Windsor Community United Methodist Church
Thursday, May 23, 2013
Mike Turgeon “Born from above” 6-3-12
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God."
Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?"
Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."
Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?"
Jesus said: “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. "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. "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. John 3:1-17
Born from above
According to Josephus, the Jewish historian, Nicodemus was one of about 6000 Pharisees living and working in and around Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. The job of a Pharisee was to keep the religious rules. The rules at the time were the Holiness Code. Where did the Holiness Code come from? From the Ten Commandments.
Depending on the source you read, the Ten Commandments were given to Moses between 1200 and 700 BC, roughly a thousand years before Jesus.
And, as things go, by the time Nicodemus came seeking this conversation with Jesus, those 10 commandments now numbered 635. What happened? Weren’t 10 good enough? Well, you know how we are, human beings are always creating and closing and re-opening loopholes. Are things different today? Well, for that answer, I’d direct you to the IRS tax codes.
So on one hand, Nicodemus is looking for clarity. Connecting the dots on all those rules merely acted to box God in, not lead the people to salvation. Nicodemus sensed there was a different path and it led him to Jesus.
Born from above
And the timing here is curious, don’t you think--Nicodemus came to Jesus by night! But it makes sense. Jesus was a threat to the way the Pharisees did business. He broke the rules. He touched lepers, for God’s sake. That was not considered cleanly, and therefore was forbidden. And Jesus violated the sabbath, often healing or even traveling at the wrong times according to the rules, not cool. But beyond that, the night time was the right time because of the crowds Jesus was drawing. Crowds make authorities nervous, they tend to get out of control, and sometimes turn against power, especially corrupt power.
Our own John Wesley was a case in point. By the time Wesley died at the age of 87, his Methodist movement to re-vitalize the Anglican Church had met with the stern disapproval of the religious leaders of that church. Wesley had been barred from preaching the Gospel in every pulpit in London. However, in the streets of London, where Wesley worked among the poor and oppressed, he was a hero.
The church authorities insisted that John Wesley’s funeral be held at 5 am in the morning to discourage the large gatherings that were expected. Bringing the message of love and hope to the least among us is a threat to business as usual no matter the era.
Born from above
So by most reasoning, this conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus shouldn’t be happening day or night.
Most puzzling, though, is how Jesus answers questions that Nicodemus doesn’t even ask. Nick does his best to keep up with Jesus, but at one point he throws up his hands,
“...How can these things be?...”
That’s all we hear or see from Nicodemus in this passage. Only later do we encounter him in the Temple when the crowds demand that Jesus be arrested. Nicodemus is the one man, certainly the only Pharisee, who stands up to defend the Son of Man. And it is Nicodemus who accompanies Joseph of Arimathea to recover the body of Jesus and put it in the tomb.
If Nicodemus is a leader among the Jewish Pharisees, he sure seems to be skating on thin ice with his attraction to Jesus. What has happened to him?
It sounds to me as though he was born from above. Something changed in his world.
Water and Spirit
I recently heard a story of a certain businessman whose life was changed forever--Mr. Ward Brehm. This man’s minister stopped him after church one day and asked him if he’d like to go to Africa. “He might as well have asked me if I’d like to go to Mars,” Brehm said.
Sensing some resistance, the pastor asked, “Will you at least pray about it?” Well, Mr. Brehm looked the minister square in the eye and said, “You’re the minister, you pray about it. I’ll think about it.”
Not long after, this businessman found himself at an airport booked on a flight to Ethiopia embarking on a surprising journey, one major surprise being the group he was to be traveling with. When they finally all met there in the airport, a circle of church ladies appeared to see the group off. Just before boarding the plane the group decided to hold hands and pray right there in the airport lounge.
Brehm said he prayed all right, mostly that none of his clients or business partners would walk by and see him.
From day one on that trip to Africa, Brehm says, he has never been the same. “The moment I stepped onto African soil,” he said, “my life was altered. I saw a world that before had only existed as a set of statistics. In Ethiopia I listened to surviving family members telling stories of loved ones lost during the years of famine; in Uganda I saw people everywhere dying of AIDS. For the first time, the senselessness of people starving to death was overwhelmingly in my face.”
Mr. Brehm wrote a book called “White Man Walking.” In it he says that everything he thought he knew about the world, his life, and God was up for grabs. God, for the first time, seemed intensely close, much closer than back home.
I wonder if Nicodemus has discovered the same thing in Jesus, that divine presence that upsets the order of things, that is just not available in a mere set of rules. To protect his respected position, Nick uses the cover of darkness, but his heart has been captured by the one who transcends all the rules.
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God…”
Then Jesus delivers the best news of all, the free gift of salvation that is not of our own doing.
“...do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."
Now Jesus really has Nicodemus’ attention. The illusion and rigidity of the law has been quietly shattered by grace.
We can only surrender ourselves to God’s love, we can’t control it like an on/off spigot, it is not up to us. It is God’s gift. It’s hard not to be in control, it is a precarious state of affairs. To be saved by the favor of another is not easy at first or second glance.
In his Letter to the Ephesians, Paul said,
“Salvation is yours through faith...neither is it a reward for anything you have accomplished, so that no one may boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9.
You mean I get something I didn’t earn? That doesn’t compute very well. We love to point to our successes, our virtues and our improvements. We’d feel a whole lot better about this salvation thing if our prayers, our acts of mercy, our committee meetings counted against it. But that is not the case. None of what God offers in Jesus Christ is a result of our efforts.
Water of grace, spirit of love
But, being human, when we fail or are discouraged because our efforts don’t measure up, we lament that we didn’t try harder. If only we had succeeded at self-perfection.
Whereas Nicodemus used the cover of darkness, we stumble around in darkness when we refuse to abandon our souls to what is good for us, God’s grace, mercy and love. This is the moment, as it was for Nicodemus, the moment of conversion.
We can resist the hope, we can hate the light, we can fear the exposure to God’s love and the truth on which it rests, but that resistance comes between us and the love of Christ.
When we acknowledge the futility of our efforts, when we no longer see law as our salvation, only the grace of Jesus Christ, then we live up to the sign of our Baptisms.
The water of Baptism signifies a washing clean on the outside as God washes away our sins on the inside. As a sign, water is a good one, since water defines us. How is it said, the body is composed of over 92% water?
Just as water literally flows through our bodies, we are born from above with the Holy Spirit
who flows through our hearts and souls.
How can these things be? Because of the boundless, ageless love of God through Jesus Christ.
Must we, like Nicodemus, use the cover of night to seek what is ready and waiting for us? No, my friends, we only need step forward as far as this table.