Rev. Teri Peterson
Matthew 7.16-20, 2 Corinthians 3.16-18, John 3.1-8, Romans 12
3 June 2012, Trinity and People’s Choice 1
One of the questions I often ask the confirmation class is “what will change when you are a church member?” What is it about standing up here, professing your faith, and getting your own line in the church directory makes you different?
The ultimate answer, after lots of conversation, is of course nothing. The only thing that changes when you become a member of the congregation is that you can vote and hold office. Being a member doesn’t make you a different person, doesn’t automatically increase your involvement, and doesn’t make God love you any more than God already does. Joining a religious institution does not make you more faithful or closer to God. That takes work on our parts—more than just getting our names on the roll or in the directory.
But the other question I ask them all the time, I now ask you: what difference does it make in your everyday life that you are a follower of Jesus? What changes inside of you as you walk this faith journey? What makes you different from people who choose to follow another path? Again, God doesn’t love us more when we follow Jesus. Following Jesus does not always lead us to increased church involvement or even to membership. But it does make us different, it does change us. Faith is about a process of becoming, not a process of arriving. In 2 Corinthians (3:16-18), Paul writes “…but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”
One degree of glory to another…one degree at a time, even. Slowly, slowly, yet it happens---because it comes from the Spirit of God and no one can thwart God’s vision and desire, not even the Roman Empire, let alone us. Day by day, when we choose to follow Jesus, to hear his call and walk in his footsteps, we exhibit a little more of the image of God planted within us. Just as in any other close relationship, we take on some characteristics of those we spend time with—maybe a phrase or a fashion or even an inside joke. And hopefully our relationships are also with people who draw out the best in us. This is how a relationship with God works, too. In fact, the Latin word credo, from which we get the word “creed” and which is usually translated “I believe,” is better translated as “I pledge my loyalty”—it’s like a marriage vow, saying “I do and I will” trust, love, and even obey (though we usually leave that obeying bit out nowadays!). When we make that kind of vow, when we stand up here and profess that faith and answer those questions, then everything does change. We do not belong to ourselves, we are in covenant relationship with someone who wants to see us become our fullest and truest self, who wants us to be a walking reflection of God’s image, kingdom, and glory.
This isn’t just about heaven, either—it’s about being transformed, day by day, in this life, so we can be part of transforming the world into the kingdom of God. We don’t pray “bring us to heaven,” we pray “your kingdom come.” Jesus didn’t say “if you’re good enough, one day you can play harps in the clouds,” he said “the kingdom of God is here.” That means it’s not just for perfect people, either. Scripture is full of examples of people loved and called by God despite what we would consider their imperfections. Abraham and Sarah were 100 years old. Noah drank too much. Moses stuttered and had a fiery temper without any anger management skills. David couldn’t restrain his lust, for a woman or for power. Jeremiah was just a child when he was called, and as an adult he was prone to depression. Isaiah was a “man of unclean lips and heart.” Peter had no impulse control. James and John were overly ambitious. And yet all these people were created in the image of God, were loved, and played central roles in God’s story. Many of us have pasts filled with varying levels of sordid tales, but we also trust in a God who redeems even unto death, a God whose love is more powerful than anything we might do, a God whose grace gets inside us, becomes a part of us, and that changes both us and the world.
We aren’t the first to be confused about how this all happens, and when, and why. In John 3 (1-8) we hear about “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.’”
You may recall that Nicodemus continues in his confusion, and Jesus is a tad incredulous—“are you a leader of Israel and you do not understand?” Well, Jesus, it’s not as if you’re speaking in plain English. The Holy Spirit is not easily wrapped up and explained, and the work of the Spirit is unpredictable—obviously, since Nicodemus is a Pharisee, not exactly one of Jesus’ best friends. That he sought Jesus out at all is a sign that something was going on inside, that Nicodemus didn’t fit the stereotype, that something was working on him and changing him. But he’s not there yet—he’s busy trying to make Jesus’ words literal rather than letting the Spirit grow inside him and open his mind and heart. He’s still stuck on the letter of the law, while Jesus is trying to encourage him to be open to another way.
We Presbyterians aren’t so into the conversion stories, the born-again experience, but Jesus tells us it’s something important—that we can’t see the kingdom of God if we aren’t born of the Spirit. If we don’t have room for the wild and mysterious movement of the Spirit in our lives and our religious systems, we’ll be blind to what God is doing in our midst. Could this be why the kingdom of God seems so elusive—because not only are we not looking with the right lenses, but also we’re dwelling in the letter rather than the Spirit? We’re busy thinking that church is great because in just an hour it gives our kids a moral compass and it makes us feel good and gives us an outlet to help people and a place to see our friends, but we’re missing out on so much more to the life that God envisions…what would happen if we followed the wind, let it blow us out of our houses and our churches to seek Jesus, let it make us into something new and beautiful and world-changing?
Sometimes, though, we bump up against these other hard stories, like when Jesus says in Matthew 7 (16-20), “You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.”
That sounds more like the Pharisees than like the Jesus we just encountered in John. It sounds so black and white, cut and dried, with no possibility of change. But the witness of scripture, all those people I mentioned earlier, suggests that we might be reading this wrong. It’s tempting, if we think of faith as an experience of following the rules in order to get a reward, to see this teaching simply as a statement of fact—there are good and bad people, and you can tell which is which. Then again, if our faith is more about a struggle toward an ideal, perhaps we’re more likely to read this in conjunction with the parable Jesus tells in Luke 13, in which the farmer convinces the landowner to let him nurture the fruitless tree, to dig around it and fertilize it, to spend time and effort growing good fruit. And if we read this together with Paul’s letter to Corinth that we heard earlier, we might conclude is that there must be something else to this passage, something we’re missing, perhaps because our vision of the kingdom is clouded.
Just before this, Jesus is talking about walking the narrow way to life—the harder path that may not lead to what the world values as a good life, but will lead to an abundance we don’t even have words to describe. And right after, he says that the one who does the will of God is the one who truly proclaims him Lord. Many of our paths meander and take wrong turns—what matters is that we come back to the Way, that we keep practicing even though we’ll never be perfect. In other words, despite this being a convoluted agricultural metaphor: the fruit defines the tree, not the other way around. And the way to get good fruit is to cultivate, to nurture, to practice. The question is not whether you’re a good or bad tree, or whether you can change from one to the other—the question is whether you produce fruit, and what that fruit is. Scripture says that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity, and self control. Those are all things you can cultivate, with God’s transformative help.
The purpose of a religious community, organized or disorganized, is to give us a framework in which to practice as we become who God is calling us to be. Nicodemus’s religious community was about understanding and following the rules, but religion is not about head things—not really. It’s not about the doctrines and the intellectual belief system. Not one of those fruits of the Spirit comes from the mind. It’s about transformation, it’s about becoming, it’s about a way of living, it’s about learning to trust. It’s about making room for the wind of the Spirit, and letting the grace of God change your life.
And so we’re back to the question: what difference does it make to you, in your own life, inside and out, every day, in the world, that you are a follower of Jesus? What does your life, transformed by God’s grace, look like? Paul advises us in Romans 12, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
No pressure, of course.
We are to be transformed, to day by day reveal more of God’s image and glory, to allow the Spirit to nurture and grow us into trees that bear fruit for the kingdom. What does that look like every day? Paul continues, “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Of course, much of that sounds like it’s somewhere in between crazy and impossible…but nothing is impossible with God. When we stop seeing faith as a set of intellectual propositions, when we outgrow religion as a structure designed to keep us in line, and when we practice following Jesus every day, we can finally let the wind of the Spirit blow us out into the wide, mysterious world, and we’ll see it as the kingdom of God. And then, friends, with God’s grace living inside us, God’s glory will shine out from us, and the result will be more than meets the eye.
May it be so. Amen.