I wonder how many of you started the new year with fresh resolutions, or perhaps at the start of Lent. We know there are choices to be made and we are being given yet another opportunity to change ourselves into ‘being’ something different. But somehow it doesn’t quite work like that.
We despair at our lack of ability to change ourselves or those around us. If everyone read the bible, joined the church, preferably this one, said hello to their neighbours, spoke kindly and were thoughtful, we imagine this would be the most desirable way to live and it would clearly be God’s kingdom on earth just as it is in heaven, wouldn’t it?.
Yet it is one thing to see what is needed, it is another thing to do it. How often is this true not only for us but also for the church?
We see the way of Jesus; and like Nicodemus, we are drawn out of the darkness into the light and we feel the mystery and sense of something awesome being just out of reach and we want to be part of it.
We hear Jesus’ commands to forgive and we are drawn to his walking with the poor, the outcast and marginalised. Still, we find old habits, family patterns, commitments, cultural and social norms beyond our power to change. We see but cannot believe enough to be willing to change, despite everything we are told. We do not dare to enter the new world that is the kingdom of God.
Nicodemus was part of the religious establishment, a respected pharisee and Teacher, who came to see Jesus, wanting to know more. He wanted to ask the questions we all ask. Jesus turns his questions upside down and instead of trying to persuade through rational learning and theological debate, Jesus simply uses an analogy that ties poor Nicodemus up in bewilderment. ‘What do you mean, ‘no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’
Nicodemus does not get it. He is a literal reader. Metaphors are beyond him as they are for many of us who want straight, clear answers!
The transformative invitation flowing through this whole text, questions the status quo of each of us individually and as a community. Frequently we assume our rebirth to newness has already taken place when we are, even now, standing alongside Nicodemus in the dark searching for the light.
Seeing the kingdom of God and seeing how our citizenship is to be lived in the new world of God’s rule will, says Jesus, require rebirth, a radical break and a new identity.
It’s also worth remembering as we read this text, God’s kingdom includes the rituals and practices around which we structure our life in our Christian community as these are also dwelling places of the Spirit, where the Spirit transforms us personally and as a community.
The Spirit’s power is sought through prayer and sacraments, through acts of mercy and outreach, through spontaneous and planned acts of kindness and through communal governance. All are opportunities and moments of Grace, but let us be in no doubt, the Spirit is like the wind, 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. (John 3:8).
One commentator (see Ref) called the Holy Spirit, the ‘wild child of the Godhead’. A description I find helpful as I delight in the fact the Holy Spirit is not controlled or intended to be understood. It is not rational in human terms as God’s Grace and Love is expressed abundantly and without limits. It challenges and moves us into newness.
Jesus speaks to Nicodemus not about rebirth but about ‘new birth from above’, from the realm of the Spirit. To be ‘born of water and Spirit’ (3:5) is to be born anew rather than ‘again’.
We learn and accept new life is not about knowledge or accomplishments we have achieved; but about the uncontrollable wind of the Spirit. Being born from above is not the same thing as acting as a nicer person, learning more or working harder through our own efforts. We cannot give ourselves a new start. No-one can enter the kingdom of God or even see it, without being born from above, of water and Spirit.
Simone Weil reminded us we do not start with an intellectual fact checking of heavenly things and then proceed to belief. Faith starts in the dark, without light, just as Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus did. Faith does not depend on certainty and understanding, these are the fruits of faith and of the Spirit, not its precondition. Trusting in Jesus we take the leap of faith before we can see exactly where it is going to lead. Spiritual certainties arrive through experience, says Weil.
For many, the word ‘belief’ has come to mean accepting certain statements about God as true.
Yet, when communities are learning to live out this text, they like us will need to redefine ‘belief that leads to eternal life’ as risky, courageous and trust Jesus to lead us into a new way of being. Eternal life will not be defined by chronological time or restricted to life after physical death. Eternal life describes the time on either side of death as we live our lives on the cruciform path of Jesus.
Nicodemus did not understand God, but somehow the wind of the Holy Spirit, blowing beyond his understanding led him to Jesus and to hope.
John 3:16 gives the breathtaking declaration God has decided to love the whole world. God does not love only those who gather on Sunday, not just the religiously inclined and those who have heard about Jesus, or those with a shopping list of commitments for this new year, but the whole world; so God comes in Christ to show us the way of life in the midst of death.
We read John 3:16-17 with joy and gratitude:
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. 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.
Yet how often does the world hear a different message! How often does the gospel sound like condemnation not love? How often does the church comes across as ‘holier than thou? It can seem as though God is more eager to divide, to judge and separate, to save some and abandon the rest.
The mission of God is life-giving and life-saving. This is the inclusive love of God. It is life from above for all who are dying.
God’s love does not coerce us into relationship but does require us to choose whether we will love in return. We must decide how we will respond to God’s love. But our decisions are not about what we give up or strive for; but whether we accept God’s love and allow that love to change us forever.
God pours out God’s love for the world through the gift of God’s only Son. As John’s opening verses in his Gospel state, this is the one who comes to dwell with us as the Word made flesh (1:14). He is the divine Word, incarnated in human form speaking; and who in speaking, creates.
God gives God’s own essence to the world in an act of self-sacrifice on behalf of the world. It is the Creator who in Jesus, reaches out to a lost and broken creation. God’s outreaching love is to be found where the Son of God is to be found, living already mostly unrecognised in the world. Jesus has already been given to us embodying the love of God for the world.
Our testimony, Sisters and Brothers, today and always, is to know God loves the whole world. God loves you and me and all of God’s creation for all times.
The Lord be with You.
Kalbryn A. McLean, ‘Calvin and the Personal Politics of Providence’, In Amy Plantinga Pauw and Serena Jones, eds., Feminist and Feminist Essays in Reformed Dogmatics. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006:122