Following Rabbi Jesus

One of my favorite responsibilities of my job is preparing young people for “Profession of Faith”, a practice similar to confirmation in other churches.  On June 13, Bethel CRC was blessed to witness the Profession of Faith of seven young people from our congregation.  Below is the sermon I delivered at this service.  Let me know what you think.

So you’ve done Profession of Faith.  Now what?  Is that is all there is to it?  Now you are a “Professing Member of the Christian Reformed Church of North America”, is that really what this whole process is about, joining a religious institution?  What difference does it make?  What does what you’ve done and said here today mean?

The story of the meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3 paints a clear picture of what it means to follow Jesus, to profess our faith in him.

Listen to the story from John 3:1-8.

In order to understand the dynamics of this story and what it has to do with your Profession of Faith, we need to understand a bit about the people involved.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a member of the religious elite.  Not only were the Pharisees the religious leaders, they also had strong political connections with the Roman Empire.  The Pharisees were a very powerful and influential group.

We also know that the Pharisees were very sincere in their beliefs; they were very zealous and passionate about what they believed.  They were meticulous tithers, often giving beyond what the laws of Moses required.  They upheld a strong moral code and were thought to be very decent people in the eyes of others.  They were missionary minded, sending followers across the known world to make converts.  They had an active prayer life, with prayers for all possible situations in life.  Unlike the Sadducees, the theological liberals of their day, they believed in miracles and they held to the full authority of the Hebrew Scriptures, what we know as the Old Testament.  In other words, they were the keepers of religious tradition and the custodians of Jewish identity.  They were the ones who obeyed the letter of the law, the Torah, and who practiced all the required religious rituals (worship, prayer, fasting, tithing, etc.)  They were the perfect model for anyone who wondered what it meant to be Jewish.

And what about Jesus?  How was he perceived by the Pharisees?  One thing we need to remember was that Jesus was Jewish.  As a child, like all other Jewish children, he went to Jewish school to memorize the Torah.  Education in the faith was very important for Jewish parents.  During that time, it was the desire of every Jewish parent for their son to become a Rabbi.  Rabbis were teachers of the Jewish faith and they were given special authority to interpret the Hebrew Scriptures.  Throughout the New Testament, we frequently see Jesus identified as a Rabbi.  In our text for today, Nicodemus addresses Jesus as “Rabbi”, a title that wasn’t loosely given or easily achieved.

Becoming a Rabbi required years of memorizing not only the Torah, but the entire Hebrew Scriptures, by studying at the local synagogue starting at about age 6 and continuing until age 14.  Following this period of study, the students were examined by their local Rabbi for their knowledge of the Torah.  Only the best and brightest students, a very small minority, were invited to become disciples of that Rabbi; the rest of the students were told to go home and find a trade.  Jesus, apparently, was one of the few who made the cut; he knew the Scriptures inside and out (we can see this in the story Jesus at the temple debating with the scribes at age 12) and he was recognized for his teaching and authority.

However, Jesus wasn’t a typical Rabbi.  Rather than follow the normal requirement of years of rigorous study, training, and examination before allowing someone to become his disciple, Jesus sought out those who had been rejected from “Sabbath School” to be his disciples – think of Matthew 4 when Jesus approaches Peter and Andrew and invites them to “Come, follow me”.  Why were Peter and Andrew fishing – because their local Rabbi had told them to go home and find a trade.  They didn’t have enough knowledge of the Torah and Hebrew Scriptures to become disciples of that Rabbi.  And yet, here is a Rabbi, coming up to them, asking them to follow him!  This isn’t how people were supposed to become disciples!  They need to prove their knowledge of and obedience to the Torah.  Apparently Jesus didn’t see it that way.  The first people he asked to be his disciples were Rabbi-rejects.

Every Rabbi had his own particular way of interpreting and understanding the Scriptures.  What Jesus was offering in his interpretation of the Torah was a radical departure from the received traditions of the time.  He claimed that the law was not about religious observances or rituals, but that it was all about love – loving God and loving others.  Moreover, Jesus claimed that he was the fulfillment and embodiment of the law.  In other words, he was saying you don’t need to follow the Pharisees to observe and understand the Torah; you need to do what I do in order to observe and understand the Torah.  If the law is all about love, than love is what really matters.  For example, remember that the Pharisees were great at tithing, even giving more than what was required.  Listen to Jesus’ response in Luke 11: “Woe to you Pharisees!  For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds (these were the “extras” that the Pharisees gave), and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”  In other words, in their strict observance of the law, the Pharisees were missing the whole point of the law!  The law is about loving God and others.  When it is about observance and ritual, it is meaningless and it cannot fulfil its purpose.

Immediately prior to the meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus, John tells the story about Jesus angrily clearing out the temple courts of the money changers.  Rather than a place of worship, the temple became a place of economic transaction, a place where the Pharisees and others could make a profit.  The Pharisees were incensed at Jesus’ actions in the temple – they were the ones with the power, the ones who best obeyed the law, how dare anyone contest their way of doing things.  They challenged Jesus – “what sign (miracle) can you show us to prove your authority to do all this!”  In other words, we are in charge here – we are the ones with the power and money, how dare you suggest we do things otherwise!  Jesus’ response – “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up”.  In this statement, Jesus is directly challenging the authority of the Pharisees.  Although no one understood it at the time, Jesus is referring to his death and resurrection – that his body will be the new temple, that his followers will not require a building to worship him.  However, the Pharisees understood his comments as a threat to the temple – that Jesus was planning some kind of terrorist plot to destroy it and claiming the impossible, that he would be able to rebuild it in only three days!  This was pure blasphemy.

This is what was ruffling the feathers of the Pharisees – Jesus was calling into question hundreds of years of received wisdom and tradition and teaching heresy.  “This is the way things have always been done!  Who are who, a Rabbi from a small backwater town, to challenge us and our interpretations?”  In challenging the interpretation of the law by the religious elite, in asking untrained trades people to be his disciples, and in threatening to destroy and re-build the centre of Jewish religious practice, this upstart Rabbi threatened their power and control.  This explains why Nicodemus wanted to meet Jesus.  Although we aren’t sure whether Nicodemus was sent as a spy or if he was genuinely interested in Jesus’ teaching, in going to Jesus at night, it is clear that Nicodemus wanted their meeting to remain a secret.

What we see in the exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus is the difference between religion and faith, between the way of rules and rituals and discipleship as a way of life.

For Nicodemus and the Pharisees, worshipping God was all about following a huge list of rules and regulations.  You showed your allegiance to God by how well you obeyed the Torah.  By obeying the Torah, you were staying pure by avoiding the pollution of the world.  Moreover, by staying pure, you were strongly connected to God.  When you kept the rules and practiced all the proper rituals, you were able to move closer to God.  It isn’t difficult to see parallels between the Pharisees and today’s “church-going, Bible believing Christian”.  The Law, rituals, doctrines, specific worship styles, proper reverence, and particular ways of dress are what it means to be a good, moral, religious person.

Jesus directly challenges this way of thinking.  According to Jesus, legalism completely misses the point of what a relationship with God should look like because it is unwilling and unable to follow the nurturing and direction of the Holy Spirit.  In order to enter the kingdom of God (to be clear this does not mean heaven), Jesus says that we must be born of water and the Spirit; these are the marks of what it means to be a person of God, not our ability to follow the Torah.  Contrary to the Pharisees, our knowledge and observance of the Scriptures is not a prerequisite for a relationship with God.  Rather our relationship with God is based on the promises we receive from him in our baptism and from our openness to his Spirit to transform our lives.

In being “born again”, we move away from sterile religiosity that tries to access God through rules and rituals, into the presence of God who comes into our lives.  This is the good news that Jesus was proclaiming – follow me and I will show you what it means to love God and others because I am the fulfilment of the Torah.  We rely not on our ability to be pure, but on the grace of God who changes us from the inside out by the working of his Spirit.

However, to become a disciple of Rabbi Jesus does not mean that “anything goes”.  Being Jesus’ disciple requires a particular and peculiar way of life.  Jesus is very clear in the expectations he has of his disciples – he requires that they love and pray for enemies, that they give up material possessions for the sake of the poor, that they intentionally seek out the lost, the lonely and the losers, and that they put him first before any tradition or ritual.  In other words, it requires converting from religion to a way of life with Jesus at the center.

In doing Profession of Faith you are answering Jesus’ call “Come, Follow Me”.  You are joining a worldwide community of people who have dedicated their lives to him.  You have joined a revolutionary movement whose main purpose is to be the hands and feet of Jesus to a broken world.  You have made a commitment to a way of life that is beyond religion.  In fact, because Jesus is the fulfilment of the Torah, you are free from its rules and rituals in order to love more truly and deeply, and free from the requirements of its purity enabling you to get dirty embracing and serving others.  This is something that “religious” people will never understand simply because they are rooted not in the living presence of God but in the deadness of the law and in the comfort of their rituals.  The life of faith in Christ is unsettling and difficult, but it is the way of life, hope and love.

So, what does this mean for you today as you profess your faith?

It means:

You are free from deadness of religion and given new life in Christ

You are one of God’s people, called to be a blessing.

You are equipped with the Holy Spirit to be the hands and feet of Jesus.

Today is only the beginning.

Go and follow him with your whole lives.

Amen.

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