[NB: The Lectionary
only goes up to verse 17, but in doing so it stops in the middle of John’s
thought, and omits the awkward stuff about judgement. I don’t think that’s
responsible treatment of the text, hence the slightly longer reading here.]
From the Department of Corny Jokes: who is the only Irishman in the Bible? Nick
If you want to know who to blame for that terrible joke, I
heard Graham Kendrick tell it in a concert many more years ago than I care to
remember. Actually, blame me for repeating and perpetuating it.
So we come to this familiar story of Nicodemus meeting
Jesus. What’s it doing as a Lectionary Gospel reading during Lent? I would
guess it’s here to make us think about the basics of faith and discipleship at
this time. Sometimes the ‘going deeper’ of Lent is best done by returning to
the basics, rather than by getting more complicated.
I see Nicodemus as a confused character. He comes to see
Jesus by night (verse 2). ‘Night’ is usually symbolic for something bad in John’s
Gospel. Night comes when no-one can work, according to Jesus. When Judas goes
out to betray his master, we read that ‘it was night’. It is night when
Nicodemus comes. As a Jewish leader, he has to meet Jesus under cover of
darkness. Showing a keen interest in the unconventional rabbi from Nazareth
will not endear him to the other leaders on the Sanhedrin. Later, Nicodemus
will speak in defence of Jesus, and he will assist Joseph of Arimathea with the
burial arrangements after Calvary.
But Nicodemus comes in his own ‘night’, his darkness, the
teacher of Israel who doesn’t understand basic spiritual issues. He admires
Jesus’ miracles and teachings, and knows there is something of God about him
(verse 2), but it hasn’t clicked for him. He’s not that different from many
people today, who admire Jesus, but haven’t crossed over into the kingdom of
God. Some of his admirers who haven’t made that step are in our churches.
Essentially, Jesus tells Nicodemus, there are two elements
to life as God intended. Centre on these, and you’ll be a disciple, not merely
1. Born of the Spirit
No doubt Nicodemus’ compliments and pleasantries are sincere. But they don’t
impress Jesus. He comes straight to the point:
Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see
the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ (Verse 3)
Straight to the point, but what did he mean? Nicodemus
certainly didn’t understand. He took him literally:
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?’
Jesus explains the being born from above (or ‘born again’)
is about being born ‘of water and the Spirit’. Water is an image for the
Only the Holy Spirit can bring spiritual life, says Jesus.
But what is this being ‘born of the Spirit’ or being ‘born
again’? That latter phrase, ‘born again’, has become a loaded one in the last
thirty years. I think it first came to prominence outside church circles when
Jimmy Carter ran for President of the USA in 1976. However, he was soon
disowned by certain Christians who thought he wasn’t born again enough, as it
were. ‘Born again’ then became associated not only with conversion, but with
particular viewpoints: a literal six-day creation, conservative politics and
unquestioning support for the State of Israel among other things.
However, according to Jesus, being born again of the Spirit
is simply conversion to faith and discipleship. So, take an occasion when as a
teenager I was taken by a school friend to a midweek youth meeting at his
Baptist church. Someone greeted me with the words, “Am I shaking hands with a
born-again Christian?” Believing I was a Christian, I said, “Yes.” My friend
looked on with some concern. His problem wasn’t that there were two types of
Christians, ordinary ones and born-again ones. His difficulty was that he didn’t
believe that at that point Christ had transformed my life. And he was right. But
– like Nicodemus – I didn’t understand.
When Jesus explains this spiritual birth to Nicodemus, he
‘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.’ (Verse 8)
Jesus is making a play on words. It’s the same word for wind
as for Spirit. The wind (or Spirit) blows where it chooses. They didn’t have
meteorologists two thousand years ago to say where the wind was coming from, or
headed. It was a mystery. You expect Jesus then to say, ‘So it is with the
Spirit.’ But he doesn’t. He says, ‘So it is with
everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ If you are born of the Spirit, says
Jesus, your life will take on a certain character.
Put it this way: some people worry that they cannot put a
date and time to their conversion. They have the impression that all Christian
conversion should be like Paul’s on the Damascus Road. However, as I once heard
it said, you don’t have to remember your own birth to know that you are alive. You
just need to recognise the signs of life. And so it is with the life of faith. You
may not know when you were born of the Spirit; what’s important is that you
recognise the signs of the Spirit leading your life.
And, says Jesus, those signs look rather like being blown by
the wind. You will not have a quiet life, but one where you are blown in
surprising directions. The wind of the Spirit will blow you where you think you
cannot go, or do not want to go, or do not feel equipped to go. Yet the same Spirit
will empower you for the journey. Here is an
amazing story of one man’s journey of being blown by the wind of the
Kumar comes from Chennai, India. One day, on a bus, he twice
heard God say to him, “Seek me.” However, which God? He was a Hindu. A highly
qualified man, he isn’t stupid, and after eliminating certain possibilities,
someone lent him a Bible and started following Jesus.
His parents were unhappy and scheduled an arranged marriage.
He told his bride and her family the day before the wedding about his new
faith. Six months later, when it hadn’t blown over, a hundred and fifty
relatives and friends confronted him. When he wouldn’t recant, he escaped to
the United States.
There, he found a job, and a big church. At the church, he
became caught up in the emotion of a testimony time. He declared that he didn’t
want riches or a Mercedes; he wanted to return to India and tell people about
Jesus. Inwardly, he knew he had lied, but before he could do anything about it,
people prayed for his vision.
He took a fortnight’s holiday from his job in the computing
industry. He flew home, and went from house to house, talking about Jesus. Forty-five
people started following Jesus during that trip.
Today, it’s a hundred thousand. Many have been persecuted
and even killed for their new faith. There are a hundred pastors. 139
communities. Orphanages for children with AIDS. Schools for Dalit children, the
lowest caste of all. Shelters for young girls rescued from prostitution. Food. Medicine.
Kumar won’t allow any of these ministries to be named after him. They don’t
raise funds publicly: they pray instead. His mega-church gives just $1000 a
Kumar is a man blown by the wind of the Spirit. Look what
happened. Granted, church can’t be exciting every week, but when so much of
typical church life is so terminally boring, might it just be the case that we’ve
forgotten this fundamental dimension of Christian living: if we are born by the
Spirit, we are blown by the wind of the Spirit into surprising places, and
Jesus is glorified?
2. Faith in Christ
Remember poor Nicodemus, who just doesn’t understand Jesus? If he can’t
understand earthly things, what chance does he have with heavenly things? And
Jesus, the Son of Man, is uniquely qualified to speak of heavenly matters
(verses 11-13). So what heavenly things does he address?
‘And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,
so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have
eternal life.’ (Verses 14-15)
Then, having said that, we then get the famous verse 16:
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.
You want to see God’s love? You see it, says John, at the
Cross. This is how we know God loved the world. For it was at the Cross that
Jesus was ‘lifted up.’ Believing in Christ who was crucified because of divine
love for sinful people is the entry point to eternal life, to the kingdom of
Jesus’ death for the sins of the world is what Christians
call ‘the atonement.’ Out of love, he dies in our place, as our representative,
and conquers the forces of evil, reconciling us to God. And a big problem for a
society that has largely rejected Christianity is atonement. How can we put
right our misdeeds? That’s why Ian McEwan’s novel that was made into a film
last year (and is now out on DVD) was called ‘Atonement’.
Briony, a thirteen-year-old girl, is jealous of her sister Cecilia’s
relationship with a young man called Robbie. She wrecks the relationship by
having Robbie framed for a rape. However, she regrets her mistake later in life
and wants to put it right. Can she?
The Christian answer is ‘no.’ We cannot atone for our sins
and mistakes. But Christ has done so in our place. And in atoning for us on the
Cross, he makes eternal life possible. For John’s Gospel defines eternal life
not simply as life after death, but as knowing God (17:3). And knowing God is
not possible until the barrier of our sin has been dismantled. Jesus does this
in a way we don’t fully understand at his crucifixion. Now, those who trust in
him enough to follow him find the way open to God.
All this should be basic Christianity. It is. Most of us
should be nodding in recognition – not just at the description, but also at the
experience of sins forgiven and a consequent knowledge of God the Father. And
yet, and yet …
… Isn’t the greatest tragedy in our congregations when we
have a conversation with somebody, who speaks about faith in terms of trying
their best to be good enough for God? The old heresy lurks large, that we can
be good enough for God. If we are more good than bad, if are more than 50%
good, if we are sincere, God will accept us. To all these aspirations, the
Cross speaks a decisive ‘No’. However good we are, we have an inbuilt tendency
to sin. A holy God can’t ignore it. Nor can a loving God.
That’s why Christian discipleship is Cross-shaped. ‘Nothing
in my hand I bring, simply to thy Cross I cling.’ And not merely when following
Jesus begins. We can never walk away from the Cross. Faith in Jesus who died
for our sins not only brings us into the knowledge of God, it keeps us there. The
tendencies to justify ourselves, and to try to atone for our misdeeds,
boomerang back on us, or creep up quietly from behind. Without noticing, we
slip back into the unredeemed ways of self-justification.
The Cross of Christ says ‘no’ to all of this. It says, kneel
here. Believe that Christ has died for our sins. Believe for the first time, and
believe every day. Then, let the wind of the Spirit blow you where it wills on
the adventure of faith.
Note I am ambiguous about whether Jesus or John speaks the words of verse 16. I
am inclined to the view that it is John. There are no quotation marks in NT
Greek. You have to judge, therefore, where a quotation ends. I believe it ends
at verse 15, and that from verse 16 we get John’s commentary.