This week’s sermon from First Pres, Boonville. The text is John 3:1-17.
There’s a guy with whom my wife went to high school named John. In many ways, John was a stereotypical rebellious teenager. He was really into parties and some drugs. He questioned authority on everything. He walked around with enough chips on his shoulder to fill a Dorito bag. But there was one way in which John did not fit the stereotype: he went to church every week.
Let me be clear about a few details: First, his parents didn’t make him go to church. He decided to go on his own. Second, John didn’t put on a pious façade for his church family. He didn’t pretend to be one person on Saturday night and another on Sunday morning. In fact, John was just as bitter and cynical at church as he was at home or school. When people asked him why he bothered to go to church at all, he openly told them, “I don’t practice Christianity. I don’t believe it. I don’t get it at all, but I keep thinking that someday I might, and I want to be here when that happens.”
In a lot of ways, John reminds me of Nicodemus in today’s gospel reading. He doesn’t “get it” either. Jesus talks to him about being “born again” (or “born from above”) and “the wind blowing where it chooses” but it all goes straight over his head. If anything, Nicodemus walks away from Jesus with more questions than answers.
At the beginning of the passage, it says that Nicodemus “came to Jesus by night”. Most biblical scholars agree that this isn’t just talking about the time of day. Rather, the author is trying to tell us something about Nicodemus himself.
A little background information might help that make sense:
The author of John’s gospel has a lot to say about Jesus being “the light of the world”. Light-imagery comes up again and again in John. Jesus is the light, while the rest of the world, by contrast, is dark. So, when John says that Nicodemus “came to Jesus by night”, it means that Nicodemus exists in a state of spiritual darkness.
That being said, Nicodemus doesn’t seem to be such a bad guy. First of all, he addresses Jesus with an unusually high degree of respect. He uses the title “Rabbi”. This is not what one would expect. Nicodemus was a socially prominent, educated, and pious Jew. Jesus, on the other hand, was without formal education and hailed from Nazareth, a place not known for producing prodigies. In today’s terms, it would be like a Harvard professor walking up to a country bumpkin and calling him “Doctor” or “Reverend”. Listen to what he says to Jesus: “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.”
We meet Nicodemus again in John 7, when he defends Jesus against the attacks of the religious leaders. Finally, he shows up in John 19, where he helps to bury Jesus and honors him with an expensive funeral fit for a king. Nicodemus never has a distinct “born again” moment of conversion. In fact, it’s unclear if he ever actually became a Christian. Ancient legends indicate that he did eventually join the Church, but the scriptures themselves don’t state that explicitly. Based on what we do know of him in John 3, 7, and 19, it seems like Nicodemus was on a slow and gradual journey of spiritual growth.
He feels genuinely drawn to Jesus, but he still struggles. He’s curious enough to ask questions, but he’s not yet ready to make a leap of faith. He wants to believe, but something inside is holding him back. Does any of this sound familiar to you? It does to me.
Like Nicodemus, I don’t have a distinct “born again” moment in my life. I too have been on a slow and gradual journey of spiritual growth. I’ve often been challenged with new ideas that go straight over my head at first. I’ve had to go back to the beginning to reread and reinterpret my Bible so drastically that I felt like a kid in Sunday school all over again. In that sense, you could say I was “born again… and again… and again.”
The NRSV translates “born again” as “born from above”. When it says “from above”, it’s kind of like when a jazz musician says to the band, “Let’s take it from the top.” It means, “Let’s start all over again.”
So, what causes this kind of “starting over” to happen? We know straight away that it’s not the direct result of intellectual argument. Throughout this passage, Nicodemus is trying to have a philosophical discussion with Jesus, but Jesus isn’t playing along. Nicodemus keeps asking, “How can this be?” And Jesus keeps throwing out these images that seem to make no sense.
In this way, Jesus is acting like a Zen master who is trying to expand his student’s consciousness. Zen masters do this by presenting their students with something called a koan. A koan is a kind of riddle that can’t be solved with rational thought. The point is for the student to meditate on the riddle until she learns to break out of old habits of thinking. For westerners, the most well-known koan is, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Jesus’s words about being “born from above” and “the wind blowing where it will” are kind of like a Christian koan. He’s trying to help Nicodemus expand his thinking to a spiritual level.
The realm of the spirit is far bigger than the realm of the mind. On a spiritual level, people are able to grasp certain truths that defy rational explanation. For example: Christians believe that God is both three and one; Jesus is fully divine and fully human; the bread and wine are also the body and blood of Christ. These ideas are contradictions when we try to understand them rationally, but they make sense as spiritual truths.
Presbyterian and Reformed Christians have often emphasized this “more than rational” quality of faith and spirituality. For us, “faith” is more than a list of doctrines to which we give intellectual assent. We believe that faith is a gift. Faith doesn’t come about from sophisticated intellectual arguments. It grows in us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is God at work within us and around us. The Spirit leads us in the direction of faith, goodness, and wholeness. This is taking place, even before we profess our faith in Christ. Look at Nicodemus: the text tells us that he was still in “darkness”, but something was attracting him toward Jesus, the light of the world.
There’s a particular image in this text that really stood out to me this week. Jesus tells Nicodemus that one must be “born of water and the Spirit” in order to enter the kingdom of God. What does that mean? Some scholars think that this is a reference to the sacrament of baptism, and they may well be right about that. Other scholars think that Jesus is comparing two different kinds of birth: natural and spiritual birth. We know that when a baby is born into this world, a lot of water is involved. For the first nine months of its existence, a baby lives in the darkness of the womb, surrounded by this amniotic fluid. The fluid (this “water”) protects the baby and feeds it with vital nutrients until it’s ready to be born “into the light” of this world.
In the same way, Nicodemus is kind of like an embryo in this passage. He’s not ready to be born. He still lives in “darkness”. But the Holy Spirit is kind of like the amniotic fluid of a mother’s womb. The Spirit surrounds him and feeds him with nutrients until he’s ready to be born (again and again).
This image gives me hope for myself and other people like Nicodemus and John, my wife’s friend from high school. None of us totally “gets it” when it comes to Christian faith. We’re struggling, we’re doubting, but we’re also growing. Nicodemus is repeatedly drawn to Jesus. John was inexplicably drawn to church. I am continually drawn back to the scriptures, trusting that God has yet more light to shed on my understanding. It’s comforting for me to know that none of us is alone in this journey. You may feel like you’re constantly starting over. You may feel like you’ve got more questions than answers. You may feel like you’re just wandering aimlessly. But let me give you some hope this morning: you are being nurtured by the Holy Spirit and led from darkness into light.
If you sense that attraction at all, I encourage you to follow it. Keep coming back to church. Keep searching the scriptures, even if you don’t understand them. Keep on reaching out to God in prayer. Keep on coming back to be fed by the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ. I encourage you to follow this attraction and see where it leads you. It might not happen all at once, but I have faith that eventually, you will “get it”. We all will. Thanks be to God.