Journey Forward with Mennonite Church USA
Sermon by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig
"The Nicodemus Question"
Scripture: Isaiah 6:1-8; John 3:1-17
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The Nicodemus Question
The Anabaptist movement, the larger stream of Christian faith to which Mennonites belong, is celebrating our 500th anniversary. So Mennonite World Conference–comprised of all these different Anabaptist groups that are still around–is taking a whole decade, from 2017-2027, to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the radical edges of the Reformation. The second major event just occurred in Kenya with a focus on the Holy Spirit who comes to those who are waiting and transforms the church.
Vision for the Future
God calls us to be followers of Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit to grow as communities of grace, joy and peace, so that God's healing and hope flow through us to the world. This is the simple vision statement Mennonite Church USA. It's easier to understand than say a burning ember on the lips of the prophet Isaiah and a vision of God's presence whereby God is so big that the hem of God's skirt or robe or whatever God wears fills the temple.
God calls us to be followers of Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit to grow as communities of grace, joy and peace, so that God's healing and hope flow through us to the world. This is a fine vision statement for being church in the Anabaptist tradition in the United States and wherever God sends us. It's not as graphic as what Jesus said to Nicodemus one night about being born of water and spirit. Vision statements are usually tidier than the Word of God in its raw glory.
This morning we're focusing on CMC's contribution to the broader church communities to which we belong. We contribute financially; we send individuals into various roles in church service–paid and unpaid; we make visits across the church and we pray. Our denomination is inviting us to the Journey Forward focused on three core commitments for our church: Follow Jesus; Witness to God's Peace; Experience Transformation. Now these are pretty tidy commitments, but if we take these seriously, we might first realize that living these commitments is only possible through the grace of Jesus Christ and a community of nurture and challenge.
By a community of nurture and challenge I mean the face-to-face church–who we are together as CMC. Second, if we take these commitments seriously–Follow Jesus; Witness to God's Peace and Experience Transformation–we also realize that we have sometimes blown it in the past. And so we can't exclusively rely on our heritage for charting the Journey Forward.
Whether we're focused on the Journey Forward or commemorating 500 years of Anabaptist identity and witness, it seems fitting to ask the Nicodemus Question: How can we be born after having grown old? Nicodemus wasn't just asking for himself, but on behalf of his whole people–first century Palestinian Jews, namely the Pharisees who were interested in renewal as God's people. How can we be born after having grown old? You see, God's people, Israel had a birth story, an Exodus from Egypt. Yet Jesus claimed they all needed to be born again or they would die on the vine, or be pruned out as dead wood. Is our situation so different? Mennonite Church USA is aging. Some congregations and conferences have left the denomination. The anxious question is: Are we in trouble? The faithful question is: How can we be born after having grown old? Some of us are turning to Jesus today asking this question personally. We need this word about the offer of a new beginning. Some of us here today need a new birth in our spiritual lives. Some of us need a new beginning in our marriage or another important relationship. After many seasons of supporting an institution, can we change, adapt or shift to meet the present challenges? How can we be born after having grown old?
All people belong to God, yet the Biblical story is told from the perspective of a particular people, born anew through the Exodus experience. The basic story is that once we, the people of God, were nobodies, slaves, disposable labor crying out for help. And God heard our cries and delivered us from imperial domination into a new life, a wild place, a wilderness, where we could begin again, with a fresh start, with a new relationship to God, to the earth, to each other and to the rest of the nations. And each time God's people got caught in some spiral of sin, violence, injustice, immorality we were reoriented by this story of God in compassion saving us from empire for a new life.
It usually takes some prophetic word or catastrophic event or arrival of the Spirit for renewal to get underway. Jesus was that kind of event, that kind of person. He promised us that kind of Spirit. Jesus came so that we would not simply grow old and die. God's people are not destined die on the vine or be pruned out as dead wood. Remember: God so loved the world that God sent Jesus into the world, so that those who believe him would not die, but be saved forever. Because God didn't send Jesus into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through Jesus–the Word of God made flesh. (3:16-17)
After hundreds of years of Anabaptist-Mennonite religious history, can we be fresh examples of Christian life? Might this Journey Forward with Mennonite Church USA be part of renewal in our part of the church?
[Interruption by Sarah Bixler]
How can we be born after having grown old? Jesus doesn't answer the Nicodemus question with three tidy steps that Nicodemus can pursue on his own, at his leisure. Being born, a renewal process among God's people is centered in Jesus–our teacher, our savior, our friend makes us new. Jesus' message in the Gospel of John is that God's people need a new covenant, so he turns water to wine at a covenant celebration. God's people need a new worship life, so Jesus clears out the money changers and says 'destroy this temple and I'll raise it in three days.' God's people needed new intercultural relationships, so Jesus builds a friendship with a Samaritan woman at the local watering hole and she becomes a living testimony of renewal in her community. The religious leaders needed a new practice of their old sabbath law, so Jesus healed a lame man on the sabbath. Renewal takes many forms in the Gospel stories and in our world as well.
I heard a renewal story this week from leaders of Meserete Kristos, the growing Mennonite Church in Ethiopia, with a membership more than twice that of Mennonite Church USA. They shared about a ministry that is dramatically reducing violence. In addition to over 1000 church planting centers, and 400 of their own mission workers in their country Meserete Kristos has sent chaplains into 50 prisons in the northern part of the country. Chaplains discovered that even after serving sentences for murder charges, many persons were reluctant to leave the prison for fear of retaliation by victims' families. After establishing victim offender reconciliation ministries the Mennonite Church was recently commended by the government for reducing the retaliation murder rate in the region from 40% to 6%.
People who are born through Christ, congregations and denominations that become new even after having grown old, are part of God's strategy to love the world, not to condemn the world, but to save.
Here at CMC our children and youth are a source of renewal in our life together. Three of our high school age have been preparing for baptism, the new birth through the Spirit that Jesus himself accepted at the Jordan River. In addition to teaching our youth more about their Christian identity and the Anabaptist tradition, Pastor Jason takes our young people to visit other Christian worship services. Part of our renewal is learning from other streams of the faith. This year our CMC have youth have visited Otterbein UMC, Harrisonburg Baptist Church, Blessed Sacrament, RISE, and this morning they are (probably already on their way) to The Potter's House Worship Center. One way CMC can be new again is to learn from global neighbors and from our faith history. We can welcome new members and thus new gifts through baptisms and transfers of membership. We can be be blessed by how the Spirit of Christ works in other local churches who worship in our same watershed.
Nicodemus seems to ponder Jesus' words about new birth until the end of the Gospel story; Isaiah responds to God's action in his life with: Here am I; send me! We believe in a God of history (who knows our past, even the parts we would prefer to paper over) who is also active in the present (with us in Christ) and welcomes us into a future that we cannot fully understand–a love that reconciles us all. God's word for us through Christ is to be born through love, spiritually renewed and stirred up by the wind of the Spirit, so that we will not simply die out and die off, but live a life in response to God's love.
We cannot be born anew, born again, or born from above through cynicism, or disenchantment. We are born through hope–through the Spirit who at Pentecost blew open the doors of church and welcomed us to participate in God's saving work in the world.
Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.
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