Nidaros Lutheran Church (ELCA)
Gen. 12: 1-4a; Ps. 121
Rom. 4:1-5, 13-17; Jn 3:1-17
L + J
Who are you?
Who are you?
(This isn’t just the guest preacher forgetting your name.)
Who are you?
Who. Are. You?
That’s the question we are asked this morning. Who are you? Who am I? Who are we together?
Who and what and how we are in Christ is important. Our identity matters.
We meet our old friend Abraham this morning, but he’s going by a different name : Abram –an older name, the name he wore before he encountered the living God. A name that was attached to a sense of place: a geographic place, a familial place, a spiritual place.
What does your name say about you and your place? Your place in your family? In your church? In your community? What does your name communicate about your identity?
My last name – Maynus – is Irish, but it’s not the name my ancestors carried with them when they arrived in North America all those years ago. Their name then was McManus.
In the old country – in Ireland – McManus meant something. It signified that they were from County Roscommon, that they had old Viking blood in their veins, that their ancestors fought in the Battle of Clontarf.
When the McManuses arrived in the New World – in America – however, it communicated something different. It let people know that they were Irish and that they were not welcome to apply for jobs, for apartments, for financial assistance from the government or the community. It let people know that they were Roman Catholic and that they lived by a different set of principles and practices. It let others know that they were immigrants and were virtually without support in the New World.
And when they dropped the “Mc” and added a “y” – that also communicated something. They communicated that they wanted a new start, that they did not want to be known by their Irish heritage, that they were now Episcopalians and not Roman Catholics, that they were now red, white, and blue Americans.
Our names communicate who we are. They also communicate where we are from.
Where are you from? Where are you from?
Lutherans are a proud people. You all are proud of your heritage and all that communicates. (I know this to be true – not only was I baptized Lutheran, but I listened to “A Prairie Home Companion” religiously!) There was a time not so long ago – I’m sure some of you remember this – when you could tell a person’s heritage from their parish. In my hometown of Montevideo, this is most certainly true. The high church Swedes went to Salem Lutheran, the low church Germans went to St. Paul’s Lutheran, and the middle of the road Norwegians went to Our Saviour’s Lutheran.
In Minneapolis, where I now live, there is a Lutheran church just down the block from me called River of Life – they are neither Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, nor German. They are primarily Liberian, from Africa. And they’re just as Lutheran as the day is long.
Where we are from communicates something about our values, about our presuppositions, about our proclivities. Where we are from matters.
Our names communicate who we are – and from where we are – and they also answer whose we are.
From whom did you come? Who gave you birth? Who raised you?
My mother was not in the picture growing up. My identity as a person – as a man, as a Christian, and as a future priest– is shaped by the fact that I was raised by a single father who was, himself, raised by a single mother. It opened me up to new insights and experiences and blinded me from some others.
Who birthed us and raised us communicates something about our identity, about our world view, about our own aspirations. How – and by whom – we were raised matters.
Who and how and where we come from matters.
Our identity gives us purpose – it gives us a framework for interacting with the world, both the good and the bad. It grounds us and gives us a base of operation.
We are who we are largely because of our identity. Take one piece away – who or how or why or to what end – and you will upset the entire fruit basket.
Can you imagine how Abraham – still Abram actually – must have felt when God – the God of Creation – boomed out from the sky: “Go from your country and your kindred and your house”? God asks Abram to leave everything – everything he knows, everything which grounds him, every single part of his identity, and go – go to a strange land, to a strange people, with nothing but a promise from a strange, though compelling God.
We see that this is in God’s character. God is always doing this – asking people to leave everything and move toward something new. After all, isn’t that what happens to Nicodemus in the Gospel?
Nicodemus has an identity – a strong identity, a firm identity, an identity which communicates power and authority and knowledge and stability. He is a Pharisee, the elite of the elite, a leader of his people, with a resume a mile and a half long.
And Jesus – who has nothing but a rock, solid trust in the Father – tells Nicodemus that the only way to salvation is by being born from above. To see the Kingdom of God, Jesus tells Nicodeumus, you must be born again.
Nicodemus would not have heard that phrase – “born again” or “born from above” – with 21st century ears. He would not have heard Jesus asking him to pray a particular prayer in order to be saved.
No, Nicodemus heard Jesus – heard this charismatic preacher – asking him to become a baby again, asking him to defy everything he knew about logic and order and biology.
We know, of course, that Jesus is not speaking literally – that Jesus is not suggesting that Nicodemus crawl back into the womb, and be birthed physically. Jesus speaks of birth by water and wind, by Baptism and the Holy Spirit.
Jesus asks Nicodemus – as God the Father asked Abram – to give up everything – everything they knew, everything they cherished, everything they believed, everything which gave them purpose and mission and identity – to give it all up and to follow, to become like a baby
We know all about this, don’t we? About new life by Baptism and the Holy Spirit. We know what it is like to be a baby – if not actually a baby, figuratively one, somebody who is new to the faith, new to the Church, new to the world.
When we baptize a baby or an adult into the Church, we are affirming what Jesus promises in this morning’s Gospel: that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son into the world so that those who believe in him might not perish but have eternal life.
When we are born of water and the Holy Spirit – when we are washed in the font and sealed with the cross of Christ – we receive salvation from a God who is so spectacularly loving that he offered his only Son to teach us how to live and ultimately to die for us.
We receive the promise made to Abram, the promise made to Nicodemus: salvation through faith.
But how do we live lives worthy of salvation? How do we show the world – show those outside the Church, those still living in the night – what it looks like to be recipients of the salvation promised to us?
The Baptismal liturgy gives us a hint. When you bring your babies to this font to receive God’s gift of salvation, you are entrusted with certain responsibilities:
To live among God’s faithful people
to bring the child to the word of God and to the holy supper
to teach the child the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Commandments
to place in the child’s hands the holy scriptures
to nurture the child in faith and prayer (1)
All of these things are done to a certain end: so that your child might learn to trust God, to proclaim Christ through word and deed, to care for others and the world God made, and to work for justice and peace.
This is what the Christian life looks like – to proclaim Christ, to care for the world and all of God’s people, and to work for justice and peace. This is what it means to be part of the Covenant, to be on the receiving end of God’s salvation.
But we don’t always do those things do we? That’s the whole point of Lent. We sometimes mess up. Sometimes we mess up a little and sometimes we mess up a lot. But the point is that we mess up. On Ash Wednesday, we are marked by ashes and reminded that we are on the fast track to death. That’s human nature. We live right now and soon we will die.
But what comes after death? What is the point of this Christian journey, this movement from Baptism to burial, from womb to tomb?
What comes after Lent? After Ash Wednesday, after all the purple, after all the penance and the wailing and the gnashing of teeth, after the crucifixion?
Easter. New life. This is the final destination of the Christian journey, the new land to which Abram was called, the new life to which Nicodemus was invited.
We are called to new life, to live in the light of the Resurrection.
This is our identity as Christians – the Resurrection is our name, it is our location, it is where we have come from and it is where we are going. The Resurrection matters.
But we sometimes need to be reminded of these things. We need to be reminded how to love and trust God, how to proclaim Christ, how to care for others and the world, how to be merciful and just.
Lent is that reminder. We throw ourselves into the Scriptures, we pick up a new practice or leave something behind, we might even fast. We gather together as the people of God and we hear the stories of Jesus in the desert last week, of Nicodemus in the night this week, and the Samaritan woman at the well next week.
We don’t get to Easter without Lent, we don’t get to the Resurrection without the crucifixion. When we sin – even when we do it boldly – we are confident in God’s salvation.
Lent is our annual reminder that who we are matters. For “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
(1) Adapted from the baptismal liturgy in Evangelical Lutheran Worship.