So Abram departed, as the LORD had spoken unto him. [Genesis 12:4a]
In our lessons for today, it appears as if we have a tale between two men. One seems to be the epitome of “Faith.” The other one seems to be the epitome of “Fear.” But I would submit that this is not the true meaning of our lessons for today. Our true lesson is quite deeper.
In our Old Testament lesson, we have Abram answering the call to follow God, and moving out in faith. As a result, he is promised something quite interesting, especially for us Christians:
Now the LORD had said unto Abram, “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show thee: and I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: and I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.” So Abram departed, as the LORD had spoken unto him.
What is interesting here is that Abram, soon to be renamed Abraham, was promised three things. First, he was promised to be made into a great nation. Second, Abram was promised to be blessed and that those who bless him would be blessed, but those who curse him would be cursed. Finally, he was promised that, through him, all the nations of the world will be blessed.
Now, these three promises may seem interconnected, but in reality they are not. The first promise is to make Abraham’s descendants into a great nation. And they were made into the nation Israel. The second promise is personal. Those who bless him will be rewarded. Those who curse him will be punished. And all these things revolve around him, personally. But the third promise is different than both of the first two.
The third promise is that all the families of the world will be blessed through Abraham. It does not say how, but it promises blessings. What is also interesting is that the promise is that FAMILIES will be blessed, not nations. The true meaning of this promise is never made clear UNTIL Jesus was born. What we know now is that all the families of the world are blessed through Abraham’s lineage because from this line came Jesus Christ, the salvation of all the world.
In the end, out of faith, Abraham took his family and moved to a new land. And out of faith, Abraham was saved. There was no Mosaic Law at this time. There was no Ten Commandments. No, as Saint Paul tells us, the only way Abraham could possibly be saved is through faith.
But now let us look at Nicodemus:
There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: the same came to Jesus by night.
It is clear from what Nicodemus says next that he thinks Christ is a holy man. But it is ALSO clear that Nicodemus is fearful – and this is understandable. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, and he is a member of the Sanhedrin. Nicodemus has much to lose if Jesus is NOT what He appears to be. Thus, out of fear, Nicodemus comes at night.
However, this is not the end of what we know about Nicodemus. We know he defended Christ before the Sanhedrin. In Chapter 7, we have this:
Nicodemus saith unto them, (he that came to Jesus by night, being one of them), “Doth our law judge any man, before it hear him, and know what he doeth?”
Finally, Nicodemus reached such a state of faith that he was able to make a public declaration of his belief in Christ. Nicodemus did this through his involvement in Jesus’ bodily preparation for His entombment, which we find in Chapter 19 of Saint John’s Gospel:
And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight. Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury. Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden: and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid. There laid they Jesus therefore because of the Jews’ preparation day: for the sepulchre was nigh at hand.
In our Gospel lesson, we do NOT have a tale of a man with NO faith. Rather, we have a tale of a man who is YOUNG in his faith and who eventually grows in that faith.
As an aside, there is an oral tradition that speaks of Nicodemus’ continued growth. According to these early sources, Nicodemus was baptized by Saint Peter and consequently was removed from the Sanhedrin. Eventually, fearing for his life, he had to flee Jerusalem. As a consequence, in the Eastern Orthodox faith, on the third Sunday of Easter, they celebrate Nicodemus (along with the Myrrh-bearing women and Joseph of Arimathea) precisely because of his faith.
These two lessons for today are not black and white. They are not between someone with no faith and someone with faith. Rather, these lessons are to show two very important things. The first is how faith develops. The second is to show that faith, like so many other things, are from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
In our Gospel lesson, we have the ultimate statement of faith. It is one that has mystified, as well as caused conflict and controversy:
Jesus answered and said unto him, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Being “born again” for many fundamental and evangelical churches is the hallmark of being a true believer. However, the Greek word for “again” can also be translated as “from above.” What Christ meant, but what Nicodemus was missing, was that we must become born of heaven in order to be saved. This birth comes from God and is ONLY achieved through faith in Jesus. But there is more. Jesus also tells us:
“Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, ‘Ye must be born again.’ The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”
The Greek word for breath and wind is pneuma, which also is used for the Holy Spirit. Thus, the last section is a play on words indicating that the Holy Spirit goes where He wants to go and cannot be contained either by Man’s physical nature or by Man’s intellect. In other words, Jesus is telling us that the Holy Spirit is mysterious.
But what is also clear is that being born again, being born of heaven, also involves Baptism. We must all be born of water and of the Spirit. In the Eastern Orthodox, this happens at Baptism. Babies are baptized and then anointed with chrism, which signifies the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. For the West, these two elements are made into two sacraments. One is Baptism, which uses water. The second is Confirmation, which uses chrism. But, even with this, many churches in the West use chrism at Baptism, even though they also use it at the sacrament of Confirmation.
What is clear from our Gospel lesson for today is that, when Jesus refers to being born-again, He is speaking of being regenerated in Baptism, which also makes us the adopted children of God. Salvation is more than forgiveness. It is becoming part of God’s family. And we achieve this when we are baptized.
Our lessons for today are not about one man with faith and another with none, but rather it is about two men stepping out in faith. One stepped out in faith boldly in the daylight. He moved all his family with him and moved to a strange land – all out of faith. The other stepped out in faith haltingly and timidly. He stepped out in the dark, fearful of what others may think, but still needing to know the truth. He stepped out in fear, but he STILL stepped out! Both men must grow in their faith. Both must take personal journeys. But both come to the full fruition of their faith.
And this is our lesson. Faith never develops exactly the same in each person. Some know instantly and grow quickly; others take a long time, growing cautiously and, initially, with great trepidation. Some people do not care what others think, but others do. And those of us who do care what others think may take longer to get where we need to go. However, no matter what our journey is or how long it may take, let us all take comfort that, every step of the way, the Holy Ghost will be with us. No wonder He is called the Great Comforter. Amen.