God on the Way: The Journey for Knowledge

montypythonbridgeofperil
The knights of Monty Python and the Holy Grail face the bridge keeper and the Gorge of Eternal Peril. 

John 3:1-17

“God on the Way.” 

Today, we continue with our Lenten theme of journeying with Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus by night, and also Abraham and Sarah, who must leave their homeland to find a new one. All of them begin a journey without knowing the end. All of them will step out in faith, while also seeking to know. 

Today’s journey, it would seem, is a journey for knowledge, and as with all our journeys, God meets some people on their way. 

In 1975, the greatest, most ridiculous movie in the history of the Western world was released: Monty Python and the Holy Grail. 

In the movie, naturally, the nights of Camelot go on a comedic quest to find the Holy Grail. They have many adventures on their quest, of course. During one scene, the knights, including King Arthur, come upon the “Bridge of Death.” The keeper of the bridge, or as one the knights puts it, “the old man from scene 24,” asks each traveler three questions — or is it five? — no, three. If the traveler gives the correct answer, the traveler is granted safe passage. If the traveler gives the wrong answer, they are cast into the Gorge of Eternal Peril. First, Arthur asks Brave Sir Robin to go, and Sir Robin immediately throws Lancelot under the bus. Lancelot, who in the movie is hilariously bold and overly aggressive, begins by illustrating his planned attack on the bridge keeper. King Arthur responds by saying, “No, no, just answer the five questions.” 

“Three?” 

“Yes, three questions.” 

Arthur sends Lancelot towards the bridge with the words, “Just answer the questions as best you can. And we will watch. And pray.” 

Lancelot approaches the bridge and is told to HALT by the old bridge keeper.

“STOP! He who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see.” 

Lancelot stands tall and responds, “Ask me the questions, bridge keeper. I’m not afraid.” 

The bridge keeper begins.

WHAT is your name?” 

“My name is Sir Lancelot of Camelot.” 

“WHAT is your quest?” 

“To seek the Holy Grail.” 

“WHAT is your favorite color?” 

“Um, blue.” 

“Off you go then.” 

Lancelot responds, “Oh, very well, thank you.” 

Then he crosses. Sir Robin, hiding bravely as Sir Robin often does in the movie (he is the cowardly foil to Lancelot’s overly aggressive character) — Sir Robin exclaims “That’s easy!” and he ambles bravely towards the Bridge of Death. He hears the same spiel: “STOP! He who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see.” 

The usually cowardly Robin also now stands tall and responds as Lancelot did: “Ask me the questions, bridge keeper. I’m not afraid.” 

WHAT is your name?” 

“My name is Sir Lancelot of Camelot.” 

“WHAT is your quest?” 

Robin responds, sounding bored, “To seek the Holy Grail.” 

“WHAT is the capital of Assyria?” 

Robin looks shocked. He stammers, “I don’t know that!” Just before he is cast into, presumably, the Gorge of Eternal Peril. 

Sir Galahad steps forward. 

WHAT is your name?” 

“My name is Sir Galahad.” 

“WHAT is your quest?” 

“To seek the Holy Grail.” 

“WHAT is your favorite color?” 

“Um, blue. No…!” 

He, too, flies up into the air and is presumably cast into the Gorge of Eternal Peril. 

Finally, none are left except Sir Bedevere and King Arthur himself. Arthur steps forward. 

WHAT is your name?” 

“It is Arthur, king of the Britons!”  

“WHAT is your quest?” 

“I seek the Holy Grail.” 

“WHAT is the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow?” 

“What do you mean? An African or a European swallow?” 

The bridge keeper looks confused. He stammers. “I… I don’t know that!” Immediately, he flies off his feet and into the Gorge of Eternal Peril, leaving the knights to cross on their own. 

It’s a funny scene, but it’s all a barrage of information and questions, riddles and answers, simple questions and less than simple ones. 

There are riddles, of course, throughout literature and pop culture. Some of them are even in the Bible, but it’s pretty easy to miss them or even fall prey to riddles when they’re translated from another language — or even when they aren’t.

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 

He came to Jesus by night. 

In John’s Gospel, light and darkness matter. Nicodemus is coming from the darkness of not understanding to meet the Light of the World by night. He’s also coming in secret. You see a depiction of his face on the front of your bulletin. 

He begins by saying something a little unheard of for a Pharisee: “We know that you are teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

As usual, Jesus in John’s Gospel is notably not-impressed by those who are impressed by the miracles. In response, Jesus hands Nicodemus a riddle: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

You might be wondering why you learned a different version, and why a different set of words often gets quoted: “You must be born again. 

It’s a riddle, you guys. 

You see, the Greek word means both “from above” and “again,” and like many words, you figure out what the speaker means based on context. Unless the speaker is giving you a riddle based on the word’s double meaning. Then you’re just confused, like Nicodemus. 

I’ll give it to you straight: the word Jesus uses here is most often in the New Testament used to mean “from above,” but Nicodemus doesn’t understand how someone might be born “from above,” so he assumes the other meaning and asks a very pointed question back to Jesus about how someone might possibly re-enter their mother’s womb to be born a second time.

What follows is a barrage of questions, answers, and information. It can seem a little confusing. Jesus goes on about how one could possibly be born from above, and how what is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the spirit is spirit. It all sounds very mysterious and chaotic and maybe even a bit scary. 

So let me take you for a moment back to Christmas. 

This is the third chapter of John. Let me take you back for a second to the first chapter. 

The Word became flesh and lived among us. 

While we might be tempted to read Jesus’ words to Nicodemus as a condemnation of flesh, that’s not what’s happening. He’s just drawing a distinction between blood family and another kind of family. John 1 continues, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of humans, but of God.” 

Nicodemus comes looking for knowledge, and instead, what he finds is love, and a different kind of family. 

Abraham and Sarah are told to leave their homeland and find a new one. God sends them out to be a great nation, and a blessing. What begins as a mystery — something of a riddle — becomes a quest to find the promised land, and to be a blessing to all nations. 

Often, we find faith to be a riddle wrapped in an enigma. We set out to find answers, thinking that if we get the questions wrong or if we don’t know what’s correct, we’ll be cast, with Sir Robin, into the proverbial Gorge of Eternal Peril. 

We think that it is about right knowledge, right belief, and we set off on our quest to find the right answers. I guess you could say that I did that a decade ago when I enrolled in Gail R. O’Day’s John course. 

Dr. O’Day had written the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary on John. She was, as you might say, big in the business. She knew a lot. She was a trusted scholar. What I found instead is exactly what is found in this sermon. Over and over, the Gospel of John eschews knowledge in favor of love, and a new kind of family — the kind that is not born of blood, but of the Holy Spirit. This kind of family. 

The passage today ends with perhaps the most famous verse in the New Testament: “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.” 

This verse gets plastered on placards and signs everywhere. Dr. O’Day would often say that she wants to come in with a sharpie and add “dash seventeen” to every John 3:16 sign she sees. 

Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” 

Jesus is not the bridge keeper waiting to cast us into the Gorge of Eternal Peril for not believing the right things. Jesus is here to form us into a community of love, and a new kind of family. And like any family, we gather at the table together whenever we can. We journey for knowledge and wisdom together, knowing that it’s not about having the correct answers, but about meeting God on our way.

So as we continue to journey together this Lent, I invite you to gather at this table with us, your new kind of family, whenever you can. We’re currently here, on Sundays and Wednesdays, gathering at the table, sharing love because Christ first loved us. Because God did not send the Son into the world to throw us into the Gorge of Eternal Peril, but that we all might be saved through him.

And on our collective quest for knowledge, that is all, as they say, you need to know. Amen.

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