We Are God’s Art Project
Today we meet Nicodemus, a man searching for answers.
The traditional response of the church to people searching for answers is to provide a ream of doctrine.
The Episcopal Church is actually not a doctrinal church. In order to be Episcopalian, at no point do you have to sign on the dotted line to a list of detailed beliefs.
Our only statement of belief is the Nicene Creed, and it’s okay to be a little hazy on parts of that if you need to.
As long as you are actively seeking out relationship with God in Jesus Christ, you are welcome to call yourself an Episcopalian.
Our unifying document is not a list of doctrines, but the Book of Common Prayer. We are bound together by worship and sacrament; we find our unity in praying together.
But that’s not to say that Episcopalians are floating around out there with no doctrine available. If you want doctrine, there is a lot out there to choose from and ponder.
We’re just saying that the church isn’t going to dictate it to you. It is your privilege and your responsibility to sift through generations of church tradition with scripture in one hand and your own good human reason in the other to find out what rings true to you and what will best help you to better love God and your neighbor.
One of the great things about being an Episcopalian is that active relationship with God takes precedence over doctrine.
But there are actually two bits of doctrine that work for me that I’d like for you to try on for size and see if they work for you.
Although the simplicity of the Creed is wonderful because having it be our only doctrinal statement leaves us free to welcome in so many more people than the catechetical churches, the downside is that it leaves us as individuals the hard work of figuring out what we do believe, one slow step at a time.
And slow steps are the hallmark of these two bits of doctrine I’d like to address this morning: continuing revelation and lifelong conversion. They go hand in hand and complement each other. Let’s take them one at a time.
What is continuing revelation?
Continuing revelation is the doctrine that God is still actively in communication with us today.
As the United Church of Christ says in their denominational motto, “God is still speaking.”
The Roman Catholic Church does not believe in continuing revelation in the same way that I’m talking about. The Pope may receive revelation, or perhaps there may be revelation to the church hierarchy over time, but the average layperson is not expected or encouraged to find his or her own answers apart from the answers the church already provides.
Many Protestant churches do not believe in continuing revelation because they say the Bible is the complete and full extent of everything God ever wanted to say to us and it is blasphemous and a denigration of the Bible to say there might be more to say about any particular issue than what the Bible has already said.
I don’t buy either argument, and the basis for my disagreement is Jesus’ statement in the Gospel of John: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears… and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”
Jesus says outright that his communication to us is not finished.
In our gospel today, Jesus questions our ability to receive what he’s already told us, much less what he might want to reveal to us in the future: “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”
Continuing revelation is obvious to me in the simple truth that God’s people used to believe that slavery was ordained and blessed by God, that women shouldn’t speak in church, that genocide of nation against nation was not just sanctioned but even required by God.
All of those things are in the Bible, presented as God’s will.
Do we as Christians believe today that they are God’s will?
Of course not.
Because God in God’s love and generosity leads us more and more into truth by the Holy Spirit.
And in order to be open to that leading, we have to acknowledge the fact that there is more to the story than one group of writers, good and holy people that they were, were able to understand as they wrote the texts that became scripture thousands and thousands of years ago.
We also have to be willing, as Nicodemus is, to go to Jesus with our honest questions, to ask of the temporal and spiritual phenomena that perplex us along with Nicodemus, “How can these things be?”
So the doctrine of continuing revelation simply means that God is still speaking to us today, that God did not cut off communication with humanity when St. John of Patmos dotted the last i and crossed the last t in the Book of Revelation.
The very nature of God in Jesus Christ is communication—God is the Word, and it is part of our adventure in faith to always be seeking to tune our ear to how the Word made Flesh is manifesting to us in all areas of our lives.
Jesus tells us today, “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’”
Do not be astonished that we must constantly return to a state of being spiritual newborns, of having to relearn everything we think we know about God and ourselves, over and over again.
Which leads me to our second doctrinal idea today: lifelong conversion.
Let’s again look at who doesn’t buy into this doctrine.
Roman Catholics aren’t on board because they’re not really conversion oriented to begin with. There are all sorts of issues of purgatory and original sin and to be honest, I doubt I could accurately describe the Roman Catholic doctrine of salvation, but suffice it to say that it’s not lifelong conversion.
Most Protestant churches don’t believe in lifelong conversion because they believe in one, concrete conversion experience. It is often called “getting saved” or “being born again.”
It is a radical inbreaking of God’s presence, a sudden and specific moment at which one becomes convicted of one’s sin and accepts Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with someone having a conversion experience.
John Wesley, the great Anglican priest, had a conversion experience so profound that he went on to part two of his career which was founding the Methodist Church.
(Now that is Episcopal doctrine: reminding our dear Methodist friends that John Wesley considered himself an Anglican until the day he died, so they should really all just come home to the Episcopal Church at their earliest convenience.)
But the problem with preaching conversion experiences as doctrine is that not everyone has one, and the people who spend their whole lives yearning for an experience of God that they think they haven’t had feel more than just left out, they can start to wonder if God loves them at all, if God is real, if they are damned to hell because they are not of the elect.
The other problem with conversion experiences, particularly in the churches that preach getting saved, is that there is an expectation that after the conversion experience, life will be perfect and you’ll never sin again or feel lonely for God again.
So people feel a pressure to always act like they are super-Christians, on top of the world and on fire for Jesus and liberated from all the habitual sins and vices that plagued them before they got saved.
Well, for almost everyone, real life crashes in eventually and people are left feeling like frauds and failures, like they must be the only ones who feel emptiness and silence where they think they should be feeling God, like they must hide what they’re feeling because if they really were saved, they wouldn’t be feeling it.
And that leads to hiding sin from others and from ourselves, and people can collapse from the weight of that darkness and leave God and the church forever.
In fact, that’s how a great number of people end up coming to the Episcopal Church.
The doctrine they were taught as children will not hold up under the weight of real life, real tragedy, real experience, real uncertainty and pain.
They are searching for something that speaks to the glory of God while acknowledging the messy reality of life.
Lifelong conversion can be a part of that.
Lifelong conversion means that although baptism, being born of water and the Holy Spirit as Jesus says today, cleanses us of our sin and brings us into the eternal family of God and the church, we do not hide from the facts that 1. We will undoubtedly sin again and be forgiven again, and 2. God has much more to teach us than what we understood on the day of our baptism.
Lifelong conversion means we are a work in progress.
There is no “before salvation we were awful and after salvation we are perfect.”
Rather, we are like works of art.
We come into the world rough boulders, and God chips away at us over our entire lifetimes until the beautiful truth of who we were always meant to be gradually takes shape and reveals itself in the world.
The old Lutheran language for this process is justification and sanctification. We are justified before God because of Jesus’ work on the Cross.
Jesus freely gives us his own righteousness and cleanses us of our sin.
But sanctification is always happening.
We are always travelling down a path of becoming more holy—which does not mean becoming more perfect, but becoming more real.
Lifelong conversion is the unfolding of the knowledge that we are always sinners and we are always saints, and that God loves us passionately in all of it.
So continuing revelation and lifelong conversion.
These are handy doctrinal terms for the idea that God always has something to say to us and God always has some new way for us to grow.
And here is where the rubber meets the road and what I want you to take home from this sermon: your lifelong conversion is part of God’s continuing revelation.
The work of God in your life and your openness to share it with others could be the way the door to faith opens for someone else who is lost and hurting and hungry for God.
Thus your openness to God changing you, to God molding you, to God making you God’s beautiful work of art, has consequences far beyond your own salvation. Allowing yourself to be turned more and more toward God every day is part of how God is revealing Godself to the world.
Your life, humble and glorious as it is, is part of God’s ever unfolding revelation.
Let your life speak, as Parker Palmer says.
There is someone out there who needs to hear your story in order to see that God has a new chapter full of excitement and potential written just for them.
There are people out there who are afraid to turn the next page in the story of their lives because they no longer have hope that it will contain anything but misery, failure and despair.
They may even be ready to slam the book shut forever.
Jesus tells us in our gospel today, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Let us pray that as we listen for what Jesus has to say next to us, that our entire lives may be part of that speaking of the Word.