I’m preaching from the Lectionary this week at my second church, and am following the Gospel reading.
Who was the only Irishman in the Bible?
Sorry! I blame Graham Kendrick. I once heard him tell that joke at a concert.
Here, in John chapter three, Nicodemus makes his entry into the story of Jesus. We know that near the end of our reading we hear possibly the most famous verse in the entire Bible:
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. (Verse 16)
And so we assume this is a story about whether and how people to come to faith. Which I think is about right. I’m not about to spring any surprises on you in that respect today. So let’s plunge into this familiar text and see what we learn about the journey of faith. However long we have been Christians, I pray we appreciate the elements of true Christian faith more deeply as we reflect on this passage.
Firstly, we observe that Nicodemus ‘came to Jesus by night’ (verse 2). Now you may think that’s just a casual memory of their meeting, preserved for us by John from whoever learned that fact. But in John’s Gospel there is symbolism behind a lot of the literal details. For example, after the Feeding of the Five Thousand, Jesus tells people he is the Bread of Life.
And when it comes to ‘the night’, we can be sure John uses this both literally and symbolically. A classic example would be when Judas Iscariot leaves the Last Supper to betray Jesus: John then says, ‘And it was night.’ You realise he doesn’t just mean the time of day, it is spiritually dark when Judas goes off.
What I want to suggest is this: that when Nicodemus arrives ‘by night’, it is also spiritually dark. Not in the sense of betrayal; rather, this is a man who is ‘in the dark’ spiritually about Jesus. He comes in utter sincerity to enquire of Jesus. When he opens by saying, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God’ (verse 2), there is no reason to suppose he is anything other than a seeker after truth.
We see this from the way Jesus responds, He does not write him off or call him a hypocrite. Instead, he explains spiritual truth to him, about the need to be ‘born again’ or ‘born from above’. But when Nicodemus just doesn’t understand – he says, ‘How can these things be?’ (verse 9) – Jesus replies, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?’ (verse 10) Clearly, Jesus perceives him to be ‘in the dark’. Truly, he has come ‘by night’. Nicodemus, teacher of Israel’s faith, is in spiritual darkness.
Is he so unlike some of the people in our churches? I think of the church steward who prayed with me before a Good Friday morning service, in which he referred to the Cross of Christ as a disaster. I wouldn’t have minded if he were referring to a sorrow that our sins led to Christ dying for us, but he seemed to think the whole thing was a mistake. Surely that steward came ‘by night’.
But whichever other people I think of, the person I most think of as having come ‘by night’ is myself. Growing up in a Christian home – in fact, my sister worked out that she and I were fifth generation, same congregation – I picked up all the wrong signals about what Christian faith was. I heard people asked whether they were Christians, and their reply was, ‘I’m trying to be a Christian.’ It all depended on them, and their efforts. No wonder that I, the keen mathematician, I expressed my understanding of Christianity in terms of an equation: Christianity equals believing in God plus doing good things. I was completely confused when a teenage Baptist friend took me to a youth event at his church and someone greeted me, saying, ‘Am I shaking hands with a born-again Christian?’ I hadn’t heard that language, but assuming I was a Christian, I offered my hand. I could see my friend Andy looking on with doubt.
Finally, it was the confirmation service, specifically the promises and professions of faith, in the old Methodist Service Book that brought me up short. The first question asked whether I repented of my sins. The second asked me whether I put my trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. And the third question – only after the question of faith and trust – asked me whether I would obey Christ and serve him in the world.
So because of my own experience, I am never surprised to meet people in our churches who come ‘by night’, who think they know Jesus and faith, but don’t. Let’s all make sure this morning that we’re not in the dark.
All this mention of being ‘born again’ leads me into the second element to consider about Nicodemus. That second element is the prominence Jesus gives to the Holy Spirit. We talk generally about God, and we refer to Jesus, but Jesus himself draws attention to the work of the Spirit in bringing us to new birth:
Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. (Verse 5)
Here’s the point: while we are right to emphasise the importance of personal decisions to follow Christ and our free will to decide whether to do so or not, it still remains the fact that none of that would be possible unless the Holy Spirit had not already been working in our lives to reveal Jesus Christ and his Gospel to us.
That fact has a number of implications for us. One is that it takes the pressure off us in our witness for Christ. Sometimes we think that we have to get our witness just right for him, answering every question and doubt that our friends have. We don’t. Instead, we discharge our responsibility to be a witness to Christ in word and deed, but we rely on the Holy Spirit to reveal Jesus to our friends. We do what we can, as obediently as we can, but then we leave it and pray.
Another implication is that the prime rôle of the Holy Spirit punctures our pride. We cannot claim that by our cleverness or good deeds we worked out the importance of responding to Jesus Christ. Of course, the fact of needing the Cross should do this, but when we realise that we cannot come to Christ unaided, then we can only respond and live humbly. Our pride must go. It is another reminder that we are completely dependent upon the grace of God in order to know his love and walk in his ways. The superiority complex that some outside the Church detect in us is something we have to leave behind, because we could not find faith without the Holy Spirit.
One other implication: Jesus says something else about the centrality of the Holy Spirit’s work in the life of faith. In verse 8 he 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.
You expect him to continue something like this: ‘So it is with the Spirit.’ But he says something else instead:
So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. (Italics mine)
The sovereign, unpredictable work of the Spirit is taken for granted. But it initiates us into a life of openness to where the wind of the Spirit blows us. Any notion of safety, predictability or comfort comes into question when the Holy Spirit leads your life. Yet that is what many of us settle for. But the Holy Spirit not only takes the initiative in making Christ known to us and keeping us humble, the Spirit then takes us on a wild journey of faith. The life of faith is one where Jesus says, ‘Follow me,’ and we don’t know where that will lead. I venture to suggest that churches which implement things like five-year visions and targets have very little sense of the blustery gale of the Spirit.
Some of the Celtic saints took this very literally. They set out in their coracles on the open sea, deciding they would trust that wherever the wind blew them, that was where God wanted them to go. We may not take things as literally as that, but the challenge is there: are we willing to let the wind of the Spirit blow us to new places in the life of faith, following Jesus?
But where is the Holy Spirit taking us in leading us out of darkness on the wild journey of faith? The answer comes in the third and final reflection. Our journey out of the night takes us on a strange journey to an unexpected place. It takes us to somewhere that Jesus, the Son of Man, will be lifted up (verse 14). Now ‘lifting up’ sounds like an exalted place, it perhaps sounds like a throne for a king. And in one sense it is.
But ‘lifted up’ is more of that symbolic language in John. There is more to it than meets the eye. Later in the Gospel, in chapter twelve, we discover that John uses it to indicate a place where Jesus was physically lifted from the ground. The Cross. This is the central location for the journey of faith.
For one thing, we see this in the fact that this is where God brings us to faith through Christ. It is when he is lifted up ‘that whoever believes in him may have eternal life’ (verse 15). We have already noticed how our need of the Spirit’s work makes us humbly dependent upon God’s grace: here is further evidence. We rely on the fact that God gave his only Son so that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life (verse 16). Any message that downplays God’s reconciliation of us through the Cross of Christ is not the Christian message.
But the Spirit blows us to a strange place. A place of suffering and rejection. Yet here, in the plans of God, we find forgiveness, healing and acceptance. Here is where God pledges his commitment to us, and where we commit ourselves to him in response to his self-giving love in Christ.
But the eternal life promised there is not merely a ticket for heaven. In John’s Gospel, eternal life doesn’t wait. It starts now. When Jesus prays in chapter seventeen, he says, ‘Eternal life is knowing you’ (my italics). So if the Cross gives us eternal life, it shapes our ‘now’ as well as our future. The gift of eternal life is not only received through the death of Christ, the Cross also gives shape to the relationship of eternal life with God that we have since begun. That life of eternity is one marked by dying – we die to ourselves by rejecting self-indulgence to put Christ and others first, and we are willing to pay the price of following Jesus in a society where it is not and never will be popular.
This, then, in summary, is the life of faith. It is the call out of darkness to follow the wind of the Spirit who leads us to Christ and then on the wild journey of faith that is based on the Cross, where we find forgiveness and the shape of our new, eternal life.
But whatever happened to Nicodemus? He shows up twice more in John’s Gospel. In chapter seven, he defends Jesus against the criticisms his fellow Pharisees levelled. That was a brave thing to do. In chapter nineteen, he accompanies Joseph of Arimathea, the secret disciple who asks Pilate to give him the body of Jesus. Nicodemus helps with anointing the body for burial. Again, what would the other Pharisees have thought of him?
For me, these hints point towards the thought that while Nicodemus may have been in the dark when he met Jesus in chapter three, ultimately he was willing to live the life of faith.
Our question is whether we will.
Jesus answered [Nicodemus], ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ (Verse 3)
What is it to be a ‘born again Christian’? We’ve become very used to hearing the phrase. The first time I remember hearing it was in my early teens, when a friend at school who went to a Baptist church invited me to a youth event. As my friend Andy brought me into the hall, someone greeted me and said, ‘Am I shaking hands with a born-again Christian?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ because as far as I knew I was a Christian. As I did so, Andy looked on quizzically. Clearly he doubted me. I didn’t understand at the time why he should doubt that I was a Christian. In later years, I would understand that he was right to be uncertain.
In popular parlance, we think of the phrase ‘born again Christian’ in connection with some American Christians. The first time I heard ‘born again’ used in the public domain was, I think, when Jimmy Carter ran for President in 1976. He would say, ‘My name is Jimmy Carter and I am a born-again Christian.’
Or we think that ‘born again Christians’ are those Christians we disparagingly refer to as ‘happy clappy’. I am sad when we disparage other Christians in this way, but what does remain is a sense that you can have two or more kinds of Christian: born again Christians, and other Christians.
So people have come to think that ‘born again Christians’ are one kind of Christian. But Jesus doesn’t put it like that. Either you’re born again (born from above, born anew) or you can’t see the kingdom of God. If you are born again, you are a Christian. If you are a Christian, you are born again. It’s not about the style of Christianity, it’s about the substance.
So we’d better know from Jesus what the substance of being one of his followers is. To explore what Jesus tells us, let’s look at the conversation he has with Nicodemus.
Except it’s not a conventional conversation. Three times Nicodemus asks Jesus something, or makes a statement to which he is seeking a reply. And three times, Jesus doesn’t answer him but says something else. If you’ve ever been frustrated that Jesus hasn’t answered the questions you’ve asked, you’re in good company. But Jesus has to do this here with Nicodemus, because otherwise he won’t get him to see the most important truths about the life of faith.
So let’s look at the three exchanges here, and see what they open up for us about true faith, about what it truly means to be ‘born again’.
Religion or Revelation
Nicodemus is religious. He is a Pharisee, which means at the very least he was devout and serious about following the heart of his religion. He was also ‘a leader of the Jews’, so whatever exactly that was, he held a responsible position and was probably respected for his faith (verse 1).
Furthermore, we have certain stereotypes of Pharisees from the New Testament as being regular opponents of Jesus, but it doesn’t look like Nicodemus can be lumped in with that description. He comes to see Jesus ‘by night’ (verse 2). I think that means he knew other Pharisees didn’t like Jesus, but he sincerely wanted to find out more. However, because of opposition from colleagues he comes under cover of darkness to avoid detection.
Not only that, he’s done his homework.
‘Rabbi,’ [he says,] ‘we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ (Verse 2)
In other words, he’s been part of a Pharisees’ committee that has looked into the early ministry of Jesus, just as we read two chapters earlier that a deputation of priests and Levites came to investigate John the Baptist (1:19). He would have been at home in the Methodist Church: working parties, committees and endless meetings would have been familiar to him!
Faithful, respected, sincere and devoted: that’s Nicodemus. Just the kind of person you want to join your church. Isn’t it?
It’s not far from the upbringing I had. My sister and I were taken to church in the womb. Our parents were active members of our Methodist church. Dad was a steward and was the Circuit Manses Secretary. Mum sang in the choir and taught in the Sunday School. You could hardly go out in the street with Mum without her bumping into someone and saying, ‘Didn’t I teach you Sunday School?’ In fact, it was so ingrained that my sister once worked out that she and I were fifth generation, same congregation.
And you know what? I wasn’t a Christian. It took a church membership class where at the last meeting our minister took us through the confirmation service when something clicked. I realised that Christianity wasn’t simply about believing in God and being good. It was about the grace of God reaching out to us, and us receiving it through repentance from our sins, faith in Christ and a grateful commitment to follow him in the world. I believe the ‘something’ that ‘clicked’ was the work of the Holy Spirit.
And Nicodemus has to learn that all his sincere religious belief and work counts for nothing. Religion gets you nowhere, Jesus says. Put in all the human effort you like, it’s a dead end. You need to hear from Jesus by his Spirit. You need to hear that it’s his work, not yours, that makes you a disciple of Jesus. It’s not what you’ve done for him. It’s what he’s done for you. That’s where the Gospel starts. Nowhere else.
Reason or Spirit
All this talk about being born again (born from above) is befuddling to Nicodemus. He can’t get his head around it:
‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ he asks (verse 4).
It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t stand to reason. I don’t think he’s deliberately ridiculing Jesus, but he is saying that Jesus’ teaching makes no sense to him.
This is what happens when we privilege human reason over the work of the Spirit. There is an important place for human reason, and indeed Jesus elsewhere told us to love God with our minds. However, even the foolishness of God is wiser than our wisdom. And when we rely on our minds and our brains alone, we shall never discern the work of God and walk in the ways of Christ.
I’ve seen people do it, including in church circles. Often clever people, they ask all sorts of questions. They routinely criticise the preachers (not that we should be above criticism, mind). Unless they can intellectually justify something, they refuse to accept it. But the life of the Spirit doesn’t work like that, and I’ve seen such people make shipwreck of their lives, for all their brainpower. For it’s all very well using our minds, but even our thinking is fallen and sinful. Wernher von Braun, the greatest rocket scientist ever according to NASA, previously worked on inter-continental ballistic missiles for the USA and prior to that developed rockets such as the V2 for the Nazis.
Instead of limited and potentially sinful human intellect as our guide, Jesus calls us to follow the wild desert wind of the Holy Spirit. We must be born of water and the Spirit, he tells Nicodemus (verses 5-6). And just as you don’t know which way the wind blows, so it is with those born of the Spirit (verse 8). When we are born again, we don’t just pursue clinical logic, we submit to the Holy Spirit, who will take us into surprising places.
Being born again, then, is not just about the new birth. It is about the new life. A life empty of stale human prediction. A life where we ‘lean not on our own understanding’ but walk in obedience to the Holy Spirit, wherever we are led. Religion doesn’t understand that. Nor does reason. But the Spirit does.
Understanding or Faith
The last exchange, and Nicodemus still doesn’t get it: ‘How can these things be?’ he asks (verse 9).
Jesus replies, you still don’t understand –you, the teacher of Israel? If I talk about earthly things (birth, water and the wind), how will you ever believe in the things of heaven? (Verses 10-12) And he goes onto talk about that which most of all requires faith rather than human understanding: the Cross.
If you want to do everything by logic and understanding, you’ll never end up at the Cross. Yet Jesus knows it will be the central event in history. If you wanted good PR for a new religious movement in what we call the first century, you wouldn’t have picked the Cross. As Paul was to tell the Corinthians, it is foolishness to the Greeks and a scandal to Jews. Where is the fine-sounding rhetoric so beloved of Greeks at the Cross? Where is the wondrous miracle that conquers the enemies of God that Jews longed for?
Yet to those with faith in Christ, nothing speaks more eloquently than the agony of the Cross, where Christ dies in our place. And yes, it does conquer the enemies of God, as Jews would have hoped, but in a more radical way, dealing with the sin of the world by absorbing its cost, not lashing out.
And it’s as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago. The philosophers adored by the Greeks of the first century were the rock stars of their day. They were treated rather like the way our culture hangs on the words of celebrities. Those who are born again choose the wisdom of the Cross to guide their lives, not the vacuous pronouncements of the famous.
Likewise, those who are born again live at the Cross and are not persuaded that ‘might is right’. Killing abortion doctors – however evil abortion is – does not sit with life at the Cross. Nor do the recent statistics from America which showed church attendees as more likely to approve of torturing suspected terrorists. To be born again involves a commitment by faith to believe in the redeeming and transforming power of suffering love through Christ.
It’s not enough if we are born again to say that the Cross is where we find the forgiveness of sins – although we do. We must then allow Christ and his Cross to shape the way we live and speak.
We began by wondering what it means to be ‘born again’. Is it one particular style of Christian?
There is no evidence in Jesus’ teaching that this is the case. He applies the image of being born again to all who wish to be his followers. It is a challenging image.
For those who are born again reject the idea that religious devotion earns a ticket to heaven. Rather, we bow the knee and accept that God has done something for us in Christ. It isn’t about what we can offer. Is that us?
Those who are born again deny that we can proudly think our way to God. We depend, instead, on the work of the Spirit to reveal Christ and to lead our lives in unpredictable directions. Again – is that us?
Finally, those who are born again give short shrift to the empty example of the famous and the violent world of superior force. We find life at the Cross, and we continue to live at the Cross. Once more – is that us?
So: are we born again?