This week’s readings, which you can find here, are all about radical changes in perspective: complete and utter transformations of how people view the world and their place in it.
God tells old and decrepit Abram, whose chances for a family of his own are behind him, to go out and be the father of a new nation. (FYI, Abram is Abraham before he’s called Abraham, just in case you, like me, find all of the Bible’s name changes confusing.) Paul imagines, and argues for, a world where Christ can open up the gates of God’s kingdom to everyone, not just to the people who have always known and followed the law.
And then there’s poor Nicodemus, who we tend to judge, thinking he’s ashamed to be seen with Jesus or too dense to understand what Jesus is trying to tell him. But we need to give him credit for this: When Jesus says, “You have to be born twice,” Nicodemus stays and grapples with the issue. He treats Jesus’ answer as real and worthy of consideration, when a lot of people would dismiss it: “Born again? That’s crazy talk, Jesus. You’re off your nut.”
The thing is, the reason why we admire people like Nicodemus, Paul, and Abraham is because they are rare. We forget that the established religion of the time worked for them: Paul was a star among Jews. Nicodemus was a teacher and scholar of the law—it made enough sense to him that he had dedicated his life to serve it. Abram was settled in Harran. He was making peace with the fact that he would never have children of his own, and I’d imagine he felt that was what a good man in his position ought to do: turn himself over to the will of God.
And yet, each of them has a glimpse of a fuller vision of God’s will for the world. The glimpse is somehow irresistible, so each takes a step toward it. That first step leads a second, then a third, and eventually to huge, life-changing things for all three of them: a new nation, a new church, a new understanding of life.
But how did they know? What was that first step like for them? Were they compelled to take it? Did they have full confidence that everything would work out? Or did they question themselves even as they were doing it?
When you ask a group of children what courage is, they tend to answer that courage is about not being afraid. But anyone who has had the opportunity to actually exercise courage knows that true courage is about feeling afraid, often for very good reasons, and then doing what needs to be done in spite of the fear. Everything else is a combination of recklessness, ignorance, and bravado.
Similarly, when you ask a group of children what faith is, you tend to get an answer along the lines of trusting or believing in God. And while it can be a good starting point for exploring the question of faith, I don’t think it’s a very good definition. Trust and belief are wonderful and necessary qualities in a person of faith, but faith itself is something different.
In my experience, faith is more like courage: it’s doing what God wants from us even as we experience doubts and questioning and worry that we might not be interpreting God’s will for us properly at all. When I think of faith that I admire, it’s always the faith that is uncertain but acts anyway.
I wonder how much of God’s plan we’re missing out on because we’re waiting for a flash of a vision, fully formed, that shows every detail of what God wants from us. I wonder how often we are like Paul’s congregants. Are we missing out on a deeper faith because we’re so busy knowing that God needs everyone to be circumcised, or that God thinks circumcision is stupid, that we miss out on the little glimmers of God’s more radical vision for the world?
Is it possible that our faith can be born anew by focusing, not on our certainty, but on our doubt?
Because Nicodemus wasn’t just going to Jesus because he knew he was a decent fellow. He was also going to him in spite of the fact that everyone he loved and respected said Jesus was no good and a false prophet. A good and faithful Pharisee really had no business talking to Jesus at all. In a way, it is Nicodemus’ faithlessness that brings him to that evening meeting with Jesus. If he had unquestioningly accepted what his teachers and peers were saying, he would never have experienced Jesus’ radical new vision of a world where the spirit supersedes the law.
Abram begins on his path to fathering a nation by questioning what everybody already knows: he’s too old for this.
And when Paul tells his church that they, too, need to radically reimagine what it means to be God’s people, he’s asking them to dismiss something that they’ve lived their whole lives believing is the bedrock of their faith.
All of them are rewarded for following that compelling glimmer of a vision that contradicts what they’ve always been told. What new radical visions of the world might God have in store for us if we only have the courage to take a step toward them, in spite of (or even because of) our doubts?