St. Matthew's Episcopal

Scandalous Christianity

Posted on: March 14th, 2017 by Robin Jarrell


There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”                                                                                                                John 3:1-17


I will continue my practice of summarizing the sermon for the previous Sunday because in these turbulent times, it is important to keep the Good News ever before us.

There is an incredible window on the south side of St. Matthew’s that depicts the fourth gospel writer, St. John.  He is holding a chalice.  And there is something strange inside the chalice – a serpent.  We all know that stained glass windows in churches come from a time when the story of Jesus needed to be told without writing and that they are full of symbols.  But what can this mean?  A serpent in a chalice?

Let’s start with today’s gospel. Rabbi Nicodemus is very learned and very wise.  He knows that the teacher who calls himself Jesus is indeed doing miraculous things.   He makes his visit at night where he won’t be seen by some of his fellow Pharisees under the cover of darkness because, let’s face it, those Jesus people are saying and doing really radical things.  Loving your enemies, casting out demons, healing the sick, telling folks they are blessed if they are peacemakers.  I mean, really.

When Nicodemus announces to Jesus “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God,” Jesus says something astonishing.  He tells Nicodemus that no one can experience the Kingdom of God without being born “from above.”  The Greek word used here can mean both “born again” and “born continuously.”  Now, I have been reading that piece of scripture for longer than I can say, and this week was the first time that it occurred to me that Jesus is speaking about his own baptismal experience.  Being born of the flesh is indeed a very watery experience and that’s what makes the incarnation – Jesus’ fleshly birth – so amazing.  But I believe that Jesus’ spiritual birth came about when he was baptized in the river Jordan and as the Holy Spirit came down from heaven (and in some versions) a voice from God called Jesus “my beloved son.”  That’s what makes our own baptism so important.  As we share in Christ’s baptism, we share in the mystery of his death and resurrection and are caught up in the whirlwind of the Holy Spirit that “blows where it chooses” and defines us as the body of Christ.  In a sense, what Jesus is telling Nicodemus is that followers of The Way give up their autonomy of ego and self-absorption in order to partake in the Kingdom of God.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that as Jesus is the Son of Man, it is Jesus who has experienced both earthly things and heavenly things.  And then comes the strangest thing of all.  Jesus says, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  What can this possibly mean?

There is an episode in the book of Numbers when the Israelites are wandering in the desert for 40 years, and the people are set upon by snakes who bite and kill them.  When the people complain to Moses, God tells Moses to make a replica of a “fiery serpent” and set it up high on a pole so that the snake bitten people can look up at it and live.  It seems scandalous to the people at first (something about the 3rd commandment and not making “graven images,”) but when they gaze on the image, they are saved.

So Jesus is making a comparison between his coming scandalous death (tortured and crucified like a common criminal) and his being “lifted up” on a cross and “exalted,” and the scandal of the serpent in the wilderness.  How can something so antithetical to God’s word have healing power?  How can the scandal of Jesus’ death bring us eternal life and salvation.  And yet it does.

Now we are back to the serpent in St. John’s chalice.  Our ancestors of the faith wanted to remind us – with deep symbolism—that the Eucharist we share as the body of Christ and with the body of Christ is scandalous – what humans see as outrageous, but what God knows is the intrinsic mystery of our salvation, given to us.  There is scandal in Christianity – to love radically, to heal, to reconcile, to speak truth for those who cannot, to stand with and for the “least of these.”  The question is:  will we be like the stained-glass window and let the scandal of Christianity show through us?


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