How would you like to have a job where, every time you make a mistake, a big red light goes on and 18,000 people boo? Sounds pretty miserable, huh? But that was exactly what happened to former hockey goalie Jacques Plante, who led Montreal to six Stanley Cup victories and STILL took flak from the fans every time an opponent scored.[i]
Some folks are impossible to please. Unfortunately, that’s how many people have experienced the global Church – as a judgmental crowd that hisses and boos over every mistake. They have been led to believe that God is an impossible referee who calls everything foul. So is it any wonder that the number of adults who have never attended church regularly has grown from 15 to 23 percent since 1993?![ii]
Luckily, when Nicodemus came with his doubts and questions and shortcomings, he encountered a Jesus who loves and accepts and forgives.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee who came to Jesus under the cover of night. We are not sure why he came at night, but he was probably afraid of being seen. Nicodemus was a rich and powerful man in the community. He was respected; people valued his opinion. So maybe Nicodemus was afraid of what people would think of him if it became known that he had sought out this renegade teacher, Jesus. So Nicodemus came by night.
He came to talk, and, luckily, Jesus was there to listen. Not to judge. And not to make a point. Jesus listened.
Father Henri Nouwen, who was well known for his work in pastoral caregiving, once wrote that listening is so much more than simply allowing another person to talk while we wait for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them.[iii] Did you hear that? Listening is more than allowing others to talk while we wait to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others.
I’m afraid that’s a lost art today. One of the problems with social media is that everybody is talking, but few are really listening. At best, we pause long enough to get the general gist of the conversation, and then we bust in with our opinions and advice and thumbs up or down critiques on what we BELIEVE others have said. We don’t really KNOW what was said because we did not listen. We were too preoccupied with our own thoughts.
The thing is … people know when we are not paying attention to them. They can feel it. And our inattentiveness speaks volumes. It says, “You are not important. Your opinion does not matter. Your experience does not matter. YOU do not matter. Not to me.”
Sadly, people have gotten accustomed to being ignored. So they shout. Or attack. Or retreat. Or agree. Or protest. Or hide. They act out. They act silly. They act indifferent. They behave badly, or they try to be perfect! They do whatever they have to do in order to get the attention they so desperately need. Which makes me wonder if many, if not all, our problems could be solved simply by listening to one another.
A 2013 article in Forbes magazine says the first step to solving problems is transparent communication. Everyone’s concerns and points of view must be freely expressed. AND HEARD. But then, once every voice has been heard, a solution can be found.[iv]
Wouldn’t that be great? If we could find solutions to all the hatred and violence and greed that threaten our existence simply by listening to one another?
I suppose that’s why Nicodemus went to Jesus that night. He had heard about Jesus. Some were saying that Jesus was the great leader that the Jewish people had been awaiting for so many years. Nicodemus had to know. Was Jesus the one? Was he the one who would bring world peace?
So Nicodemus went to Jesus and said, “We know that you are a teacher sent from God. There’s no way you could do all the things that you do if God was not with you.”
And Jesus replied, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Huh? No one had said anything about the kingdom of God. Nicodemus had not asked if he could be part of the kingdom that Jesus was creating. But that’s the way it is sometimes. People don’t always tell you what they really want to know. They don’t always tell you what they really need. Sometimes, they don’t know themselves. But good listening reveals the truth. And Jesus listened well. He knew what was in the heart of Nicodemus. John 2:25 tells us that Jesus knew what was in EVERYONE. He knew what Nicodemus really wanted to know. Jesus knew the question that Nicodemus had not asked. “How can I be part of your kingdom?”
So Jesus told him. You must be born from above. Not surprisingly, Nicodemus did not understand. “How can that be? That doesn’t make any sense. You can’t be born after you have gotten old. It’s not like you can go back into your mother’s womb and be born again.” Nicodemus just did NOT get it.
But Jesus did not get angry or impatient with Nicodemus. Instead, Jesus lovingly explained, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”
Nicodemus was astonished. “How can these things be?”
I can sympathize with Nicodemus, can’t you? The ways of God are hard to understand. Jesus spoke with a wisdom that confounds even the most educated of people. But we who are dead in sin need a new life, so Jesus offered it to Nicodemus. There was no condemnation. Only acceptance. Love and acceptance. You might call it grace.
That’s why God sent Jesus into the world. God loves the world. God does not want ANYONE to perish. God wants EVERYONE to have eternal life. God wants EVERYONE to be part of the kingdom. God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn it. God sent Jesus into the world to save it.
So when Nicodemus came to Jesus that night, the Lord did not reject him. The Lord did not judge him. Jesus listened to Nicodemus. They talked. Nicodemus found love and acceptance with Jesus. Nicodemus found that he was accepted by God. He was acceptable TO God. He was good enough for God. And that changed Nicodemus forever.
He was awash in the Spirit of God. He was awash in the LOVE of God. With Jesus, Nicodemus found total, undeserved and immeasurable love and acceptance. It was a cleansing so deep he was made new! It’s as if he had been born a second time.
That’s what happens when people encounter the redeeming love of Jesus Christ. They are changed.
Roy Sano was only 11 years old when vigilantes removed the boy, his mother and two sisters from their home in California and sent them to a camp in Poston, Ariz. It was just months after the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, and the American people were afraid. They were afraid of anyone who was different. So they responded by rounding up Japanese Americans, taking them far away from any place they knew, and forcing them to live in internment camps.[v]
Such a roundup had already removed Sano’s father from the home, and now the entire family was being herded like cattle. It could have turned the boy into a bitter man. Instead, it was a lesson in grace.
As Sano’s family and other Japanese Americans were boarding buses that would take them to their forced exile, the boy spotted a man and a small group of women passing out refreshments. “Later,” Sano recalls, “I discovered it was a Methodist minister with the women of the church who were bold enough to come and wish us well.”
Such love in action – courageous action – is what Sano calls grace. I imagine that, in the face of such evil, passing out cookies and juice might not have seemed like much, but it was a courageous and loving act that had far-reaching implications.
“Even one good memory can redirect one’s life,” Sano says. And it was the memory of such grace-filled moments that later prompted Sano to respond to a call to ordained ministry.
When asked, “Anyone here want to choose Christian work?” Sano replied, “…I think I’d like to work for this island of acceptance in this turbulent ocean of hate.”
And as a bishop in the United Methodist Church, that is exactly what Sano did. And, as followers of Christ, that is what each of us is called to do: create islands of love and acceptance in a turbulent ocean of hate.
God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn the world – although, Lord knows, there’s plenty here to condemn: violence, hatred, fear, prejudice, dissension, and judgmental condescension, just to name a few. When Jesus walked the earth, he bumped into all kinds of dirty people – smelly fishermen; a Samaritan whore; hungry mobs; unsupportive relatives; a woman caught in adultery; sick people living on the streets.
But even from the cross, Jesus looked on the crowds that had screamed for his death and spoke not one word of condemnation. Not one word of hate or derision. Not one word of loathing. In John’s account of the crucifixion, Jesus says very little at all. He is beaten. He is flogged. He is ridiculed. And, still, he held his tongue. And so Jesus died a terrible death. A death he did not deserve. But he never condemned anyone. Instead, he told his followers to forgive.
Who does that? Only God. Only a God who loves us and wants to save us all.
[i] Plante is quoted in James S. Hewett’s book, Illustrations Unlimited. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 1988. P. 134.
[ii] Figures based on a report from The Barna Group, which was published October 9, 2014 on their website at https://www.barna.com/research/five-trends-among-the-unchurched/. Downloaded March 10, 2017.
[iii] Henri Nouwen. “March 11: Listening as Spiritual Hospitality.” Bread for the Journey. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997.
[iv] Glenn Llopis. “The 4 Most Effective Ways Leaders Solve Problems.” Published November 4, 2013, on Forbes magazine website at https://www.forbes.com/sites/glennllopis/2013/11/04/the-4-most-effective-ways-leaders-solve-problems/#29bdb6a84f97. Downloaded March 10, 2017.
[v] The story of Bishop Roy I. Sano is told by Cecile S. Holmes in “Wartime Internment Teaches Bishop ‘The Importance of Grace.’” Interpreter. February-March 2005. Pp. 28-29.