Monday, 1 June 2015

Zen and Nicodemus- John 3

I want to tell you a Zen story. It’s a kind of parable. There was once a woodcutter who lived in the forest. One day as he went about cutting trees a creature named “Satori” appeared. Satori began mocking the woodcutter until he became very angry. Eventually the woodcutter went after Satori with his axe to kill him. Satori, however, had the ability to read minds and was able to read the mind of the woodcutter. When the woodcutter was thinking about attacking Satori on one side of the clearing Satori would appear on the other side mocking him. If he planned a way to trick Satori in order to trap him it would never work. This went on for some time. No matter how cleaver the woodcutter was- no matter what kind of plan the wood cutter came up with- Satori was always able to outsmart him because he would read the mind of the woodcutter. After hours and then days of trying to kill Satori the woodcutter was maddened. No matter what he did he could not kill Satori and Satori continued to mock the woodcutter day after day after day. In frustration the woodcutter threw his axe.  The head of the axe broke off, bounced off a tree, and cut the head off Satori.
        Zen stories are teachings to meditate on that have to do with enlightenment. They are often strange and don’t seem to make sense. You might know the Zen saying (or Koan) about “the sound of one hand clapping”. The stories are meant to bring us to the limit of rational thinking. The stories short circuit our usual ways of thinking to cause a kind of epiphany. There are some spiritual truths that we just can’t get to by ordinary means.
“Satori” in Japanese means “enlightenment”. The woodcutter trying to kill Satori represents the human desire to attain enlightenment. Enlightenment, however, cannot be gained by the sheer effort of planning and thinking. Enlightenment comes through a surprise- almost by accident. So the woodcutter cannot kill the creature by trying to. In the process of trying to kill the creature he actually kills it by a fluke accident.
 similar is happening in Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a Sadducee, which is a member of the religious elite. They also had some political power as well. The Sadducee council is the group that declared Jesus guilty and sent him to Pontius Pilate for execution. They were intimately connected to the life of the Jerusalem temple and so were also intimately connected to the Roman Empire. The Romans were happy to allow the Sadducees to run things as long as the peace was kept. And that meant keeping things stable. Someone like Jesus disturbed that balance, so it makes sense that the Sadducees were suspicious of Jesus, just as they would be suspicious of anyone that threatened the status quo.
When Nicodemus comes to Jesus, it is at night. He has everything to lose by associating with Jesus. As a member of the Sadducees everything he worked for would be put at stake. Nicodemus was the cream of the crop. He was at the top of his society. He was among the most respected and powerful people in his community. He would have every reason to not associate with Jesus. Nicodemus, however, was not just interested in preserving his position. He actually believed in God and had a desire to follow God’s will. The desire to encounter God almost always comes into conflict with the status quo. Nicodemus was attracted to the light, but he was not yet ready to leave the darkness. Many of us know that feeling. We are attracted to Jesus. We are fans of Jesus. But, when it comes to crossing that threshold into giving our lives over to him and becoming fully-committed disciples- when it comes to disturbing the status quo- we hold back. We hold back and remain “fans” at a comfortable distance.  
Nicodemus keeps Jesus at a comfortable distance and tries to approach him by finding a way to fit him into his Sadducee world. He approaches him as a fellow theologian- as a fellow Rabbi. He says, “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" (3:2). Nicodemus is giving Jesus the Sadducee stamp of approval. Jesus is like one of the prophets. Nicodemus is finding a corner for Jesus to fit into his life.
As fans of Jesus (rather than disciples) we try to find a place to insert Jesus into our lives. We make him into a kind of hobby. We keep him on the periphery- tucked into a corner on the edges of our lives. Nicodemus was trying to find a way to keep himself comfortable as a Sadducee but also include Jesus is his life.
Like a Zen master, Jesus challenges Nicodemus’s usual way of thinking- "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above" (3:3). It’s not really a reply to Nicodemus’ statement. He could have acknowledged Nicodemus’ observation and spoken about the miracles he is referring to, or he could have spoken about his role as a teacher from God. Instead Jesus says, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above”.
When I hear Jesus say this, in my mind I can see Nicodemus’ face and I experience the awkward silence as Nicodemus tries to find a way to respond. Nicodemus is stuck in his paradigm. His mind is stuck on the literal and earthly and he replies, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" (3:4). Jesus rephrases his statement, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (3:5).
The Kingdom of God isn’t just about life with God when we die. The Kingdom of God is about God being King right here right now. The Kingdom is where God’s will is being done on earth. It is about my life being ruled and guided by God my King. For Judaism, that was the goal. Jesus was getting right to the heart of things. Nicodemus was thinking about the Sadducees and what was officially recognized and verified, but that was not the way into the kingdom. The kingdom isn’t something that comes about by the approval of a committee. The kingdom comes by “being born from above” or “being born again” (the Greek can mean either), or “being born of water and spirit”. This is not about human effort. This is about God renewing and rejuvenating a person. It is about such a change in a person that it is as if they have been born into a new life. Being in the kingdom means that the center of your life has changed. It means that instead of God being a hobby in the corner at the edge of your life, that God is central. In the Kingdom, all the details of our life find their place centered on God. How we spend our money is reoriented. How we spend out spare time is reoriented. How we treat strangers and our neighbours changes. Everything changes. Even if outwardly things don’t seems to change, inwardly our motivation changes. 
But, like the woodcutter chasing after the creature (Satori), Nicodemus cannot enter or even see the Kingdom through his own effort. He cannot enter the kingdom by his association with the Sadducees, or by being merely a fan of Jesus. Entry to the kingdom comes through being born of the Spirit, which is mysterious and not able to be controlled.  Like the wind, it mysteriously comes and goes. It cannot be seen, but its effects are felt (3:8).            
While the woodcutter could not through thought and effort kill Satori, the woodcutter did have to place himself in the situation where it became possible. While entry to the kingdom of God was not in Nicodemus’ power, he could still place himself in the vicinity of Jesus. There is a certain point that what I say doesn’t matter. My words cannot result in anyone being born again, but your being here shows that you may be open to it. Maybe you have experienced this new birth, and maybe you haven’t. Maybe it was a long time ago and you need to be born again, again. Choosing to go to church won’t cause you to be born again. Choosing to stay away from church won’t cause you to be born again. It’s not in our control. The Spirit must birth you. But, we can open ourselves up to it. Going to Church can open you to it. Reading your Bible can open you to it. Praying can open you to it. Spiritual practices open you to it. The sacraments open you to it. In part, this is what Baptism does. Baptism is about re-centering our lives on Jesus. We open ourselves to the Spirit by this act. We learn where to place our trust, and if that is too much, we learn where to place our gaze- “…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” (3:14-17). Jesus is raised up like the bronze serpent in the wilderness. If the people in the camp that were bit by the poisonous snakes looked at the bronze serpent they would not die by the poison. So we look to Jesus on the cross to save us from the poisons of the world. We can avert our gaze and resist the Spirit, but then the poisons of the world will work on us. Or, we can look and trust and open ourselves to receiving life that will never end given by an incredibly loving and mysterious God.  AMEN

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