March 8, 2020
|Reading 1||Reading 2||Reading 3||Reading 4||Reading 1 Alt||Reading 2 Alt|
|Genesis 12:1-4a||Psalm 121||Romans 4:1-5, 13-17||John 3:1-17 or Matthew 17:1-9|
by Russell Pregeant
Gospel: John 3:1-17
The Gospel of John is pervaded by dualisms and double entendres that are packed with theological significance, and the lectionary reading is a good example of that fact. The most evident dualism in this case that of flesh/spirit, but it works together with another—that of above/below.
This latter point is not apparent in all translations, however. The Greek word anōthen in verse 3 is often translated as “again” or “anew.” These renderings are not incorrect, but they mask the double entendre that is essential to the passage’s meaning. The related term anō means “above” or “upward,” and the primary sense of anōthen is actually “from above,” as in the NRSV. And unless the translation honors this, the reader will miss the fact that it reflects the above/below opposition, which we find in passages such as 8:23, where Jesus says to his opponents, “You are from below, I am from above; you are from this world, I am not of this world.” However, the term can also be used in a temporal sense to mean “again” or “from the beginning,” and Nicodemus’s question in verse 4 reflects this: “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” So to get the full theological weight of verse 3 we would have to translate the final phrase as something like “You must be born all over again—from above!” Nicodemus, of course, misunderstands what Jesus means, which is another reflection of the above/below dualism. In John, those who are “from below” always misunderstand, because they think in this-worldly terms, whereas Jesus, who is from above, thinks and speaks in an entirely different “language.”
The dualisms of flesh/spirit and above/below also lurk behind some passages in John that make use of the term kosmos, “world,” in a negative way. In 15:18, for example we find this: “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you.” “The world,” in passages such as this, is identical with the realm of “below,” a realm in which people are motivated by “the flesh” rather than by “spirit” and that stands in opposition to the purposes of God. One could therefore easily get the impression that the Gospel of John embraces an actual metaphysical dualism, such as we find in Gnosticism, in which the creation itself is seen as evil. It is important to note, however, that the Gospel of John uses the word kosmos in different ways. Although sometimes it refers to the social world, understanding it as utterly corrupt, at other points it refers to the creation, which it views as good. Thus in the present passage we find that “God so loved the world . . .” And in 1:14 we find a proclamation that dismantles completely the Gnostic disparagement of material reality: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” To say that the Word (Logos) became flesh (sarx) is to affirm the goodness of God’s creation.
The significance of the above/below motif in the lectionary selection is great. When Jesus tells Nicodemus that in order to enter the kingdom of God a person must be born anōthen, he is in one sense talking about making a new beginning. But the meaning is much deeper than this. He is also pointing to the need for a fundamental life-reorientation as the basis for that new beginning. He is demanding that one embrace an entirely different source of meaning and value and connect to a completely different source of being. What is needed is not a mere revision of priorities but the rejection of an entire mode of being in the world and the adoption of a whole new understanding of what it means to be a human being. It it is not, however, material reality, flesh understood as bodily existence, that is rejected, but a way of approaching life that cannot see beyond the material world to the world of spirit that undergirds it and gives it meaning.
So, what, then, might this passage mean for us in the context of Lent? It should not mean the denial of worldly pleasures if such denial carries any implication that such pleasures are somehow illegitimate in themselves. It should mean, however, that we are called to a radical re-examination of our involvement in some of the values that have driven human society from the beginning and/or that are particularly evident in our own particular circumstances. And it should mean that we should treat these corrupting values not as petty matters to be joked about but rather as mortal dangers. But what, then, are these values? To some extent, this is a matter for each individual to determine—we are all tempted by different things. However, there are some that stand out, both throughout human history and in modern, Western society.
Consumerism, for example, cuts to the core of how we understand the meaning of human life, but dealing with it involves walking a fine line. When I first learned that Whitehead understood the basis of reality as aesthetic, I was taken aback. I would have thought of that basis as moral. In time, however, I came to understand that morality is in fact action directed toward making a good life for all. In biblical terms, God created the world so that God’s creatures could enjoy it. The problem with consumerism is not that it embraces pleasure but that it understands pleasure in a perverted form, substituting the merely physical for the spiritual dimension that grounds it. When the accumulation of things crowds out intimate relationships, social responsibility, and the search for meaning, it deadens the human consciousness.
The pursuit of power is likewise dangerous, although not always evil in itself. The need for self-realization, which necessarily entails the exercise of power, is a constitutive aspect of human nature. But when it tramples on the rights of others, when it comes at the expense of the feelings or the dignity of others, or when it makes us sensitive to injustice, it becomes a denial of our fundamental identity as the creatures of a God who embraces all beings and the totality of the created order.
I think it might be important also, in our Lenten reflections, to point out how sometimes it is our religion itself that gets in the way of true repentance. It is particularly tragic when our theological perspective, rather than calling us to account, inoculates us against the deep kind of self-examination that would encourage us to reorient our lives completely. And this is precisely what an overly individualistic understanding of new birth tends to do as it emphasizes an internalized commitment to Christ without challenging us to understand ourselves as parts of God’s created order, responsible to the whole. And although the simplistic bumper-sticker, “Christians are not Perfect, Just Forgiven,” contains a valid truth, it tends to obscure the need for continual confession and repentance by suggesting that being “born again” is a one-time event rather than an ongoing process. By my sights, at least, the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints (or “once saved, always saved”) is not a valid article of Christian faith. If it were, I do not know why Paul would have to say to the Christians in Thessalonica, “may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus” (1 Thess 5:23).
Alternate Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9
The alternate gospel reading could provide a way of stressing the connection between Lent on the one hand and Good Friday and Easter on the other. Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus has been exercising his divine calling and status through both word and deed. He has healed the sick, raised the dead, and cast out demons; and he has laid out in detail the ethical requirements for life in God’s coming realm. Now, just prior to the lectionary reading, Peter acknowledges his status as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (16:6), and Jesus foretells his death and resurrection, warning the disciples that they will have their own crosses to bear (16:24-28). We can therefore understand the transfiguration scene as bringing the full scope of Jesus’s status and mission into view. On the one hand, his divine status is emphasized by his altered appearance and the voice of God, reminiscent of the baptismal scene; on the other, the paradoxical nature of his messianic mission is brought to the fore in verse 9: “Tell no one about the vision until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” Jesus is indeed the Son of God, who will “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21), but he will do this not by military conquest or the exercise of worldly power but through his death and resurrection. So here the inherent irony of the gospel comes through: Jesus saves the world by giving up his life, so that the ultimate victory comes through seeming defeat. But victory does in fact have the final word, and that means that the sacrifices those who follow Jesus must make will not be in vain; for those who lose their lives for his sake will in fact actually find them (Matt 16:25). Lent is a way of getting to Easter by way of Good Friday.
The alternate reading thus offers some possibilities quite different from those we might find in the selection from John. However, it is also similar to that selection in suggesting that the values we profess from a Christian perspective must, if they are to carry any significant weight, be grounded in a transcendent realm. That is, they must reflect something more than mere personal preference. To present Jesus as radiating heavenly light is to stress that his teachings do in fact express an understanding of human identity that reflects the true nature of reality rather than flawed earthly wisdom. The phrase in verse 5 that supplements the heavenly words at Jesus’s baptism is thus of crucial importance: “listen to him.” This is a way of emphasizing all that Jesus has taught—from the ethical teachings of the Sermon on the Mount to his prophecy of his death and resurrection with the counsel that those who follow him must take up their own crosses. His conversation with Moses and Elijah, on the other hand, reminds us that the Christian gospel is inextricably bound to the continuing drama of God’s relationship to Israel. And Peter’s pathetic suggestion that he build three booths is a reminder of our own limited understanding and need to persist in our quest for the truth. It is also a caution against trying to hold onto experiences of transcendence rather than accepting the rhythm of worship, meditation, and prayer on the one hand and action in the world on the other.
First Reading and Second Reading: Genesis 12:1-4a and Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
There are no absolute beginnings, either in history or in our individual lives. Every moment of experience is unique, but nothing ever happens that does not draw upon the past even as it brings something new and unrepeatable into existence. The story of the call of Abraham in Genesis 12:1-4a signals a fundamental change in God’s relationship to the world. After repeated efforts in Genesis 1-11 to convince the human community to live life reflective of the divine vision, God tries a new strategy, outlined in the promises made to Abraham—to create from his and Sarah’s progeny a new people, who will at last be dedicated to God’s purposes and ultimately bring blessing to all humanity. This act of God is built upon what has happened before. But it also provides new possibilities for the future, becoming in fact the foundation for a whole history of salvation that reaches its climax in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and its conclusion when the fullness of God’s reign comes with Jesus’s eventual return. The First Reading thus connects with the alternate Gospel lesson by reinforcing the meaning of the presence of Moses and Elijah at the transfiguration. Jesus’s mission is unintelligible apart from God’s over-all plan of salvation of the world precisely through the chosen people of Israel. So as important as it is to stress that the gospel presents a new possibility for human existence, this possibility is in fact what God has intended for us from the beginning. To be “born again” is to break with a past defined by corrupted human history and values, but only in order to realize the possibilities intended when God created the world.
The continuity between life in Christ and life in pre-Christian Israel is particularly evident in the Second Reading, which builds directly on the First. Here Paul stresses that God always intended that human beings should be made righteous not by works of the Law, as important as that Law might be, but rather through pistis, a Greek noun we can translate in various ways, including as “faith,” “faithfulness,” “trust,” and “belief.” Abraham was justified by God before there was a Law to which he could be obedient, and in any case his acceptance by God was not something that he earned by good deeds. It was a divine gift, conferred solely because of the fact that Abraham put his faith in God by believing/trusting, shown in his concrete action of leaving his homeland, that God would in fact fulfill the promise to make of him a great nation. In verse 3, the NRSV translates the verb pisteuō as “believed,” and in verse 5 it comes out as “trusts.” These translations are not wrong, but they obscure the fact that the whole passage is in fact about pistis, however we want to translate either the noun or the related verb. The point is that Abraham was justified before God not because he earned acceptance through obedience to the Law but rather because he trusted/believed/had faith in God. And Paul uses this fact to support his earlier contention in Romans 3:21-26 that those who are in Christ as justified by pistis, as a free gift, rather than by works. (As a side note, I should mention that although interpreters have generally interpreted this to mean that they are justified by their own faith, there is a strong recent trend to understand the point differently: at least in some passages in Paul, it appears that they are justified by the faithfulness of Jesus, in which they participate through their own faith.)
From a progressive theological perspective, there is another point that the Romans passage could be used to support. The faith of Abraham does not appear to be proleptic faith in Christ. It is his direct trust/belief/faith in God. It might be important, in the Lenten and Easter seasons, when we are rightly focused on matters that belong exclusively to the Christian faith, to remind ourselves that faith in Christ as God’s decisive act on behalf of human salvation need not involve the notion that explicit Christian faith is the only valid way of relating to God or embracing authentic human existence.
“The LORD will keep you from all evil.” This declaration in Psalm 121:7 is an important reminder that as we all struggle with temptations or other difficulties in life and our faith grows shaky, we are not asked to make the journey of faith on our own. God will be with us. And we should keep this verse in mind when we read the beginning lines of this psalm. The King James Version translates the entire first verse as a declaration: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.” Some more recent translations, however, interpret the second part of the Hebrew sentence as a question. Hence the NRSV rendering: “I will lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come?” The psalmist looks to the hills not as the source of help but simply as an object toward which the question is directed. The psalm begins with an acknowledgment that help comes from God, and verse 3 offers reassurance that God is our ultimate protector. Both experience and many biblical passages teach us that faith does not insure immunity from pain, but for the person of faith the assurances of this psalm are comforting reminders that in the ultimate scheme of things God does in fact shield us from utter destruction. The worst that an enemy or life itself can do to us is to kill the body; nothing can destroy our inmost being or the worth of our lives if we are in synch with the source of all that is.
Russell (Russ) Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus at Curry College, Milton, Massachusetts, where he taught a variety of courses, including New Testament, Old Testament, Religion and Politics, and Contemporary Theological Issues. He was also frequently Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School. A native of Louisiana, he is an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church and has served as an associate pastor in New Orleans and as an interim pastor in Needham, Massachusetts. He now lives in Clayton, Georgia with his wife, the Rev. Sammie Maxwell. Russell is the author of nine books, most recently For the Healing of the Nation: A Biblical Vision (2016) and Reading the Bible for All the Wrong Reasons (2011). He has also completed a second edition of an earlier book on process-relational theology, Mystery without Magic, which is now under consideration for publication.