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Second Sunday in Lent

Today’s Gospel reminds me of a memoir I read “Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus:  A Devout Muslim Encounters Jesus.”  Given the provocative title, I thought it might help me to demystify a religion some vilify and discover what I could learn from another man’s journey of faith.

Nabeel Qureshi’s experience immediately reminded me of Nicodemus. He too came to Jesus by night.  He too tinkered on the margins of Christianity seeking truth.  And his journey taught me how our faith must be lived.

Curious about a faith others vilified, Nabeel was drawn to Christ.  Something deep in his heart beckoned Nabeel to Jesus, just like it did Nicodemus.  Despite the risk of losing his family, friends, and status in the community, he willingly questioned his and his families deeply held Islamic beliefs.  In the darkness of night, ladened with these apprehensions and fears, the light beckoned him forward.

On this second Sunday in Lent, we are invited to do some interior work, just like Nabeel and Nicodemus, to break ties with the familiar, explore our beliefs, and pursue a deeper relationship with God and others.  And, if we are to stretch the metaphor, we too come to Jesus this Lent in the darkness of these past few years, suffering so much loss, isolation, fear, the breakdown of so many things central to our lives, that have weakened our bodies, minds and spirits, and maybe even brought us some doubt.  Yet the light of Easter beckons us forward.

In today’s Gospel, John provides Nicodemus timidly guiding the way, but he does little to introduce us to him. We know that he is a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin, one of 70 men on the Supreme Jewish Council of chief priests, scribes, and elders.  As a leader and a powerful man in Jewish circles, Judaism was central to his beliefs, his way of life, his family, and his relationships. His encounter with Jesus puts him at considerable risk.

Yet, something deep in his heart moves Nicodemus to emerge out of the darkness to seek Jesus.  And understandably, he’s not quite ready to fully commit. He hovers on the margins, lurks in the shadows, remains cautious, discrete, unwilling to risk power, prestige, and relationships.

Despite his hesitation, there is something genuine and heartfelt about this encounter with Jesus.  It’s as if Jesus is extending his hand in outreach and Nicodemus desires to accept. Yet the experience seems to leave Nicodemus confounded.

Just like the events of the past few years leave me confounded from time to time.

As he questions Jesus, Nicodemus seeks empirical evidence, confirming facts that Jesus is of God “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

All Jesus had to do was to give him a simple answer.  Tell Nicodemus, “Yes that’s true.”  But not surprisingly, Jesus doesn’t respond as expected; he uses the moment to teach Nicodemus about faith. And Nicodemus doesn’t immediately know what to make of it, Jesus’ response is confusing and vague.

“No one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” / “Flesh gives birth to flesh, / the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”  / “You must be born again.”

This is the moment where most, including Nicodemus, probably want to pray the “Jesus Really Prayer,” a patient taught me.  It goes like this, “Jesus REALLY!”

Obviously, we know that one can’t physically be “born again.”  And, yes, these are powerfully charged words with all sorts of connotations.

Yet, Jesus’s words are theologically rich if not provocative. He challenges Nicodemus and us to do some interior work, to think more deeply about faith, /what it means to live in relationship with God, /what it means to live fully into relationship with others.

Nicodemus learned that faith grows beyond our knowing facts, compiling evidence, or gathering answers.

He discovered that faith defies rational understanding and sometimes confounds us; /faith is nourished when it is felt in the heart, / experienced through actions.

Nabeel Qureshi learned this as he tried to understand his Islamic faith. As he and a Christian friend debated the merits of their faith, they sought to explain their belief by gathering facts from their scriptures.  But as in the encounter with Nicodemus, Jesus had something different in mind for Nabeel.  And he too left the encounter with his friend and Jesus somewhat confounded.

Something took hold of Nabeel’s heart that defied his understanding. Jesus captured his attention, his world was rocked, his heart forever changed.   He became a Christian.

Much like Nicodemus, he was challenged to understand that living faith is far beyond having all the answers, it’s hearing Jesus’s voice inside you, a call of the heart that we respond to, best expressed, and deepened by experience and action.

In a very poignant moment, Nabeel shares a cherished memory, an Islamic action that nourished his faith.  At the time of birth, his father gently whispered the AZAN (uh-zaan), the daily Muslim call to prayer, into his ears. “God is great.  There is no god but God.”  He used the story to illustrate how powerful a simple daily gesture of faith, an action can be.

Moved by this story I decided to adapt the practice.  Each morning I say the words said at Baptism. “You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked by Christ’s own forever.”

As I start my day, this morning prayer helps me to remember not only who I am, but also whom I belong to in a world that tries to tell me otherwise. It helps me to remember the Baptismal call, the promise to live our faith through experience and action.  And the commitment I made as a deacon to help you do the same.

Through our Baptism, we are born anew in water and spirit, “sealed by the Holy Spirit,” “marked as Christ’s own forever, sharing in the Divine Life given to us sacramentally.

Reborn in this way, /reborn into God’s family, we are shaped and sustained by the Spirit who enlivens spiritual gifts within us that aid our ministry as we build God’s reign on earth.

If we are “marked as Christ’s own,” and possess spiritual gifts, we have a responsibility to move from faithful curiosity, to one of action, leaving our “marks of faith” in a world that desperately needs us to.

The Anglican Church offers us these “five marks of mission.”

TELL – To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom:  To be willing to boldly come out of the darkness of night and to step into the light sharing our faith experience with others.  

TEACH – To nurture our faith through study and education, to share what we know so that others might come to Christ.

TEND: To respond to human needs through loving service.

TRANSFORM – To transform unjust structures of society, / to pursue peace, reconciliation, and reparation, /eradicate injustice, /advocate nonviolence, /purvey forgiveness,  work to end discrimination, and ignorance, /to dismantle all that blocks Christ’s love from filling the world.

TREASURE –strive to safeguard the integrity of Creation, to sustain and renew the life of the earth, to commit to be good stewards, to observe and promote practices of sustainability, conservation, and renewal.

This is our faith in action.

This is what it means to be “marked as Christ’s own, for us to leave our mark as we work to build the reign of God.

This is what it means, despite the darkness, to be “born of water and Spirit.”

This Lent, the light of Easter, beckons us to come out of the night, like Nabeel and Nicodemus into the light, to move forward in grace.

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