A sermon preached on May 30th, 2021 based upon Romans 8:15 and John 3:1-16 entitled, “Being Born from Above and a New Quality of Life.”
I want to read a single verse from the epistle lesson assigned for this morning. It comes from Paul’s letter to the Romans in a section in which the apostle is talking about life in Christ.
For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. (Romans 8:15)
It is worth noting that the implication is that even after the spiritual rebirth in which we embrace our identity as a child of God, we can still “fall back into fear.”
We return now to John’s Gospel, to a conversation that Jesus had early on with a man named Nicodemus. The passage can be quite confusing, so I will be pausing to comment:
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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.”
So, Nicodemus is a Pharisee, which if you’ve listened to a lot of Jesus Bible stories you probably know that the Pharisees typically play the part of Jesus’ adversaries. They were educated Jews who knew the 613 laws of the Torah inside and out and believed that a faithful life involved striving to keep all these laws. Pharisees held a certain amount of status and authority in the community, and to large extent deservedly so because for the most part they exemplified what we think of when we think of “good people”. For instance, in obedience to the Torah they would have regularly given alms to care for the poor.
The pharisees came in conflict with Jesus however because he didn’t share their obsession with keeping the intricacies of the Law — to their minds he seemed rather cavalier in this regard. Jesus clearly operated out of a way of seeing life and faithfulness that was quite different from the one they operated out of, and with so many ordinary people drawn to him the pharisees saw Jesus as a threat to their status and authority in the community.
In this context, it is remarkable that Nicodemus is so clearly drawn to Jesus, and he makes it clear there are others among the Pharisees who share this attraction. So often in life it is hard for us to look beyond conflicting world views – differences in belief systems – to truly see another human being.
To Nicodemus’ credit, he has allowed himself to truly take in Jesus, and the person he sees he finds undeniably compelling. There is a quality of freedom — an absence of anxiety and fear in Jesus — that allows for an unmistakably powerful love to be present in him.
Jesus is a mystery to Nicodemus, and his integrity leads him to draw closer to Jesus in order to investigate this mystery (a little like Moses turning aside to investigate the mystery of the burning bush.)
Nicodemus pays his visit to Jesus under cover of night which is an indication of the risk involved because the majority of his fellow Pharisees haven’t been able to get past the conflict in belief systems and have locked down on their conviction that Jesus is the “enemy.” If it is found out that Nicodemus is meeting with Jesus, there will be a severe price to pay in terms of the push back he’ll get from his peers.
So even as Nicodemus deserves credit for the integrity expressed in his willingness to come to see Jesus, it is important to also notice the cautiousness – the fear – expressed in his coming by night when no one is likely to see him.
Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Quick note: The same way certain English words can have more than one meaning, the particular Greek words translated here “born from above” also has the meaning, “born again”, and in some Bibles that’s how it’s translated. In what follows, Nicodemus seems to have understood Jesus to have mean, “born again.’
Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
So, immediately Nicodemus is lost in this conversation. Whether “born again” or “born from above”, the key thing here is that Jesus is pointing to the necessity of a spiritual rebirth – one that involves the Holy Spirit taking charge in a person’s life.
The world view that Nicodemus functions out of is one that sees religion as primarily a matter of something we do. We strive to follow God’s laws. We strive to do what God expects of us. But a basic thing about birth – whether we’re talking about the physical birth of a baby or the spiritual rebirth of an adult – is that we simply can’t birth ourselves. Birth happens to a person – we’re not in charge.
This is a hard idea for Nicodemus to wrap his head around, and probably for us as well, because our usual way of thinking about religion involves things we do. We try to be a better person — more pleasing to God. We try to think the right thoughts – hold the right beliefs — about God. But that’s not what Jesus is pointing to here.
Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 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.”
To briefly clarify: Jesus is saying the Spirit is like the wind. Wind can be very powerful, but we can’t see it – we can only see the impact of its presence. And most importantly, we can’t control the wind in regard to when and where it blows.
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
Which is to say, you can know a great deal about religion – have a seminary degree like I do – and be altogether out of touch with the mystery of the Holy Spirit.
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, (that is, on the cross,) that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
And now we finish with this verse – John 3:16 – one of the most often quoted verses in the Bible: “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.”
Briefly, two things about this famous verse – the word “believes” and the expression “eternal life.” The word “believes” can be misleading here, because it is possible to say we “believe” something and come from a rather shallow place, as in, “Hey, I read something on the internet about such and such and I believe it’s true.” When this is what is taken for Christian belief – “yeah, sure I believe Jesus was the Son of God who died for my sins” – belief becomes sort of the secret code to tap on the locked door in order to gain entrance to the secret society – the secret society being in this case the select group of people who get to go to heaven. “Hey, I hold the right beliefs so I get to go that wonderful place where others are excluded.”
The confusion with the word “believe” is related to the confusion regarding the expression, “eternal life”. Eternal life as Jesus is talking about it isn’t just something that awaits us at the end of our lives – no, it is a quality of life that is available to us right now, here in this life, in this moment. It is the quality of life that Nicodemus sensed in Jesus and drew him so powerfully to Jesus. So, to “believe” might better be heard as to “trust.” As we come to trust in the God who so loves this world we begin to enter into a new quality of life – “eternal life.”
So, let’s talk about this quality of life. Here the verse I read from Paul’s letter to the Romans is helpful: “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.”
First of off, the quality of life we’re talking about involves living in the confidence that we are God’s beloved children. A child feels safe in the presence of a loving parent. A child trusts that the parent isn’t going to suddenly abandon them – or turn on them – reject them — because they slip up somehow. The child trusts the parent to be there to help them find what they need.
Underneath the religion of the Pharisees — and frankly the religious attitude that is most common in we human beings – is the assumption that God’s love is conditional which leads in turn to an undercurrent of anxiety and fear in our lives regarding whether we are worthy of God’s love. Though we may say we believe differently, most of us – most of the time – live as though we have to earn God’s love by living the right way.
What if what God wants first from us is simply our trust? To know deep down inside that God has embraced us as beloved children? That we aren’t – as Jesus says elsewhere – abandoned orphans, but that the Holy Spirit is right here with us wanting to take the steering wheel of our lives because the Holy Spirit is a far better driver than we are.
But this brings us back to the need of which Jesus spoke for a spiritual rebirth – and the simple fact that we can’t “birth” ourselves.
I can tell you — and I can tell myself – that we really are God’s beloved children – but again, although it is helpful to hear this, to have this truth take hold on a deep level that leads us to let go of our anxiety and fear isn’t something we can simply “choose” to do. The Spirit has to blow through our lives, and just as we can’t control the wind, we can’t control he Spirit.
There is this story that I have told from my childhood numerous times and I’m going to tell it briefly again because I think it provides a metaphor for understanding life. When I was maybe 9 years old I nearly drowned while swimming in a lake. I didn’t really know how to swim – at least not very well – and when I crossed over without realizing it from the shallow waters into the deep waters and then tried to stand up – well, there was nothing for my feet to stand on – at which point I panicked and began to sink.
I would have drowned if not for some watchful stranger – a strong man who grabbed me and brought me coughing up water to the shore.
For months afterwards I struggled with fear and anxiety over the fact I’d almost died, and the struggle took place primarily when I was alone in bed at night. And then one night I cried out to God – not something I was in the habit of doing – and suddenly, there was peace, and I didn’t stress over it anymore.
So, the metaphor is that of floating in the water. The truth it, floating in the water isn’t very hard to do. Easy, relaxed movements of our arms and legs is enough to keep us afloat. The reason I almost drowned is because I panicked – and my panic was based upon the belief that the water was my enemy and that it was all on me to keep from sinking, and that very belief, which led to me thrashing my arms and legs about in terror – was the very thing that drove me deeper.
A lot of the time we have the same attitude towards life as I had towards the water – that staying afloat is all on me – which generates energy consuming endless worry – and this in turn makes it harder for good things to come to us, because we get suck in tunnel vision and can’t see the opportunities for joy that life is presenting us with.
It all comes back to trust as the central thing.
My little story also points to the mystery of the Holy Spirit. Why, at that particular moment after months of distress did the Holy Spirit suddenly show up to give me a kind of rebirth?
I do not know.
But just like we heard last week, when we heard how the risen Jesus told the disciples to return to Jerusalem and wait until they had received “power from on high”, it helps to pay attention. The disciples waited, prayed, paid attention. As with Nicodemus, it helps to go and investigate when something or someone mysterious and gracious appears in your life.
A place to start is to pay attention to your fear and anxiety, because most of us live with a good deal of it, but typically we live with it without actually examining it. It’s there, but we avoid looking at it directly, and so it ends up running our lives without our really realizing it.
Paying attention this way is a part of what prayer is: it’s pausing to look directly at our anxiety and asking for God’s help with our anxiety. More often than not we are anxious without asking ourselves specifically what it is we are afraid might happen.
(Side note: I read recently that researchers have found that brain scans indicate that simply by pausing to name a negative feeling that is causing us distress lessens the electrical activity occurring in the part of our brain associated with the emotion.)
Deciding to pray doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit is obliged to show up – at least in some way we recognize – but it does give the Holy Spirit an entrance point if it happens to be time for the Wind to start blowing.
It is curious the way the Nicodemus story ends. Nicodemus seems to just sort of disappear from the picture. There is no indication he left that conversation with Jesus with anything other than utter bewilderment. We don’t hear Nicodemus mentioned again until we near the end of the Gospel when Nicodemus shows up in the light of day to help give Jesus a proper burial. Evidently, over time the Spirit has moved in Nicodemus’ life, making him less fearful, and freer to love.
Birth is mysterious. Sometimes people experience birth from above dramatically in a moment of deep yielding to the movement of the Spirit. But other times, as suggested by Nicodemus’ story the birth from above takes place more gradually. The rebirth is no less real.
If you pay attention, you may see the signs of Spirit birthing a new you as well.