St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

Born from above

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.

Philip Brad­ford