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Sunday February 24, 2002
11:00 am - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Fr Mead

John 3:1-17

Born Again

Nicodemus said to [Jesus], “How can a man be born when he is old?”

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Let us review the famous nighttime conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus and see why it offers hope for Nicodemus and for all veterans of church life. Newcomers can profitably listen in as well.

Many in Jerusalem had been impressed with the signs that Jesus did, but Jesus was very careful about entrusting himself to them; he saw the dangers of superficiality, for, as John tells us, Jesus “knew what was in man.” That Jesus spent an evening with one of them, a leader of the Pharisees who was also a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, the high council that would eventually condemn Jesus, is significant.

That Nicodemus begins by calling Jesus “Rabbi,” is likewise significant, and he immediately reveals his sincerity, saying, “No one can do these signs which you do, unless God is with him.” Others had ascribed Jesus’ signs and power to the devil. Not Nicodemus. Jesus sees that he is searching for more, namely, for the kingdom of God.

To see this kingdom, Jesus tells him solemnly, a person must be born again or born from above [for what Jesus says means both]. Nicodemus asks, How can a man be born when he is old? Perhaps he forgot how Abraham began his pilgrimage of faith at the age of 75, as we heard in our first lesson. Even so, while a newcomer to the faith might be understood to have started life afresh, how could a true-born, life-long Israelite undergo such a new birth?

Jesus takes Nicodemus further with a reference to the necessity of being born of water and the Spirit to enter the kingdom of God. Nicodemus would know about the history of water and fresh starts in Scripture, with Noah, with the Israelites at the Red Sea, or with such psalms as we heard on Ash Wednesday: “Thou shalt purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean; thou shalt wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” Or perhaps Jesus was evoking the old prophet Ezekiel, who spoke of a cleansing by water and a new spirit for the faithful of Israel. Besides that, the ministry of John the Baptist at the River Jordan, a cleansing by water for the forgiveness of sins – for Israelites especially – was very much in the air.

The decisive point is the Spirit, pneuma, which also means wind, and which Jesus uses in both senses. The wind or spirit blows where it wills; we hear its sound, but do know where it goes or comes from; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. Jesus means the sovereign Spirit of God, independent of human control. To be born of water and the Spirit is to be washed and cleansed from old, deadening habits of thought, word and deed and given a new “heart” for life. This birth is a gift, not an achievement. For Saint John the Evangelist, along with all the rest of the Church since who had undergone Holy Baptism, the association of that sacrament as the sign of entry into the kingdom of God (being born of water and the Spirit) was obvious.

But Jesus is at the beginning of his ministry. What he says to Nicodemus will come clear as events unfold. So Jesus goes on, referring to an episode that happened to the ancient Israelites on their forty-year trek through the wilderness. During one of their outbreaks of murmuring and unrest, many were bitten by “fiery serpents.” Following God’s instructions, Moses fashioned a bronze serpent and attached it to a pole, so that whoever was bitten could look at it and be healed; it was a spiritual example of using the disease to fight the disease. Just so, said Jesus, must “the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” He means being lifted up on the cross. The crucifix, in other words, by showing the sinless Christ condemned and killed as a sinner, is God’s healing for what ails us.

But again, Jesus’ hour, his Passion, has not yet come. What Nicodemus made of all this would remain to be seen, and indeed it was, in two extraordinary episodes mentioned later on in the Gospel by Saint John. First, during an angry session of the Jewish high council concerning Jesus, Nicodemus invoked the Torah and challenged the Sanhedrin to give Jesus a fair hearing in person. He was put down. (Jn 7:50ff) Second, after Jesus’ death, Nicodemus came forward with Joseph of Arimathea, another member of the council, to procure Jesus’ body and to provide it with one hundred pounds’ weight of myrrh and aloes, enough burial spices for a king. (Jn 19:39) Not only was this a brave gesture, it indicates what Nicodemus thought of Jesus.

Now we come to the point of this sermon, which I stated at the outset. It is possible for the members and leaders of the Church to be reduced to mere going-through-the-motions of religion, to have the form but lack the substance. Nicodemus may well have sensed this bankruptcy among his coreligionists; it may well have prompted him first to go to Jesus by night, then to speak up for justice in a dangerous venue, and then to reveal his respect for Jesus in a still more dangerous situation. Nicodemus knew God was with Jesus; but Jesus took him much further during their nighttime conversation. He invoked the Spirit of God and depicted his own life-giving sacrifice before it came to pass. When Nicodemus appears subsequently in the Gospel, he is clearly a new person. He is loyal to Jesus, even in the face of danger.

As far as we in the Church of Jesus are concerned, let us remember and take heart from two profound truths revealed by Christ in this Gospel. First, faith is a gift of the Spirit, who moves freely and whom we cannot manipulate or control; on the contrary, we must be constantly turning to him if we are to get anywhere. Second, Christ crucified is the medicine of eternal life. Lifted up on his cross, Jesus wondrously draws us to himself. His cross repels those who do not believe; it attracts all who believe and desire cleansing and new life, birth by water and the Spirit.

Both of these realities, the sovereign Spirit of God and the image of Christ crucified, are at the living heart of the Church. They constitute her perennial source of renewal. If we sense we are going through the motions, having the form but lacking the reality, if our prayer is dry and merely routine, if our faith has become a flat recitation of something on paper, we need to be renewed. I knew a burned-out vestryman many years ago who rediscovered his faith and received a new lease on life. Nicodemus shows that even the clergy can get a fresh start. Why not? Our community of faith was founded by Abraham, who started his venture at age 75, “as good as dead,” according to Scripture.

One final point. We can internalize the spiritual principle of a fresh start and new birth. We can embrace it afresh every day. The Church surrounds us with reminders. Baptism. The Eucharist. Confession and Absolution. The message of this holy season of Lent: Repent; begin again! Let’s follow the good example of brother Nicodemus.

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.