Reflection One: Riddles in the Dark January 28/18
I “borrowed” the title of this reflection from a chapter in JRR Tolkien’s book “The Hobbit”. Young Frodo Baggins finds himself separated from his fellow adventurers and alone in a network of subterranean caverns, where he happens upon a very unpleasant goblin-like creature named Gollum. Gollum has survived for decades, perhaps even centuries, in the wet, dark caves, eating fish, goblins and anything else that comes his way. He has memories, though, of another time, when he lived beneath the sun, fished in light-dappled lakes and laughed with his friends beneath the trees. A game both his people and Frodo’s played was the Riddle Game. Perhaps some memory of that time pushed him to do it, but Frodo is challenged to a riddle game, with the prize being escape with his life.
The scenes are quite different – Frodo and Gollum, and the civilized scholar Nicodemus and the peasant Rabbi. Yet when we hear this story, at first, it can seem like Jesus, too, is speaking in riddles. In some ways, too, Nicodemus is seeking his life – a different life than the one he has led up to now. Nicodemus is a respected man, a member of the religious establishment, who has come to Jesus at night to explore more of Jesus’ teachings. What he gets though, is some sort of obscure saying about being born again, or born from above. When he expresses his confusion, Jesus responds that as a teacher of Israel, he ought to know what Jesus is talking about. In fact, John doesn’t actually explain it for his readers, either. But there’s a clue in the context, as there often is when we read stories all the way through, instead of chopping them up into bits.
The clue is in what happens next in the story John is telling. Jesus is back at the Jordan River, and this time, he’s doing the baptizing. John the Baptist is still offering baptism, but now Jesus and his disciples are doing so as well. In fact, later in the Gospel, word gets back to the religious leaders that Jesus is baptizing more people than John – in other words, Jesus is more popular and therefore a greater problem.
It seems to me that what Jesus is telling Nicodemus about, is baptism through water and the Spirit. When we baptize people in the Christian church, we baptize with water but we also invoke the Holy Spirit. What I’m curious about is whether this implies that the invocation of the Holy Spirit was an active part of Jesus’ ministry while he was still alive in body, or whether this is John inserting the later coming of the Spirit into Jesus’ life and teachings. Christianity has taught for centuries, going right back to the apostle Paul, that in baptism we die to our old selves and begin a new life in Christ. Isn’t that precisely what we mean when we talk about being “born again”?
When we look at some of the stories of the first Christians, it’s evident that some Christians were baptized but did not receive the Holy Spirit; the writer of Acts, in particular, wants to emphasize that water baptism was only a partial step – that full baptism is baptism in the Spirit as well. Full baptism is being born again, born from above, as Jesus said to Nicodemus.
That presents an interesting situation for us as United Church people. When we baptize, we do invoke the Holy Spirit, but it can feel a bit odd to do that with a wee baby. Perhaps that’s at least partially why we also have historically had the rite of Confirmation – in which elders lay their hands on a person’s head and pray for the Holy Spirit to be with them. It gets muddier nowadays, when people go to church their whole lives without ever being baptized or confirmed; we’ve also started doing something called a “reaffirmation of baptismal faith” that includes transfer of membership of those who have already experienced the laying on of hands, as well as confirmation. In a way, though that change includes the whole congregation in the process of reaffirming faith together, it feels a bit like I’m cheating those who have never been confirmed, of a meaningful moment in their faith journey. The last time we welcomed new members, I combined the two; I don’t think I’d do that again (note to self!)
The other thing that I noticed in preparing for this service was that the United Church has very few hymns about being born again. Our history of “working out our own salvation with fear and trembling” as Paul put it (Phil 2:12), has led to an under-emphasis on our dependence on God to truly turn our lives around. Baptism with water perhaps fits better for a people who think of themselves as just needing a little help to be more righteous, rather than total transformation. A little wash, a little water, and we’ll be clean before God. But let me tell you, nothing can change a person as much as having the Holy Spirit blow into their lives and take hold! Some of us – and the apostle Paul, the Gospel writer John, and many other Christian writers down through the centuries would insist that it is ALL of us – we really need to be completely turned upside down, inside out, and then right side ‘round again. This isn’t always a once in a lifetime, spectacular event. We recognize within our liturgies that this is a life-process of seeking to be tuned in to the Spirit. “If baptism magically resulted in a transformed life – we would sneak up on cranky people and baptize them when they weren’t looking!” (Robert Stutes on Narrative Lectionary Facebook page)
So, perhaps it’s not instantaneous – although I have certainly witnessed baptisms, confirmations and ordinations – all of which include the laying on of hands and the invocation of the Spirit – all of these were occasions when I have experienced a powerful sense of God’s presence. (A colleague of mine shares this story – add later)
In all of these sacraments and rites of the church, we recognize that growing into our baptism is a life-long journey. Just as a baby is born from water and grows to be a mature person, we begin with our baptism, pray for the Spirit, and trust in Jesus’ love to keep us on the path we started on.
Now, hear the rest of the reading: (Val reads John 3:18-21)
When I was looking for ideas of what to do with the children today, I came across the notion of a “Report Card” from God. What would God grade us on? Kindness? Forgiveness? Sharing? Playing Fair? Trust? Peace? Joy? If you were grading yourself, what grade would you give yourself in those categories? I had Hazel put a mini-report card in the bulletin today so that you could give yourself a grade. Now, I want you to hear again what Jesus had to say about judgment and condemnation in previous verses: “God sent his son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved.”
Verses 18-21 don’t seem hopeful at first; they have to be read in context with the whole chapter. Jesus’ love and light are here, waiting for us: we just have to come to the light. In that light, in that love, there is no condemnation. So that report card you filled out? I want you to erase or cross out whatever marks you’ve given yourself, and write in As – A pluses if you want to! You see, that’s what God’s love does for you. That’s what the Holy Spirit, God’s gift to us, does in you. It’s as if all those places you failed or faltered just don’t exist anymore. You’ve got straight As, because that’s how God sees you.
I bet some of you are struggling right now. I bet some of you are thinking “ but I don’t deserve that A! I didn’t love perfectly, I didn’t share joy the way I could have, I didn’t forgive when I ought…. “
Well, guess what? Just like that little Runaway Bunny who kept testing the mother Bunny’s love and couldn’t shake it – our lack of perfection doesn’t change the way God loves us. It doesn’t change our access to the Spirit that washes us clean and blows all those foibles and failures away. And if you’re not sure about that, I want you to pray with it, live with it, for the next couple of weeks. And here are a couple of things that can remind you.
The next time you see a baby – a really little baby, just about brand new – pay attention! Ask yourself – does this child need be judged and condemned? Or is this child worthy of love and blessing? That’s the way God sees you. Remember that.
And the next time you are near a body of water – an ocean, a stream, a river, a lake, even a swimming pool or bathtub – stop and dip your hand in the water and touch your forehead – heavens, immerse yourself if you want to! As you do so, remember your baptism, and invite the Spirit to make you free from all condemnation, guilt or failure. May this be so, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.