This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 3/12/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 & John 3:1-17 You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)
Throughout his ministry, Jesus speaks of a mystery that can only be described in parables and metaphor. We heard a lot of these last month as we went through the Sermon on the Mount together. Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth. We’re the light of the world. A city on a hill. A lamp that lights up the whole house.
Jesus’ central message is about what he calls the “reign” or the “kingdom” or the “empire” of God. He describes this hidden empire as a treasure buried in a field. It’s a pearl of great price. A seed being sown. Yeast causing bread to rise. A tiny mustard seed growing into “the greatest of shrubs.”
What is this leaven Jesus is talking about? What is the light he says shines in us? What is the pearl of great price, that we should be ready to sell everything we have to acquire it? What is Jesus pointing to when he speaks to us in these mysterious terms?
In our scripture readings this morning, I believe we’re pointed towards an answer. Early on in the Gospel of John, Jesus has a middle-of-the-night encounter with Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a well-respected religious leader among the Jews. He’s an elder of the people. A teacher. He’s a member of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, which makes him one of the most powerful religious judges in the entire Jewish world. This is a man who knows God’s law backwards and forwards, and teaches it to others.
And yet, Nicodemus comes to Jesus seeking answers. Despite all his wisdom and experience, Nicodemus can sense that Jesus has something unique to offer. Jesus’ teaching goes beyond anything in Nicodemus’ experience. Nicodemus just can’t look away.
When Nicodemus shows up at Jesus’ house in the middle of the night, he tells Jesus that he’s a fan. He believes that Jesus is a teacher who comes from God. Anyone who can perform the signs that Jesus has must be on God’s side. Nicodemus wants to learn more.
Jesus doesn’t answer Nicodemus in the way I would expect. I would have thought that maybe Jesus would tell Nicodemus to quit flattering him. Or maybe he’d push back on Nicodemus’ idea that signs and wonders can prove God’s presence. To be honest, I kind of expect Jesus to be tough on old Nicodemus. After all, he’s probably visiting in the middle of the night because he doesn’t want to be seen associating with this rabble rouser, Jesus. Why all the secrecy?
Here’s the most interesting part of this dialogue for me: When Nicodemus speaks, Jesus seems to hear a question. Now, looking at the text, Nicodemus hasn’t actually asked a question yet. He’s just getting started, letting Jesus know that he respects his ministry. But Jesus understands that Nicodemus didn’t come out to visit him at two in the morning just to pay his respects. Nicodemus wants to know what lies at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. He wants to discover the mystery.
Sensing this, Jesus dispenses with the pleasantries. He hears Nicodemus’ silent question. And he tells Nicodemus: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
This throws Nicodemus for a loop. What is Jesus talking about, being born from above? Nicodemus came out to get some straight answers from Jesus, but here he is, still talking in metaphors. And a ridiculous metaphor at that! “What?” says Nicodemus. “You want me to climb back into my mother’s womb and be born a second time?”
If Nicodemus expected Jesus to cut it out with the metaphors at this point, he must have been disappointed. Jesus answers Nicodemus’ question with even more mysterious language: Nobody can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.
Jesus says, “You can’t just be born of flesh and blood. You’ve got to be born of the Spirit, too. That’s what you came looking for, Nicodemus. That’s my secret.”
Our other reading this morning was from Paul’s letter to the Romans. And at first glance, it doesn’t seem immediately related to this mid-night episode between Jesus and Nicodemus. Paul spends a lot of time talking about the story of Abraham, and what it says about the relationship of faith and the law. Is following all the rules enough to bring us into right relationship with God? Paul says no.
If following the law can’t produce righteousness, what will? What was it that allowed Abraham to have such an amazing relationship with God? Paul insists that is purely through faith. “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Abraham trusted God, and in response God drew him into right relationship.
The whole story of God is built on faith like this. When we are able to trust God, when we give our lives over to him, he draws us into relationship with him. He makes us holy. He calls us sons and daughters.
Through faith, God promised Abraham that his descendents would be as numerous as the stars. The Jewish people had always interpreted this to mean that Abraham’s biological descendents – particularly the Jewish people – would be blessed with a special relationship with God. If you shared Abraham’s DNA, you had a share in the kingdom of God.
The Jesus movement brought a radical new interpretation to the story of God’s covenant with Abraham. Paul writes about this interpretation in his letters, and Jesus points to it at various times during his ministry. Jesus and Paul and the disciple community all tell us that the true children of Abraham are not those who are biologically related to Abraham; it’s those who share the faith of Abraham.
Can you trace your geneology back to Abraham? Good. So could Paul, and all of the Twelve Apostles. But that’s not enough to qualify a person for the kingdom of God. After all, the religious leaders who persecuted and murdered Jesus – the Pharisees and the Saduccees – were also biologically related to Abraham. They could claim him as father. And yet their lives were alienated from the faith of Abraham. They trusted their Abrahamic DNA. They trusted the laws and ordinances that Moses and the elders had passed down to them. But they did not trust God.
God showed up in their midst. Jesus was standing before them, healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead, and proclaiming good news to the poor. But the best and brightest of Abraham’s biological children were unmoved. They preferred ancient rituals, legalistic rules, and holier-than-thou games to the fiery presence of God in the burning bush.
Clearly, though, not all of the religious teachers were so hard-hearted. Nicodemus didn’t come out to see Jesus in order to undermine or refute him. Nicodemus was part of the “frozen chosen” of the Jewish religious establishment. Yet despite all that heavy tradition and social obligation, he was able to sense something in Jesus. Something alive, active, and powerful. Something fresh and new. Something that made all of Nicodemus’ religious titles and authority seem worthless by comparison.
“What is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Jesus wasn’t concerned with how pure Nicodemus’ ancestry was. All that DNA tracing is according the flesh. It’s essential – life is impossible without our biological natures. But it’s also insufficient. Without the life of the Spirit, a purely “biological life” is without meaning or purpose.
My wife, Faith, and I have an ongoing debate. I believe that animals, and all living things, have spirits. She thinks that only humans have what you might call a “soul.” Me? I see the spirit of life everywhere. Animals breathe. Plants breathe. Some living things are more complex than others, but we all have a spiritual dimension, a life that goes beyond mere survival.
Still, I can also see things from Faith’s perspective. Take our dog, Austin, for example. He spends most of his time acting out of compulsion. He is a biological being running on autopilot. For Austin, most of life is about when he can eat, when he can drink, when he can go outside and relieve himself. It’s about warmth, and comfort, and safety. It’s about who will be kind to him, and who he should stay away from.
But every once in a while, I see something deeper come out. I’ll never forget the first time I saw Austin experience joy. We were back in Kansas, visiting my family, and we all decided to go on a nature hike. At a certain point in our walk, we crested a ridge, and we discovered an open field with a large group of geese.
When the geese saw us, they all started to take off. They rushed into the air, leaving us behind. This was a good move on their part. We learned that day that Austin is a bird dog. He was in a state of total alertness. He was ready to chase those geese down.
That was the first time we had ever seen Austin smile. Austin came from an abusive background. Before that moment, he was really a very somber dog. But when he saw those geese, he was fully present. There was no fear in him. He had found himself.
“What is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” I saw the Spirit-born part of Austin that day. It’s that animating presence that transcends our compulsive biological impulses. It’s this Spirit that gives us the capacity to be more than mere animals. The Spirit of life makes joy possible. It makes faith possible.
Jesus says that this Spirit is like the wind. It blows where it will, and we can’t control it. This was a major discovery of the early church. Jesus teaches us that God is perfectly capable of raising up children of Abraham from the stones, if necessary. Paul writes that we are all Abraham’s children when we share the faith of Abraham. This faith, this joy, this kingdom, comes from the Spirit.
This is why Jesus says that he did not come into the world to condemn the world, but to save it. “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.” God loves all of us so much. And he has power to make us children of Abraham, not according to the flesh, but through the power of the Spirit.
Through the faith of Abraham, God empowers us to transcend our biological compulsions. Just like Austin the dog, we can discover joy in moments of unity with our world and our God. We can be freed from lives that revolve around reflexive tasks, unspoken anxiety, and the struggle to survive. We can be truly free.
We can only see this kingdom when we are born from above. When we receive that gift of spiritual life and awareness that makes all of our biological life worth living. When we discover the purpose that we were created for. To show love to others. To speak the truth. To become agents of beauty.
In this Spirit, this power, this kingdom, we encounter the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”