"God So Loved the World" and "You Must Be Born Again"
A Sermon based on John 3:1-17
It seems that the old Pharisee Nicodemus was a bit baffled by what the young Rabbi Jesus was saying about being “born over”, being born of the Spirit. “How can anyone be born anew when they are old?” he asked Jesus. “Can one enter a second time into their mother’s womb and be born again?” (3:4) Jesus went on to explain that being “born over” (born anew) is not a re-birth of the body, but a renewal of Spirit.
“That which is born of the flesh is flesh,” he said. “That which is born of the Spirit is Spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you you must be born anew.” (3:6-7)
To be “born anew” (or “born from above”), Jesus said to Nicodemus, is like engaging the wind that “blows where it chooses” -- fresh & free & powerful -- even though it is invisible… and “you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes.” That’s an old-fashioned way of saying: we don’t know where it comes from or where it is going… but we hear the sound of it; we feel the wind as it blows past us; we see leaves wave on the trees as the wind blows where it wills. “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)
Now, it may be helpful to know that the same Greek word “pneuma” means both wind and spirit, so you can see where there may be some confusion in the metraphor. (!)
Even today we say something is “pneumatic” when it is powered by air-pressure. Air, wind, spirit… even breathing… is all defined by the word “nooma”.
Frankly, it’s no better in Hebrew. Their word for Spirit – “Ruach” – is also their word for “air”. (!) We are told in Genesis that God breathed the breath of life into the human being at their moment of birth (Gen. 2:7)… but what was breathing in each of us was “Ruach” – the very same Ruach of God -- the wind of God, or Spirit of God -- which hovered over the chaos & formless void before the Big Bang that started Creation evolving in the first place (Gen. 1:2). The Spirit of God, or the Wind of God, or the Breath of God… it’s all “Ruach”.
And, quite frankly, if truth be told… it’s not much better in English! (!) We get our word “spirit” from the root verb “spiro” – which is Latin for “breathing” – respiration. To be filled with the Spirit – is inspiration; respiration is being filled with the Breath of life. As a matter of fact, that same root word is also used for folks who are “filled with new wine!” If you ever go into a Liquor store, “spirits” are those kinds of alcohol that are distilled rather than fermented.
May I remind you that the crowd on that first Pentecost Sunday -- who gathered outside the Upper Room when they heard the sound of the mighty Wind (the pneuma, the Ruach, the Spirit of God) and who saw tongues like flames on each of them, and who heard them speaking in their own native languages -- became confused… Some of them (we are told) said: “They are filled with new wine.” (Acts 2:13) Spirits… There’s a Holy Spirit, and there are other kinds of spirits. (!)
In my huge, unabridged edition of the Random House Dictionary of the English language (© 1971, page 1371), there are 31 entries on the use of the noun “spirit” (plus 31 synonyms!) The very first definition is (quote): “the principle of conscious life; the vital essence in man, animating the body, or mediating between body and soul.” The second meaning of “spirit” is “the incorporeal part of man; the essential conscious being as opposed to matter.” Some synonyms of Spirit are: life, mind, consciousness, essence… It’s Middle English from the Latin “spiritus”. Veni Sancte Spiritus… Come, Holy Spirit.
Being born anew, born from above, born over (as Jesus uses the term) is not a re-birthing of one’s body – but a renewal of Spirit! … of life, consciousness, mind, the very essence of our existence.
This is the experience that Jesus is trying to talk about with the venerable teacher Nicodemus. However, all these mixed metaphors of “re-birthing” and “wind-blowing” – of “renewal” & “regeneration” -- left old Nicodemus reeling. (!) His nicely sorted-out (and fairly stable) worldview as a Pharisee was at risk, if Jesus was right. (!) His was a well-ordered world, with rules that governed every aspect of life: kosher food rules, a purity code for society, prescribed religious rituals with rewards for good behavior and punishments for those who step out of line. Know the rules & follow them! Nicodemus had spent his lifetime working diligently to fulfill all the demands of Torah Law, and thus he had risen in the ranks of Temple leadership.
Did Jesus really expect him to throw away all those hard-won accomplishments -- and the security of a well-known system -- to follow a Spirit that blows like the wind? Why would he want to “start over” from scratch? He’s made himself quite a success in society!
Jesus’ answer to Nicodemus’ uncertainty and confusion was simply this: “For God so loved the world [Nicodemus] that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world [Nicodemus], but in order that the world through him might be saved.”
What Nicodemus and the Pharisees (and you & me, I suppose) needed to know is that God loves the world. The codes of conduct, and purity, and ritual and rewards that Nicodemus had been taught to obey were based on the “fear of the Lord” -- fear of condemnation if they “missed the mark” -- rather than based on child-like trust that God loved them. (The God who made him -- who breathed God’s life-giving spirit into him at birth -- knows him and loves him. Period.) God loves you & me & Nicodemus; the world! God’s love is the basis!
It’s this kind of love -- divine love -- is what Jesus came to show the world. God’s relentless passionate love for the world is the basic invisible reality that sits right in front of our eyes. It’s as real and powerful as the wind, says Jesus, and we can see its effects… even though it’s still a mystery. (!) We don’t know where it’s coming from; we don’t know where it’s going; but we know it’s here!
“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son [to us], so that everyone who
believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life. For God did not send
the Son into the world to condemn the world [as so many people thought God
would do], but in order that the world through him might be saved.”
God so loved the world that he gave us Jesus… so that the world might be “saved”. Saved from what? (!) For the most part, from ourselves (I suppose) and what our lack of loving has been doing to our society and to our planet. (!) Self-centered values, narcissistic tendencies, “what’s in it for me?-ism”, one-ups-man-ship, look out for #1, the popularity of “put downs” as comedy and “Gotcha’s” as politics… Not to mention the seven deadlies: pride, sloth, gluttony, envy, greed, lust, and wrath. These kinds of sinful behavior have been wide-spread throughout history and the world is paying for it!
Jesus has been saying: “Love your neighbor as you love your-self.” He has been saying: “Love your enemies, too, and pray for your persecutors.” He has said one surefire way to know what’s the right thing to do is to “Do unto others what you would have them do to you” if you were in their place (if the situation were reversed). Jesus said: “Forgive your brother from the heart. Go a second mile. Do good to those who spitefully use you. Do not seek to be repaid.” Things like this -- which Jesus actually did in his daily life as well as teach to his followers -- would serve as a partial “antidote” to the disease. It would bring us closer to understanding the essential love that God has toward the world… the whole world, no exceptions.
God’s love is not constrained by our inability to grasp it; and it’s not bestowed unevenly on some select few who have “earned it” at the expense of the many. No. God’s love is the basic foundational reality from which all else springs… and it’s a gift. Divine love is neither measured and meted out based on our merits, nor earned because of our good deeds. It is simply bestowed, unsparingly, on all God’s children. “God so loved the world that he gave…”
I like the portrayal of Jesus on our banner, where he stands with his arms open and his hands empty. It is like an invitation to approach him, but the gesture also reminds us that he holds no coins, nor keys, nor book of rules. We cannot buy what is given for free. The “keys to the Kingdom of heaven” are not earned through our obedience, but available to each of us through love. We can trust in God’s love, come what may. Don’t let anything in life -- nor anybody! -- scare you off from the love of God. It’s yours, now & always. That’s the Good News that Jesus brought into the world!
We are loved by God by virtue of our being, not our doing. God loves us because of who and what God is, not because of who we are, nor because of what we do. The devil is not in charge of this world! You and I in our day (like Nicodumus and Jesus in their day) -- as well as the likes of us all over the globe -- have the power to make a difference for the good or the evil… the saving of the world!
I know there are a good number of “prosperity” preachers on TV and in big churches who tell us that the measure of God’s affection is “proportionate” to what we are willing to give up for God… in some cases it is by contributing to their ministry. A Rolex on their arm and a Range Rover in the parking lot are shown as “proof positive” that God blesses with abundance those who champion God’s cause!
They remind me of the “Indulgences” controversy that provoked Martin Luther to launch the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago. There were 95 “theses” Luther wanted to debate, but first and most numerous were his complaints about the doctrines of “Indulgences.”
The Roman Church -- that is, our church for the first 1500 years or so -- back in those days taught that the saints of old had done so many good deeds during their lifetimes, that they had earned “excess merit” beyond what they needed to get themselves into heaven. (!) And those “merits” were available to us mortals if we paid for them (kinda like “carbon-emmission credits” on manufacturers, or “Credit Default Swaps” among Wall Street bankers). There was a “treasury” of those good deeds – merits won by the saints – which could be used to “off-set” the moral debts of other people… who did not “earn” them, but who could “buy” them.
Let me back up a moment: Since we are told by Matthew that Saint Peter had been given the “keys to the kingdom of heaven” by Jesus (Matt. 16:18-19), by extension the Pope in Rome is said to have inherited those keys. (!) The Pope is called “Saint Peter’s successor” & the crossed keys behind the pointed hat is the Pope’s official insignia to this day. (!) The Church hierarchy, then, saw itself as the ultimate administrator of whose souls got in through the Pearly Gates… and whose souls went to Purgatory (for a time)… or to Limbo… or to the fires of Hell. That’s a quite powerful image!
I am sure you have seen cartoons depicting Saint Peter in the clouds at the gate of Heaven meeting the incoming soul with a book or other checklist of merits and demerits in hand… He’s looking for the kindest of deeds done with the purest of intention which serve the greatest effect. (Most Protestants now frown on that as “works righteousness” – after all, “we are saved by our faith, not by our works,” said the Apostle Paul.) Be that as it may, many people still think there will be a “test” of some kind in the Final Judgment. If you or your loved ones were found deficient in “merits”, entry into God’s heavenly home hereafter would be denied. You wouldn’t want that! But what could a person do… besides obeying all the rules? All the Church rules; all the rules in the Bible; & all the rules of law.
The Church worked out an ingenious solution during the Middle Ages, and it proved quite profitable.
A person could draw upon the “Treasury of Merit” which the saints had deposited in heaven by their excess of good deeds beyond what they needed to achieve to gain entry. In Luther’s day, the Pope sent an official salesman, named Tetzel, with official papal documents called “indulgences” which (for a set price) would transfer credit from the Treasury of Merit to one’s own account on the eternal ledger book. (!) Or you could buy an “indulgence” for a loved-one. (!) “When the coin in the Koffer klings, a soul into Heaven springs” was the slogan.
“All Saints Day” (which comes after Halloween night, Nov. 1) was the biggest day in Wittenberg for these transactions, so Martin Luther took the occasion to post the 95 theses he wanted to debate on the Castle Church door. High on the list of debate topics was this unbiblical fundraising effort of cashing in on the merits of others to “earn” one’s way into heaven. We’re saved by faith alone, sola fide, said Luther; by God’s grace, sola grazia, and not by “works” (not by earning “merits”)… especially not by holding the apron-strings or coat-tails of someone else’s good deeds, transferred to our account!
If the world that God loves and hopes to “save” is saved, it will be by the way that was taught & demonstrated by God’s Son, Jesus Christ -- which includes good & godly behavior -- it will not be “saved” by making financial donations to your local church! (Sorry, folks.)
That’s because we cannot buy what is free; and God’s divine love, God’s grace, is free! By definition, “grace” is a gift; “grace” is unearned and undeserved. We are loved by virtue of our very being, not because of our doing. It’s like the dictionary said of the Spirit: it’s our essential conscious being… our mind, life, breath… it’s all “gift”!
Over the centuries, the Church had forgotten that our lives are gifts from God, not merited but bestowed. They forgot that we exist only because God calls us into existence for God’s reasons. They had forgotten (and we, too, may easily forget) that we cannot earn our way into God’s grace any more than we can sin our way out of it.
Let me say that again, because it is a foundational Christian principle that the church too often forgets! We cannot earn our way into God’s grace any more than we can sin our way out of it!
In order to receive that grace -- which is always available to all people at all times -- we only have to acknowledge that we need it, that we are not complete without it, and that it’s our pride that tends to keep us from accepting it.
Again, I go back to Nicodemus, who had achieved much in his lifetime -- who had high social standing and was respected as a ruling Temple Pharisee, a teacher of the law -- but who could not let go of all that in order to be born anew, born again, born of the Spirit. You see, a newborn is devoid of pride, devoid of status; to be a “new-born” infant is to be entirely needy, vulnerable, and (of necessity) open to receive the love of a parent. It’s a “dependent” relationship; more “co-dependent”, than “independent”! Nicodemus wasn’t sure that he was ready to risk radical trust like that in Jesus’ God.
What about us? We trust in God. Our faith and hope are set on God -- not on our own understanding, our own efforts, our own accomplishments. So maybe we – unlike Nicodemus – are willing to be “born anew” (born again, born over, born from above, born of the Spirit) today, and every day hereafter… born again, and again, and again! Breathing life as a gift from God until the day we give that breath back to our Creator. To do so, I suspect, will be (just as Jesus says) like engaging the wind that “blows where it chooses”. It’ll be fresh & free & powerful – and maybe a bit confusing because the whole “spirit” thing is invisible… and “we don’t know where it’s coming from or where it is going to… but we trust it!
We trust it because we know that God is a lover… who so loved the world that he gave us Jesus… to save us. “So it is… with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” So let’s get on with it!