoing fulfillment of that baptism by identifying with the Lord via His life-giving Body and Blood in the life of the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
This is the TRUTH regarding the WAY that is LIFE (not just a means for receiving life but also an aspect of the very life itself). The form and the content of my (our) salvation are one seamless whole. The Christian life cannot be lived “any old (or new) way.” The Holy Spirit has fashioned the identifiable WAY which is the LIFE of Christ the disciple is to live. It is called the Holy Tradition. It a living reality not a dead methodolgy. (It can, of course, be a dead thing if it does not remain what it truly is, the gift of the Holy Spirit to us that must be “Spirit-filled” and “Spirit-lived.”) It forms THE WAY WHICH IS LIFE. The life of Christ Jesus Himself is the WAY WHICH IS LIFE. My dying and being raised with Him and in Him is LIFE. It does not take me “somewhere else.” It is not just a means or a beginning toward another end. It is the end and it is the
Dying and being raised with Christ Jesus by the baptism of the Holy Spirit – water and fire – and the NEW LIFE that it brings – bread and wine – becomes REIGNING with Him. It is a Lamb who was slain and raised victorious that reigns at the right hand of the Father. Not one or the other. Both. The same is true for me. I must be, in the Holy Spirit, dying and being raised unceasingly in order to be REIGNING.
Before I close, let me spiral back to the issue of forgiveness of sins and eternal life lest anyone go away with the misconception that I have trivialized their importance in the saving work of Christ Jesus. When placed in the context of NEW LIFE “forgiveness of sins” ceases to be the effective proclamation of a distant (albeit compassionate) judge in a courtroom and becomes relational reconciliation between three persons who yearn for a new union and the fruit that it will bear – God, me, and others.
The meaning of “eternal life” changes as well. No longer is it a distant hope of being snatched out of the broken world. I am no longer consigned to living “in between” what I was and what I will become someday. The “future” and the “past” permeate the present by being taken, blessed, and filled with the new reality of the Kingdom of God. The past, present, and future are united in the Kingdom of God. The fullness of God’s saving actions are available to me now. They are not locked away in the past or the future. The fullness of all of God’s saving action is present in each and every saving action. The present becomes full of the life of Christ (the fullness of the saving action of the Father by the Holy Spirit) and therefore, abundant by being permeated with the Kingdom of God – with God’s love. Eternity ceases to be an indication of “when.” It becomes a quality statement. Eternity is a statement about the victory in which I am already fully a participant. Eternity is about becoming who I already am. Being and becoming.
Let me illustrate. The moment my son, Joshua, was born he was fully Joshua. He was not missing and of his “Joshua-ness.” He will spent his whole life consummating his identity, who he already fully is – Joshua. Likewise, I am becoming more and more who I already am in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Eternal life is a term that addresses the tendency to try and live a life more than “just historical” as if it were “just historical.”
As I continue to surrender myself to the transformative power of the Holy Spirit, who is fully present in the midst of time – all moments – I grow up into the fullness of who I already am. My physical death ceases to be a “crossing over” moment from mortality to immortality. From “not-eternal” to “ever-more-fully-eternal.” Instead, death becomes one more (albeit more profound than perhaps any other) event that is used by the Lord to promote and deepen the quality of my participation in eternal life.
I invite you to read the post-resurrection ministry of Jesus with all of this in your mind and heart. Notice how Jesus is pointing His disciples and apostles toward Pentecost. Notice how he is mentioning and beginning to establish in their minds and hearts the WAY of NEW LIFE in the Holy Spirit that will be initiated on Pentecost.
This, I believe is the answer to the inevitable question that Pascha prompts us to ask, “What difference does the death and resurrection of Jesus make to the way I live my life right now?”
Christ has died and Christ is risen to be our NEW LIFE by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit in the Mystery of Pentecost in which we die and are raised with Him and in Him.
Let us journey toward Pentecost with the risen Christ…