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For other essays on this week's texts, see Dan Clendenin, Abraham in Three Movements (2008); The Longest and Hardest Journey (2011); A Jewish Ritual for a Lenten Discipline (2014); and Debie Thomas, Where the Wind Blows (2020).

For Sunday March 5, 2023
The Second Sunday in Lent

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)


Genesis 12:1–4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1–5, 13–17
John 3:1–17 or Matthew 17:1–9

This Week's Essay

I recently had a deeply ambiguous moment of self-realization — that I've gone to church almost every Sunday of my life. That means that 67 years x 52 weeks = 3,484 church services.

I'm grateful for my Christian heritage. I came by it honestly. My mother was a church organist for twenty-five years in a small Presbyterian church. Her grandfather was a Presbyterian pastor, and her mother spent seventy-nine years in great-grandpa McGrath's church. My mother's sister has been in that church for ninety-seven years — ever since she was born and then baptized by her grandfather.

Still, my life long religiosity has its risks. The gospel for this week is a case in point. A story about radical conversion — "You must be born again," and unqualified inclusion — "God so loved the world," has itself become so trivialized by religion that most people today hear it as a tired cliche that's been emptied of all meaning. Familiarity can breed contempt.

The strong wine of authentic religion always risks being watered down to formulaic religiosity. That was the message from Isaiah 58 several weeks ago — our fasts and prayers were an abomination before God — and it's a takeaway from this week's readings.

In his book A Little History of Religion (Yale, 2016), Richard Holloway observes that humanity has always been deeply religious — dating back 130,000 years ago to the funeral rites in which people painted the bodies of the dead with red ochre paint, and laid them to rest in special places, with special objects, and in special ways. Death, these rites seemed to say, was a door to another place rather than to nothingness.

A recurring theme for Holloway is what he calls "the most important insight into God ever discovered by humans" — the Second Commandment prohibition against idolatry. The commandment about idolatry would save us from our besetting sin of presumption: "You shall not misuse the name of the Lord."

 Jesus and Nicodemus by Crijn Hendricksz, 1616–1645.
Jesus and Nicodemus by Crijn Hendricksz, 1616–1645.

The "real target" of the Second Commandment, Holloway argues, is religion itself. And not just the kind where people danced around a golden calf. The commandment warns us that no religion can control or contain the mystery of God. But down through history that's exactly what many religions attempt. The Second Commandment was an early warning signal that the organizations that claimed to speak for God would become God's greatest rivals. Religion itself sometimes becomes what Holloway calls "the most dangerous idol of them all."

Consider just three examples of how some of our religious views and practices can be clearly false, violent, and even despicable — Aztec human sacrifice, the Christian Crusades, beheading innocent "infidels," and the Hebrew "texts of terror" in which God commands his people to exterminate their enemies without mercy. Today we would call these crimes against humanity.

Our inherent religiosity, our deeply human impulse to create God in our own image, is so strong and so dangerous that the Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886–1968) called the Jesus-gospel a divine revelation that is the "Aufhebung" of human religionits abolition, annulment, or invalidation. 

That’s too extreme and conveniently binary for my taste; not all our human religiosity is inherently bad. But Barth was repudiating Hitler, who claimed divine sanction, and his own seminary professors who had supported Hitler’s genocidal program, so his warning is well taken — divine revelation and human religion are not the same thing. In a different time and place, Augustine put it this way: human reason is a gift, divine revelation is a necessity.

In the gospel this week, Nicodemus is the consummate religious insider — a conscientious Pharisee, a "member of the ruling Jewish council," and "a teacher of Israel." We should not be dismissive of such well-intended and earnest religiosity.

But Jesus tells Nicodemus that if he wants to "enter the kingdom of God," he must at some level repudiate his religiosity. He must be twice-born, once by his earthly mother through water, and then again by his heavenly Father through the Spirit. Only the free gift of God's love, and no religious effort, can do this.

 Nicodemus helps to take down Jesus's body from the cross by Michelangelo.
Nicodemus helps to take down Jesus's body from the cross by Michelangelo.

It looks like Nicodemus learned his lesson. He's mentioned only two other times in the gospels. In John 7, he advises his colleagues that they should not judge Jesus without hearing him. And in John 19, he and Joseph of Arimathea tend to Jesus's dead body.

The apostle Paul likewise needed a conversion not to religion but from his religion. In his book In God's Shadow (2012), Michael Walzer of Princeton observes that Israel began with two different but related covenants — one with Abraham that was based upon kinship, family, and birthright as a chosen people, and a second one with Moses that was based upon a legal covenant, a nation, and law.

In the epistle for this week, Paul repudiates both of these religious appeals for divine favor. He does so with an ironic appeal to Abraham himself, who in the reading was called by God to leave behind all that he held dear. In leaving his family, he became the father not just of the Jews but of "many nations."

Paul once boasted about his religiosity on both accounts. He was a "Hebrew of Hebrews" who could trace his ancestry to the tribe of Benjamin. As for the Mosaic law, he said he was "zealous" and "faultless." But Paul later repudiated his Mosaic religiosity: "whatever was to my profit I now consider loss."

Counting how many times a word occurs in the Bible can lead to dubious interpretations. But Romans 4 for this week is an exception. At least 10 times Paul uses the word "credit" to describe our relationship with God. A credit is a free gift; it's the opposite of a wage that's paid for work, or an obligation that's earned.

 The Entombment with Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea by Pietro Perugino, c. 1495.
The Entombment with Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea by Pietro Perugino, c. 1495.

No one can curry God's favor by keeping the Mosaic law, says Paul, or by claiming kinship with Abraham, or by any other well-intentioned religious effort (including those of Lent).

But everyone can receive a free gift — even those pagan Gentiles, says Paul, who are not part of Abraham's ancestry, and who are ignorant of the Mosaic law.

The apostle Peter experienced at least five conversions. On the shores of Galilee he "left everything" and followed Jesus. In Matthew 16, he confessed that Jesus was not just a rebel rabbi but the Beloved Son of God. Then, after denying that he even knew Jesus, in John 21 Jesus lovingly reinstated him. In Acts 10–11, Peter came to accept the Gentile Cornelius, and to affirm that "God does not discriminate against any person." And finally, in Galatians 2, Paul describes how he "opposed Peter to his face" for his hypocrisy. Having been converted to accept Gentiles, Peter backtracked and later refused to eat with them. We don't know the details, but somehow Peter was once again converted to embrace the Gentiles despite some Jewish pressures not to do so.

True religion requires lifelong conversion — often from my own religious ideas and practices. I must be born again. From above. Like Nicodemus, Peter, and Paul. Again and again, all my life long. In my thoughts, in my words, and in my deeds. May it begin again this Lent.

Weekly Prayer

The Place Where We Are Right 

Yehuda Amichai

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

Yehuda Amichai (May 3, 1924 – September 22, 2000) was an Israeli poet. Amichai is considered by many, both in Israel and internationally, as Israel's greatest modern poet.

Dan Clendenin:

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