St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church Regina Lent 2 March 8, 2020 Canon Claude Schroeder (John 3:1—7)
The theme which we are exploring in our small groups this Lent and on Sunday mornings at St. Mary’s “Becoming the Story We Tell” which is the story of God’s love made known in creation and in the birth, baptism, temptation, preaching, teaching, miracles, suffering, death, resurrection, ascension, sending of the Holy Spirit, and the coming again in glory of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord to judge the living and the dead. This is the story that is embedded in both the Apostles and Nicene Creed, and in the calendar that governs our worship here at St. Mary’s.
But we are not simply want to tell the story, but become the story. St. John tells us in the prologue to His Gospel, “And the Word became ﬂesh, and dwelt among us.” In and through the preaching of the Gospel, the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, the Word of God who is Jesus Christ, becomes ﬂesh in us. We become members of His Body. He lives in us, and we live in Him, and so we become the story we tell.
Our Gospel lesson for today records the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus, who appears as skeptic, and an unbeliever as far as the Gospel is concerned. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, and is spiritually speaking, is in the dark, but he is attracted to the Light. Although Nicodemus fades away without a word at the end of our story today, he reappears in John’s Gospel 16 chapters later, when, together with Joseph of Aramathea, they go to see the Roman governor Pontius Pilate to request permission to take away the body of Jesus, and give it a proper burial. What’s happened here? Has Nicodemus stepped into the light, and become a disciple, and part of the story we tell? I like to think so. As is the case with so many of us, it didn’t happen overnight, but rather it took a while. God is so patient with us.
As a Pharisee and member on of the ruling council, Nicodemus comes to Jesus as a man of standing and authority, with a big stake in the established order, which Jesus has come to challenge. Nicodemus is a theologian, and recognizes that although Jesus, as carpenter’s son from Nazareth, has no religious pedigree and formal training whatsoever, obviously knows a thing or two about God. “We. know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.”
Now, if you go to the University of Regina and ask any of the professors in the religious studies department, “Is Jesus a teacher come from God?” They will tell you, “Of course he is.” Ask them, “Do you believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son and Word of the Living God?”, and they will say, “That’s not my department… We study religion here, what you have asked is a question of revelation.”
Pity the professors of religion, and while you are at it, have some pity for yourself, because like Nicodemus, we are all caught up in certain rational, scientiﬁc, and logical ways of thinking, which cannot penetrate into the mystery of God.
The French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote that “There are times in life when the question of knowing if one can think differently than one thinks, and perceive differently than one sees, is absolutely necessary if one is to go on thinking and reﬂecting at all.”
Jesus, I think would have agreed.
He tell Nicodemus, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” It’s one thing to see. Jesus a teacher of religion and worker of miracles, and it’s quite another to see how the uncreated divine nature and the created human nature have been seamlessly united without confusion in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus does what He does as Man, like suffering and dying on the Cross. Jesus also does what He does as God, like performing signs, forgiving sins, and rising from the dead. But Jesus is not two persons, but One, who shows us what it means to be God in the way He dies as a human. In baptism we are united to Jesus in His death and resurrection, so that as Paul writes “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6.5)
In order for us to see. this, and not only see it but experience it as a reality from the inside, that can never come as a result of human reasoning and effort but can only come as a result of an act of God Himself: a birth from above.
You perhaps have heard the joke about the tourist in Ireland who asks one of the locals for directions to Dublin. The Irishman replies, “Well, a sir, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here!”
That pretty well sums up our predicament. We can’t to where get to where want and need to be from where we are. It’s impossible. And as Nicodemus also declares it’s also not possible to start over again.
“How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
I can’t help the fact that I was born at a certain time and place, whose childhood, upbringing, education, culture, and life experience has shaped me in certain ways, and made me the person I am today – person who struggles both to be loved by God and to share that love. As much as I would perhaps wish to go back, and start over, start afresh, I can’t crawl into my mother’s womb, and be born again!
But as Jesus tells Nicodemus, it’s a question, of living your life over again. “What is born of ﬂesh is ﬂesh. And what is born of Spirit is Spirit.”
This contrast between ﬂesh and spirit that Jesus sets up here is not the contrast between something you can see, that is ﬂesh, and something you can’t see that is spirit. The contrast here is between a person who tries to make life work apart from the continually renewing presence and power of God, (which as we know from bitter experience doesn’t work), and the person who lives their life oriented towards the renewing presence and power of God. There is a big difference here. It is the difference between a self centered person, which is how we are born into this world, and a Christ centered person, who, spiritually, has been born from above.
This is what Jesus offered to everyone who came to Him. It was the experience of knowing how deeply loved and cherished you are as child of God. That your sins have been forgiven, and that through the gift of His Holy Spirit you are able to enter into this dialogue of love with God which we call “prayer.” In other words, you have eternal life, which is life with God, as a present reality, and not just a future hope when you die and go to heaven. Even now, God opening up a path to bring you to Himself, to cleanse, heal, and renew your life. And what God does for you, He is going to do for the whole of creation, bring it to a new birth, removing all sin and all evil from everythmg’.
So what does God’s action in your life, this “birth from above” actually involve? Jesus said, “No one can enter onto the kingdom without being born of water and the spirit.”
This reminds us of the opening lines of the Book of Genesis we are told in the beginning of creation the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters. The earth itself, we might say was born of water and the spirit. Unless we submit ourselves to this original creation, there is no entering into the kingdom. That is point one. There is a story to be told here about all of the many ways we try and re-order what God has put in place.
Jesus’ reference to water and the spirit also calls to mind Jesus’ baptism, where after He came up out of the water, the Spirit descended upon Him like a dove. This is God’s new creation. It is in and through this concrete act of baptism in water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for the washing away of all our sins, for our adoption as God’s sons and daughters, our being anointed by the Holy Spirit that we become a new creation in Christ.
God, you know, is not just an idea in your head. The reality of God’s presence and power in your life is something tangible, something you see and touch and feel, like the splash of water on your face.
What makes this re—birth so powerful and effectual is not the water of course, but the Holy Spirit, by means of the water. Problem is, unlike the water, the Spirit is not something you can see or touch, but you can still detect and discern it’s presence. The Spirit is like the wind, says Jesus, you can hear the sound of the wind, like leaves rustling in the trees, but you don’t know where it’s come from or where it’s going. You can nail the Spirit down, and that’s how it is with those who are born of the Spirit. There is this amazing freedom.
So how do we discern the presence of the Spirit in our lives?
In the New Testament, the sign of the new birth are not so much emotional, as perceptual. God opens our eyes to see things and our ears to hear things that we never saw and heard before. It’s the perception that the love of God is something to be received, and not earned. With this new perception of God’s love, there is a new perception of myself as a child of God. If you have worked all your life trying to win God’s approval, this can be very emotional. With this new perception of God’s love, and of myself, comes a new perception of others, as people as loved by God, and so new relationships emerge. As St. John wrote, “We love, because He ﬁrst loved us” (1 John 4.19) And so what we ﬁnd in this re-birth that the loves of my heart that were so terribly disordered, are now being re~ordered. I ﬁnd my joy and my freedom in doing what God has commanded.
Nicodemus said to Jesus, “How can these things be?“ How can the simple act of baptism bring all of this about?
In Jesus’ answer to Nicodemus, we discover that there is in fact a third element in addition to water and the spirit, that is operative in bringing about the new birth. That is the element of faith whereby we receive the testimony concerning Jesus Christ. If water is the natural element, and spirit the divine element, then the reception of the testimony is the human element. All these three things work together.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony.”
So what is the testimony? Jesus put it this way. “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man.” This Jesus who after his resurrection from the dead entered into the very Presence of God, and now reigns and rules over God’s creation as Lord and King, is the same Jesus who came down from heaven, “was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was cruciﬁed, dead, and buried. “ Jesus descends into the very depths of our sin and death so that He might ﬁll all things with Himself.
The testimony also concerns how Jesus, who descended from heaven, was then lifted up, on the Cross, like the bronze serpent which Moses made and hung on pole and lifted up before the people of Israel in the wilderness who had sinned against God, and were now dying of snakebites. The serpent expressed symbolically the character of what was destroying them. So it is that Jesus on the Cross goes to the limit of sharing of sharing in human sin and God forsakenness, so that. beholding what God has done for us, the righteousness of God might become ours, that we might pour ourselves out in love for God and others, as He has poured Himself out in love for us.
Which brings us to the question, “Have you been born again? Have you come to this place of spiritual re—birth?”
There are days when we might wonder. But lest we despair of our standing before God on the one hand, or show ourselves to be full of spiritual pride on the other, which is perhaps more. dangerous, I think there is only one good answer to this question. And that is to say,
“It is good for me to cling to God and place in Him the hope of my salvation.” (The Divine Liturgy of ST. John Chrysostom)
And as in the Holy Communion this morning, Jesus is lifted up for our very eyes, as the One who suffered and died on the Cross to take away our sin, and to bring us to new birth, this is exactly what we have come to church to do.
“It is good for me to cling to God and place in Him the hope of my salvation.” Amen.