You must be born from above
Sermon preached at Enmore, 2nd. Sunday in Lent, 12th March, 2017
Reading: John 3.1–17.
John 3.16 is undoubtedly the best known and most often quoted verse in the Bible. Those of us who were sent to Sunday School as children can almost certainly quote it in full, probably in the old Authorised Version. So it is risky attempting to preach on it because we think we have heard it all before. But if we look at this verse in its context we may cast some fresh light on it. Chapter 3 of John’s Gospel records Jesus’ late night conversation with Nicodemus. Nicodemus is described as a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews. Pharisees were a group of mainly laymen whose aim was to purify Israel through the careful observance of the Jewish Law, including the application of their own oral traditions regarding the precise meaning of Scripture. They insisted that the priestly purity rules were to be followed by all. They tended to keep themselves separate from the ordinary people of the land. Nicodemus may have come to Jesus at night in order not to be observed or perhaps he simply wanted time to discuss religious questions with Jesus without the distraction of large crowds of people.
Nicodemus opens the conversation politely, acknowledging that Jesus has status as a teacher because of the signs he has been able to do. Jesus’ response to Nicodemus is abrupt and challenging: “No one, Jesus declares, can see the kingdom of God unless they are ‘born from above’.” Some translations have ‘born again’ – the Greek word used here can mean both things. The expression ‘born again’ has become problematic because some Christians have tried to appropriate the term ‘born again’ for a particular kind of Christian- one who has had a sudden and often dramatic conversion experience. Not all Christians will have that kind of experience- we rejoice when they do but God has many ways of bringing people to himself and it is foolish to try to dictate how that happens. All Christians however are born again in the sense that they are given spiritual birth from above –it is the work of God. But Nicodemus represents a tradition that has left God little room to move. God speaks through the Torah and is understood in the Torah. For Nicodemus birth was important. The Pharisees were proud of their ancestry and were keen to recite their blood lines all the way back to the founding fathers of Judaism.
When Jesus speaks of new birth from above or being born again, Nicodemus can only think of physical birth. “How can a person be reborn when they are old?”, he responds. Jesus then explains more fully. A person takes on flesh and enters the earthly world or kingdom when he is born physically because of the union of his parents. A person becomes a member of the kingdom of God only when he or she is born of God. This spiritual birth is by water and Spirit. We belong to God not because of our pedigree or achievements but because the spirit of God draws us into a relationship with God through his Son, Jesus. As a sign of that relationship we are baptized with water. In the Body of Christ water is thicker than blood. With a few words Jesus turns Nicodemus’s theological framework on its head. Membership of God’s Kingdom is now thrown open to anyone and everyone. The Spirit of God cannot be contained but moves freely everywhere.
While Nicodemus is trying to make sense of this concept of ‘birth from above’, Jesus then introduces three themes which will remain prominent throughout the Fourth Gospel. These themes are: the lifting up of the Son of Man; the sending of the Son as the supreme manifestation of God’s love and thirdly the consequences of those actions for humankind. Jesus says: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness even so must the Son of Man be lifted up so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Jesus is referring to an episode described in the Book of Numbers, which takes place while the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness. It’s one of the occasions when the people have grumbled against God and Moses, asking why they have been brought out of Egypt to waste their lives in the desert eating the same boring food and becoming more miserable every day. The answer to the question is that they have brought this on themselves by failing to accept the challenge of crossing into the Promised Land when it was open to them. After all the years of wandering they have forgotten that life in Egypt was no picnic but involved hard labour and servitude. The narrator of the story describes how God punishes the rebellious people by sending venomous snakes into the camp. Many are bitten and become ill and some die.The survivors come to Moses and plead with him to ask God to deliver them from this peril. God instructs the ever patient Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole and all those who look at the image of the serpent will live.
To us this seems a very odd story but in an ancient culture it is not so strange. In the cultures surrounding Israel, a serpent could be a symbol of evil and disorder but it could also be a symbol of life and healing. The symbol of Asclepius the Greek God of healing was a snake on a pole and the symbol of Hermes the God of messengers was a pole with two snakes entwined around it and wings at the top. Not surprisingly, the two symbols often got confused. And of course, even today snakes on poles continue to be used to represent healing and the medical profession. In the Numbers story the bronze snake on the pole had no magical properties in itself, it was more in the nature of a symbol or sacrament – a reminder to the people of God’s power over life and death. Looking at the snake was a sign of their repentance and their desire to live.
Humankind is in need of healing – all are affected. That is the verdict of the Scriptures- there is something wrong with the human condition. We are made in God’s image and likeness yet we are capable of great evil and all of us have at times turned to his or her own way rather than God’s way. The essence of sin is not merely rule breaking but alienation- the refusal of the creature to love the Creator and to love one’s neighbour. The 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once declared that the doctrine of human sinfulness is the only Christian doctrine that has empirical evidence. So what does John mean when he says that the cure for humankind is looking at the Son of Man lifted up and dying on the cross? What he is saying and will continue to say in various ways right up to his account of the crucifixion is that the evil which is in the world and which is deep rooted in all of us was allowed to be focused on Jesus. In a way both deep and ultimately mysterious he carried the sins of the world. When we look at Christ nailed to the cross or in John’s language, ‘lifted up’ we see both the effect of human sinfulness and also what God in Christ has done about it. We see both the illness and the cure.
The 2nd century writer Irenaeus said that ‘Jesus was made what we are that he might make us what he himself is’. This was not the case of an angry God sending Jesus into the world so that his anger and justice could be visited on him. As Rowan Williams says we must not preach the cross as though there is a difference in attitude between father and son. The statement ‘God so loved the world’ is an expression of the love of the divine family for the whole world. It is important to remember that the world God loved is our own world now, not some future world in the distant heavens but the messy, complicated, but beautiful world that we inhabit. I’ve been reading Tim Winton’s autobiography called ‘The boy behind the curtain’ and in it he describes in a most sympathetic way his experience of growing up in a very conservative Church of Christ community. There were things he loved and continued to value from that time in his life but the thing he most objected to was the frequently expressed view that this world is not my home. If we take that view and many Christians still do then we are showing contempt for this world that Christ died for. Furthermore if we think this planet is doomed and beyond redemption then we will be tempted to ignore temporal concerns like feeding the hungry, lifting people out of poverty and preserving the environment for future generations. W.H. Auden wrote, ‘Eternity is the decision now, action now, one’s neighbour here.’
Did Nicodemus get the message? Was he changed by his encounter with Jesus? John is not the kind of writer to give us a simple answer but he gives a clue. We jump to the day of crucifixion- it is late on Friday, the eve of the Sabbath. Pilate gives permission for Joseph of Arimathea to remove the body of Jesus from the cross and take it away for burial. He is helped by a man, Nicodemus who brings a whole lot of spices and ointments for anointing the body. Pharisees didn’t touch dead bodies especially not on the eve of the Sabbath, the holy day. But Nicodemus has learnt that love trumps blind adherence to the law. In this season of Lent let us keep our focus on that great truth that God so loved our world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.