Are You a Fraud?

by The Rev. J. Donald Waring

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The Rev. J. Donald Waring
Grace Church in New York
The Second Sunday in Lent
March 5, 2023

Nicodemus said to Jesus, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  (John 3:4) 

Who was Nicodemus?  This week, as I puzzled over the famous Pharisee who came to Jesus by night, another well-known figure kept coming to mind.  This person is much in the news these days, not in a good way.  In fact, you’ll often hear the adjective “embattled” spoken in front of his name.  I refer to one of our New York elected officials in Congress, Representative George Santos.  Yes, the embattled George Santos.  In what follows, my intention is not to be judgmental, nor to criticize a politician from a partisan standpoint, nor to offer any opinions about what Santos himself or anyone else should do.  Instead, my goal is merely to stand back and marvel at the fantastically tangled web of stories he has told about himself. 

Who is George Santos?  Well, that’s a good question.  As you know, many people suspect that in order to win his Congressional seat, Santos wasn’t entirely honest about his background.  For example, at one point on the campaign trail he claimed that was Jewish, and that his Jewish grandparents escaped the Holocaust in Europe.  The truth is, his grandparents were born and lived in Brazil.  What is more, they were Roman Catholics.  Santos later clarified that by Jewish, he meant Jew-ish, as in, my Lenten stole is purple-ish.  Santos also described personal connections to other human tragedies: that his mother escaped one of the towers on 9/11, and that four of his employees died in the Pulse nightclub shooting.  Neither assertion is true.  Neither true are the academic credentials that have appeared and disappeared from his resume.  No, he didn’t graduate from Baruch College in the class of 2010 with a degree in economics.  No, he did not star on the volleyball team.  As for his employment history, no, he didn’t work for Goldman Sachs.  No, he didn’t work for Citicorp. 

Sadly, I’ve only scratched the surface of Santos’ personal boasts, and haven’t even touched on the financial impropriety that has him under investigation by the House Ethics Committee.  Who is George Santos?  It’s no wonder why late-night television hosts and comedians call him “the gift that keeps on giving.”  George Santos is simply not the person he wants you to believe he is.  Again, I don’t mean to be judgmental, but George Santos is a fraud. 

How about Nicodemus?  Who was Nicodemus?  By all accounts Nicodemus was anything but a fraud.  He was absolutely, one-hundred percent the real deal.  As a Pharisee, Nicodemus was a member of a party within Judaism that concentrated on following the Law of Moses to the last letter.  Not only did the Pharisees follow the Commandments themselves, they worked laboriously to interpret the Law so that all Jews, in every conceivable circumstance, would know exactly what to do.  The Pharisees get a bad rap in the Gospels because Jesus often argued with them.  The truth is, most of the Pharisees were solid, sincere, authentic citizens who were trying to follow God’s ways.  People generally admired and respected them.  Never would they insert the word “embattled” before the name of Nicodemus.  If the Temple had had a volleyball team and Nicodemus claimed to be on it, you could be sure that he’d be suited up on game day.  Why would he lie? 

Nevertheless, something wasn’t right.  Something wasn’t adding up.  John reports that Nicodemus came to Jesus under cover of night.  He’d recognized that Jesus brought something to the faith and practice of Israel that he lacked.  What did Nicodemus lack?  We can only speculate, but perhaps we can find a clue in his opening remark to Jesus: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  What Nicodemus lacked was an awareness of the presence of God.  He saw in Jesus something that all of his studying and following of the Commandments had failed to produce in himself: a lively awareness of God’s living presence.  So in despair, perhaps in disarray, Nicodemus came to Jesus seeking direction.  There he was, a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews, occupying one of the most prominent seats among his people.  Now for the first time he dared consider a frightening possibility: he was an imposter.  He was a fraud.  But was he?  The conversation that followed is among the most familiar in all of the Bible.  In short, what Jesus told Nicodemus was that he needed to be born again, or born anew, or born from above.  Biblical commentators tell us that the best translation of the Greek here should go something like this: born from above, again.  No one enters the kingdom of God without being born from above, again. 

What does it mean to be born again?  It means different things to different people, I suspect.  It’s one of those phrases about which many people have already formed their opinions.  Many shy away from the whole idea because it’s been politically hijacked, or used by pushy evangelists to judge who is a true believer and who isn’t.  We should do our best to recover the phrase, because with it, Jesus holds out to Nicodemus and to us the gift of experiencing and enjoying God.  To be born again is to fall in love with God.  It is to trust that God loves the world so much that he sent Jesus not to condemn it, but to save it.  It is to enter the kingdom of heaven.  It is to know, as St. Paul would later say, that nothing in all of creation can separate you from the love of God.  It is to be given what John calls eternal life, which says as much about quality of life as it does about quantity. 

How does it happen?  How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Nicodemus wanted to know, and so do we.  Must it be a sudden, dramatic outpouring of the Spirit, or can it be a gradual awakening?  Either way, we’d like to know, because until we taste of such an experience, even if it’s just a sample, our fear is that something is fraudulent or inauthentic about our faith.  Without a palpable experience of God, we’re just going through the motions, lip-syncing to somebody else’s soundtrack. 

Here, I will date myself as a relic, but does anyone else remember the pop duo “Milli Vanilli” from the late 1980s?  Who was Milli Vanilli?  Well, they were a Grammy Award winning Rhythm and Blues sensation until, at a concert one night in Connecticut, the sound track stuck, and the repeating phrase revealed that they had not been singing at all.  The phrase that kept sticking was, “Girl, you know it’s true,” but ironically, the word that would not play was “true.”  Not knowing what to do, the duo fled the stage.  The incident exposed an ugly truth: that at every live appearance, Millie Vanilli had been lip-syncing to someone else’s soundtrack.  The voices on their recordings weren’t theirs.  They were frauds. 

How about you?  Who are you?  Do you fear that you might be a fraud?  Many people, in all walks of life, secretly do.  Fear of being a fraud isn’t actually an official diagnosis among psychologists, but mental health professionals recognize it as a real and troublesome form of self-doubt.  They call it imposter phenomenon, or imposter syndrome.  When it comes to the life of faith, the suspicion that we sing the hymns and say the prayers as imposters plays right into the hands of the cynics and skeptics.  They call us hypocrites.  Are they right?  When we don’t feel confident in mounting a defense, our temptation is to flee the stage, or change the subject.  Our fear is that we ourselves might be frauds. 

Do you want authentic faith?  Do you want to be born anew into a genuine awareness of God’s presence?  The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is dense and has many levels of meaning, but I believe we can learn much from it.  It could be that what Nicodemus hoped to gain from the conversation was a recipe for the experience, or a list of instructions he could follow to conjure up the presence of God.  What Jesus had to say probably disappointed him.  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.  In other words, you cannot control the presence of God, so stop pressing.  In today’s reading from Romans (4:1-17), St. Paul implies that such pressing for God’s presence and favor is an attempt at justification by works, which is a fool’s errand.  It is a way only to stand before God as a pretender, boasting about a fraudulent resume.  It is not by our own efforts that we are saved, or made aware of God’s presence.  Salvation is a free gift.  It depends on faith in order that the promise may rest on grace.  It comes from above and is beyond our control, so stop pressing.  St. Paul seems to be saying, Relax.  It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 

Something else we can glean from the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus derives from all the imagery about birth.  In order to receive the new life that Jesus has to give, it will be necessary to let go of the old life.  For any baby to be born it must leave the only world it has ever known, the snug little confines of its mother’s womb.  To be sure, the womb is good, and it prepares the baby for the dazzling world of light and sound it is about to enter.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.  We can see a birth process at work in Nicodemus, hard as it was for him.  No doubt he’d been steeped in the faith and traditions of Israel since before he could remember.  It was the only world he understood.  Embracing the new reality he perceived in Jesus wasn’t easy.  Birth is hard work.  Conversion is a process. 

Nicodemus was a work in progress.  Whatever became of him?  Was his conversion ever complete?  Of course it wasn’t, because God is never finished with any of us.  We only hear two more brief references to Nicodemus in the New Testament, both in the Gospel of John.  In John 7 we read how Nicodemus argued with some chief priests of the Temple who wanted to condemn Jesus.  He urged them to go see for themselves the work that he was doing.  Then in John 19 we read that it was Nicodemus who at the death of Jesus, brought myrrh and aloes that were necessary for the burial.  After this he fades into history.  Was he all in with Jesus, or only partially so?  We’ll never know, but at least on three occasions he stepped out in faith, genuinely and authentically seeking to know God’s presence. 

How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Nicodemus lived long ago and far away.  What is more, the language of being born again may not be the easiest on our Episcopal ears.  Therefore, it’s important for us to take note of and point out where the power of God to bring new life is at work in our day.  As Exhibit A, I can think of someone, no less real to the people of Grace Church, than Gordon Matheson – blessed Gordon Matheson, who died in his sleep last Monday, nearly 93-years old.  Who was Gordon Matheson?  Like Nicodemus, Gordon came to grace by night.  It was a Christmas Eve, perhaps 25 or 30 years ago.  Gordon had already been doing hard work, trying to move from darkness to light.  For much of his life he’d suffered from a deep, clinical depression, and to self-medicate he turned to alcohol.  Life was hard.  “Embattled” could have been an adjective before his name.  He’d been reaching out for help and was receiving it from doctors who prescribed antidepressants.  Also, the supportive community of AA had helped him get sober.  But still, something was missing. 

Then he came to Grace Church one Christmas Eve.  By the time the service was over he’d been born again, or born from above, or born anew from above again.  It’s hard to describe the experience, but Gordon said that he “received grace at Grace.”  The Holy Spirit had made him a new creation in Christ.  That night the Spirit opened Gordon’s eyes to what had always been true: that God loved him.  Of course, Gordon’s problems did not instantly melt away.  He remained a work in progress, as are we all.  But to witness Gordon’s life was to see someone with a humble, genuine, authentic faith, who truly trusted in the Lord he loved and knew. 

How can anyone be born after having grown old?  We can answer the question with two words: Gordon Matheson.  Gordon Matheson, who was born again, and now goes from strength to strength in God’s heavenly kingdom.  For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.