Finding New Life
Our gospel for today contains three words or phrases that typically strike fear into the hearts of Anglicans. I wonder if you noticed them?
One of them is the word ‘saved’. In verse 17 we read, ‘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’. We Anglicans have a real phobia about people who walk up to total strangers on the street and ask, “Are you saved?” Whatever else it may be, this is surely not in good taste, and we Anglicans know that the first commandment is “Thou shalt without fail do all things in good taste”!
The second is verse 8, where Jesus says, “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”. This seems to be saying that the Holy Spirit, like the wind, is beyond our control, and we don’t like things to get out of control. If the first commandment is “Thou shalt without fail do all things in good taste”, then the second is like unto it, “Thou shalt without fail finish the service on time”. We want to know what’s coming next, and we don’t like it when the Spirit messes things up. That’s why, when we Anglicans pray words in the liturgy asking the Holy Spirit to come on us, we usually don’t really mean it!
But the third phrase, and perhaps the scariest of all, is the phrase ‘born again’, or ‘born from above’ (the original language can mean either or both of these). We Anglicans tend to get intimidated by people who claim to have been ‘born again’ (and can tell you a time and a place when it happened to them). Besides which, people who talk about being ‘born again’ tend to be fundamentalists, and the third commandment is “Thou shalt at all costs not look like a fundamentalist!” I remember an Anglican woman once saying to me vehemently, "I don't like born-again Christians!" I had to point out to her that, according to Jesus, there are no other kinds of Christians; after all, it was Jesus, not Billy Graham, who said “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” or “born again” (John 3:3). So whatever the phrase ‘born again’ may turn out to mean, one thing we can say for sure on the authority of Jesus is that it isn’t an option for Christians. Our only course of action will be to discover what it means, and then ask ourselves if we’ve experienced it for ourselves.
And that’s where today’s gospel reading can help us. As we look closely at this chapter we discover that in it Jesus is describing two kinds of religion. In the first, all the initiative comes from below, from human beings and their efforts. In the second, the emphasis is on God’s action, God’s initiative, and God’s love. For want of better terms, we could roughly describe these two different approaches as ‘Religion from below’ and ‘Life from above’. Let’s take a closer look at them.
Let’s start our thinking about religion from below by looking at Nicodemus. We need to say from the outset that Nicodemus was a very religious person. What can we find out about him in this text?
First, we discover that he was ‘a Pharisee’ (v.1). As a Pharisee, Nicodemus would have believed that the Kingdom of God was coming - the day when God would set Israel free and show to all the nations that he alone was King. Nicodemus would have believed that the way to hasten that day was for all Israel to faithfully observe the Law of God. And so he would have done his best not only to observe the Law himself but to encourage others to do so: to fast, to pray three times a day, to give tithes to the temple and gifts to the poor, to keep the food laws and the sabbath regulations and so on.
A second thing we discover about Nicodemus is that he was ‘a teacher of Israel’ (v.10). He would have a good knowledge of the scriptures and the tradition of Israel, and people would have referred to him for answers to their questions.
A third thing we discover about Nicodemus is that he was a seeker. How do I know that? Well, let me ask you, why did he come to Jesus at night? Plenty of the Pharisees were coming to Jesus by day; they were watching and listening, even taking notes, so that they could catch him contradicting the Law. In general, these Pharisees were opposed to Jesus. Can we assume that Nicodemus took a different view? Had he begun to realize that even with all his devotion to the Law, he still hadn’t found what he was looking for? Had he begun to believe that Jesus might even have some answers for him? But of course, if this were so, he would have been afraid of what his fellow Pharisees might say about him. So he came 'by night', in secret, to get the answers he was looking for.
Nicodemus’ story tells us that it’s possible for a person to be devout in the practice of religion, to be a devoted student of scripture and respected for their knowledge of it, and still not to experience spiritual life in the true Christian sense of the word. How is this possible? Because, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel, its all from ‘the flesh’ - that is to say, it all comes from human initiative, human effort, and human wisdom. Nicodemus had devoted his entire life to this kind of thing, but had now begun to realize his deep inner hunger. I’m sure this is more common than we think. I’ve known many churchgoers in my years of ministry who, in moments of absolute honesty, have quietly said to me, “You know, I don’t think I really know God at all”. These folks are faithful in the performance of their religious duties, but inside they’re crying out, “There's got to be more to Christianity than this!” And of course they’re right - there is.
Of course, I’m not trying to discredit devout practices such as prayer, meditation on scripture, participation in Christian worship, and so on. All Christians are well-advised to learn to do these things. I’m simply saying that Nicodemus’ example shows us that it is possible to do them in a way that is all about human effort and human initiative, and not about God’s life and God’s free gift.
So having seen the shortcomings of the religion from below, let’s go on to think about the life from above. C.S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia stories and many other books, went through a time as an atheist when he was a young man. However, as he got older he started to think and read and ask questions, and he began to suspect that there might be something to Christianity after all. But at a certain point in his journey into the Christian faith he began to realize that someone else was involved in his search; it wasn't just about his thoughts and ideas, but about God’s initiative as well. He wrote in a letter to a friend, ‘Instead of asking, “Will I adopt Christianity?” I've started wondering “Will Christianity adopt me?” In other words, I’ve realised that I’m not playing solitaire, but poker!’ And later on, reflecting on this process, he said “There's a lot of nonsense talked about ‘Man's search for God’; in my case, I might as well have talked about ‘the mouse's search for the cat’!”
One of the great differences between the ‘religion from below’ and the ‘life from above’ is that the ‘life from above’ is not based on purely human effort, but on God's action. Look at our text again. In verse 6 Jesus says “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit”. All of Nicodemus’ religious activities are called ‘flesh’; they can’t give birth to the life of the Spirit, but only more human life. The movement is all in the wrong direction. True spiritual life isn’t primarily about us reaching up for God in human effort; first of all, it’s about God reaching down for us with a free gift of grace.
In verses 14 to 16 we go on to discover that the life from above is about God’s action in Jesus. In the Old Testament there’s a story about how the Israelites were invaded by a plague of snakes in the desert, and many people died. God told Moses to make a bronze snake and hang it on a pole; all who looked at the snake were healed from the poison, and their lives were saved. Jesus refers to this story when he says “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” - on the Cross, that is – “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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”. So Jesus’ death is seen here as a gift from God; all who ‘look to him’ are healed from sin and death and receive the gift of eternal life.
This passage also tells us that the life from above is about God’s action by the Holy Spirit. Jesus talks about the wind blowing wherever it chooses; you hear it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going; so it is, he says, ‘with everyone who is born of the Spirit’ (v.8). This new life is a gift from the Holy Spirit. You and I can’t make it happen; you can’t give birth to yourself, and you can’t give the new birth to yourself either. The Spirit is like the wind – he’s completely beyond our control.
So what can we do? We can ask for this new life as a gift; a gift that God is ready and willing to give to us.
How does he do that? By two very unlikely means - baptism and faith. Jesus says that we need to be born ‘of water and Spirit’ (v.5). Pouring water over someone isn’t magic - the power is in the promise of God that this water, poured over us in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, can become a way of God reaching into us and bringing a new life into being. The promise of Jesus is that all who believe and are baptized will be saved, and in the Book of Acts when a great crowd asks Peter what they should do he says to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
But it isn’t the pouring of water alone that saves us. The person coming to be baptized is also asked to put their faith in Jesus so that the Holy Spirit can act in them. To believe in Jesus, to have faith in him, to trust him - they all mean the same thing in scripture. Just like a drowning person trusting a lifeguard to rescue them from deep water, I’m asked to trust Jesus to actually save me from my sin. Like a patient trusting a reliable doctor and acting on his or her instructions, I’m asked to trust Jesus’ teaching about how I should live, and put it into practice. Like a little child trusting that her Mom will always be there when she needs her, I’m asked to trust that Jesus will be with me each day to give me the strength I need for daily living.
For many of us who were brought up in Christian homes, coming to faith in Jesus is something that happens to us long after we were baptized as children. That was certainly true for me: baptized at six weeks old, I didn’t come to conscious personal faith in Jesus until thirteen years later on a Sunday evening in March of 1972 when I sat on my bed and said a simple prayer giving my life to Jesus. That prayer, in my view, completed the process that was begun at my baptism, the process of bringing me to a new birth into God’s kingdom.
I often think that this process of coming to faith in Jesus has three steps to it.
Step one comes when I say, “I can’t do it for myself”. Like Nicodemus, I realize that all my religious actions are getting me nowhere. I can’t connect with God the way I want to. I can’t get free of my bad habits. I can’t be the person I want to be, and so on. In the language of the Twelve Steps of A.A., we ‘come to believe that we are powerless’.
Step two comes when I say, “Jesus can do it”. In him and in the gift of his Spirit, all that I need is available to me. Again, in A.A. language we ‘come to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity’ - in our case, the power of Jesus and his Spirit.
Step three comes when I say, “I will come to Jesus and ask for it” - like the thief on the Cross, who turned and said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’.
What I have in mind is a prayer something like this: “Lord, I can't seem to make the Christian life happen on my own steam. Now I realize why that is - the Christian life is a gift from you, not something I live by my own unaided efforts. Please forgive me for trying to do it all by myself. Please give me this gift of eternal life from above; wash me clean from my sins and fill me with the power of your Holy Spirit”.
I believe that kind of prayer will delight the heart of God, and it is a prayer he will not fail to answer.