"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!