The following sermon was preached by Sarah Stadler-Ammon, LSTC Senior M. Div. Student, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Monday, March 27, 2006.
In my attempt to follow Jesus, the one who refused to condemn a woman who committed adultery, the one who broke Jewish custom by performing signs on the Sabbath, the one who spoke with a Samaritan women, I affirm and celebrate the presence and full participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and other queer folks in our congregations. But we know that some members of the body of Christ do not agree with me and that these members are faithful people who are also attempting to follow Jesus.
Because we know that we live in ambiguity, we do not want to label the actions and attitudes of our church and our society as either good or evil—even though our text for today might lend itself to such an evaluation. We do not want to stake claims that would build barriers between the members of this church…or claims that would split this church. What we can do is listen to Jesus' words as recorded in the gospel of John: For God loved the world in this way, that God gave the Son, the only begotten one, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him. Jesus goes on to talk about our tendency to love the darkness—a problematic concept in view of racism and white supremacy—and our inclination to turn away from the light. Jesus has hope that some of us will come to the light—which is Jesus—and that the Spirit of God will motivate our actions.
In all of Jesus' words about light and darkness, however, he does not mention what constitutes light and darkness or good and evil; Jesus does not draw lines in the sand around certain opinions or actions. Jesus only speaks of God's love and God's light, made manifest in his own saving life. Jesus speaks of a love that penetrates the whole world, a love that does not condemn but rather saves.
In Jesus' day, such a love probably surprised those who heard Jesus' words. In the text for this morning, Jesus speaks to Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a leader among the Jews, a teacher coming to speak to another teacher. Nicodemus comes by night to affirm Jesus' identity as one sent by God. When Nicodemus questions Jesus about the birth from above, he finds out that this saving birth depends on God's acceptance of him and God's transformation in him, not on his own works and not on his moral achievements. Apparently astonished, Jesus asks him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?"
Imagine this Nicodemus, this Pharisee, a guy from a group of people who so often get a bad rap in our churches. Imagine this one who knows the Torah and who so steadfastly tries to follow it. Imagine his surprise and his confusion and his dismay when he realizes that this teacher sent by God is proclaiming a different sort of birth into God's reign…a birth through water and the Spirit…and even more, that Jesus is proclaiming a different sort of love active in God's reign…a love not dependent on human action…a love free from condemnation…a love reaching the entire world and all its people through this embodied God, Jesus. Imagine this Pharisee's heartbreak as his Jewish brother and teacher displaces Nicodemus' religious values. I thought I knew what you wanted me to do, God! I thought I knew what to believe! I was wrong?
As teachers and leaders and faithful followers, we too may be questioning Jesus' proclamation of love and the birth from above, Holy Baptism. We may be questioning Jesus' ambiguity. He does not stand for a particular moral imperative, much to our discomfort. If you are like me, you want Jesus to give us a law to follow, a code of ethics that makes our lives clear cut and simple. If you are like me, you desire a system of righteousness, and you want to identify who is in and who is out.
Observe what both sides of the political/theological spectrum are doing these days. In the ELCA, the Word Alone movement has separated some of our members from the larger church on the basis of the church's discussion around sexuality and, more specifically, the ordination of lesbian and gay persons in committed relationships in the life of this church body. I imagine the people who take part in this movement feel a gospel imperative to not authorize what they feel is sinful. As well, for as long as I have been studying queer theology in a Lutheran context, I have heard from some among us the desire for a Lutheran church body that would be separate from the ELCA consisting of queer folks and allies. Instead of struggling faithfully for transformation within our current body, such a community would continue to build walls between people of faith—even though this desire probably springs from a yearning from LGBTQ folks to hear the good news.
I have to admit that, for most of my life, I thought that Jesus' actions and words pointed to belief in a certain ideology and political stance. Such a perspective led me away from community and even away from hearing the gospel at times. Could it be that Jesus doesn't leave anybody out—even those who act contrarily to how we understand the gospel? Could it be that part of faithful living in community is continuing with the struggle to separate what Jesus proclaimed and did from what we alone think is right and to acknowledge that Jesus shows up in others' experiences? Even though I—and perhaps you—may be radical in the eyes of this church, in my reading of the gospel of John, Jesus is far more radical.
As my colleague Kent Narum has said, "We realize the fullness of God, and it's not quite what we expected." We don't expect this One who comes into the world to save the world but to condemn it, to condemn at least those who we think don't follow in Jesus' footsteps. We would be happy with some laws and some requirements, but this One comes to love us—to love us and to love all people—that means all people of all political parties and ideologies, of all religious systems, of all cultures and languages, of all abilities, of all genders, and, of course, people of all sexual orientations. Jesus comes to us in the midst of our fleshy reality, an embodiment that God celebrates in its multiplicity. When that wide and deep love of God grasps us, we may be surprised since we, the church, struggle to love all people. We may even be dismayed by how freely God loves. We may question God's desire to be in loving and saving relationship with the whole world, yet Jesus assures us that he came not to condemn but to save.
As the Spirit comes alive in us, the Spirit given in Holy Baptism, we give up our condemnation and truly see one another as sisters and brothers committed to the proclamation and embodiment of the gospel. We move toward the light about which Jesus spoke. Though we may feel stuck in our sides of right and left, liberal and conservative, the Spirit jostles us into community, into faithful dialogue, into love, into seeing one another the way God sees us. In Jesus, we realize the fullness of god, and it's not quite what we expected. It's better. But, then, do we really think God can be confined by our expectations? Amen