"RE-BORN" - Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17
A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor
Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA - Sunday, May 27, 2018
Texts: Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17
The great Swiss theologian of the last century, Karl Barth, said that faithful Christians should always do theology and live life “with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”
Here are just some of the items from the newspaper this past week that raise so many questions for my theology and our life together, especially on Memorial Day weekend. Memorial Day weekend is when we honor and remember the many who have given their lives for the freedoms and values that we hold dear.
This past week, the hopeful summit with North Korea was cancelled. Deep complexities abound in these negotiations with rogue nations, but this feels like a setback that moves us toward more danger in the world.
This past week, we feel the growing tensions between Iran and Israel, especially fueled by Syrian and Palestinian problems. Again, these are very complicated issues, but the unrest and alienation seem to keep moving more toward violence and less peace.
This past week, the NFL pronounced a new policy – players must either stand in respect for the national anthem or stay in the locker room. This raises so many questions about patriotism, authoritarianism, social justice, and more.
This past week, there is ongoing concern about the Mueller investigation, about police and community relations, and more. What do we believe? When will it end? What and who can we trust?
And . . . this past week, as most of you know, the very lovely Becky Tyree, who initiated and led the RVA Street Singers – the choir for the homeless that practices every Monday in our Chapel – the very joyful and grace-filled music professor at VCU – died Thursday from brain trauma from a tragic bicycle accident.
And I know some of you have your own separate and increasing heartaches and issues that weigh heavy on your life.
We take all of this and it is easy to feel, that we are a long way from seeing the Kingdom of God.
Listen to this story now from John 3:
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.2He 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.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus 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?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The 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.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16“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. 17“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.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Life can be so full of doubts and hurts, losses and complexity that the Kingdom of God remains invisible. Nicodemus even was a VIP with a big theological reputation – we learn here that he was a Pharisee – a serious devotee of God and God’s laws – and he was a “leader of the Jews” and “a teacher.” Nicodemus had heard enough about Jesus that he wanted to meet him, but he could not risk his whole reputation and meet him in the day. Nicodemus planned this night-time visit. Better to be safe than sorry, he thought, in his inquiry of Jesus about the Kingdom of God. But Nicodemus came to Jesus because Nicodemus knew that Jesus knew about the Kingdom of God.
“Rabbi, 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.” And Jesus answered – “no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.” Ah ha! . . . So that gets our attention in these days!
That was all very well, Nicodemus said, but just how were you supposed to pull a thing like that off? How especially were you supposed to pull it off if you were pushing sixty-five? How do you get RE-BORN when it was a challenge just to get out of bed in the morning? He even got a little sarcastic. Could one "enter a second time into the mother's womb?" he asked (John 3:4), when it was all one could do to get in and out of the car, to get up and down from the recliner, without someone helping?
“Then, a gust of wind happened to whistle down the chimney at that point, making the dying embers burst into flame; and Jesus said being born again was like THAT. It wasn't something you did. The wind did it. The Spirit did it. It was something that happened, for God's sake.” "How can this be?" Nicodemus asked (John 3:9), and that's when Jesus really got going. Maybe Nicodemus was a VIP in the religious sector, and had six honorary doctorates, but, Jesus said, if he couldn't see something as plain as the nose on his face, he'd better go back to kindergarten.
Jesus said, "I'm telling you - God's so in love with this world that he's sent me down, so if you don't believe your own eyes, then maybe you'll believe mine, maybe you'll believe me, maybe you won't come sneaking around scared half to death in the dark anymore, but will come to, come clean, come to life."
“What impressed Nicodemus even more than the speech was the quickening of his own breathing and the pounding of his own heart. He hadn't felt like that since his first kiss, since the time his first child was born.” (see F. Beuchner, Peculiar Treasures and day1.org)
Born from above, born of water and spirit, born again – RE-BORN! It is a powerful and pertinent process for people of faith. RE-BORN. It is realizing that God . . . and love . . . and life . . . and the Kingdom are very close, always present, and our lives are meant to reflect it.
So often, like Nicodemus, we get so covered up with how we are seeing things that we cannot see Jesus, cannot be open to the Spirit, cannot sense God anywhere near. So often, like Nicodemus, we are so busy asking questions – or so burdened by our issues - that we do not see Jesus standing right in front of us, don’t see God’s care all around us.
Don’t get me wrong – I like questions, we need serious questions. But if we are not careful, we miss what is right in front of us – God’s presence, God’s promises, God’s life for us and for all.
Jesus said, "Nicodemus, you don't need God IN your life.... You don't need God to come INTO your life. That's backwards. You need to come into God's life.” God doesn't come into your life. It works the other way. God offers us God's own life as a gift and beckons us to enter it, live in it. You need to be in the life of God. This is the truth for all of us. In fact, Nicodemus, you need to realize that your life is only in God and, then, live accordingly. (see T. Long, sermon on Day1.org)
RE-BORN. It is not literal. It is about the transformative power of God at work in us, all around us, regardless of what is happening in the world or with our hearts. RE-BORN. Jesus is trying to help Nicodemus, and all of us, know that no matter what happens in the world, or with our lives, the life of God is NOT far away. The life of God has come near to you. Indeed, the life of God is sitting right next to you, speaking to you now. The passionate love of God that makes up the divine life has spilled out into the world in Jesus. God so loved the world that God has given God's only Son . . . not to condemn the world but to save it . . . to assure us that nothing can ever separate us from God.
When Nicodemus began to allow himself to be RE-BORN - of the wind, of the Spirit - things changed for him. In the chapters which follow, we read that Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus in the darkness of night, later spoke up for Jesus, publicly questioning those in authority who would judge Jesus. Then after Jesus' death on the cross when all the disciples had fled, Joseph of Arimethea and Nicodemus came forward to prepare Jesus' body for burial. Nicodemus was no longer intimidated or afraid. Nicodemus had come to realize that he was RE-BORN, not by his own doing, but by the love of God who birthed him anew and gave him a life of boldness.
And that is certainly what God wants and expects from us.
We find ourselves living in challenging and perplexing times.
A boy named Emanuele told Pope Francis that his father, an unbeliever, had died recently. The boy wondered whether his father was in heaven. The pope replied, “God is the one who says who goes to heaven,” and added that God has the heart of a dad who does not (ever) abandon his children. (Christian Century, “Century Marks,” May 23, 2018, p. 8) It is ALWAYS about God.
We find ourselves living in challenging times. So much animosity and distrust, so much heartache and alienation. Yet last week, preaching at the royal wedding, Bishop Michael Curry laid it out – and it lines up with what Jesus is trying to teach Nicodemus, and teach us:
Quoting Dr King, Curry said "We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this old world a new world, for love is the only way."
There's power in love. Don't underestimate it. Don't even over-sentimentalize it. There's power, power in love.
If you don't believe me, think about a time when you first fell in love. The whole world seemed to center around you and your beloved.
Oh there's power, power in love. Not just in its romantic forms, but any form, any shape of love. There's a certain sense in which when you are loved, and you know it, when someone cares for you, and you know it, when you love and you show it - it actually feels right.
There is something right about it. And there's a reason for it. The reason has to do with the source. We were made by a power of love, and our lives were meant - and are meant - to be lived in that love. That's why we are here.
This is exactly what Jesus is saying to Nicodemus in John 3.
Curry continues: "If you don't believe me, just stop and imagine. Think and imagine a world where love is the way." Imagine our homes and families where love is the way. Imagine neighborhoods and communities where love is the way. Imagine governments and nations where love is the way. Imagine business and commerce where this love is the way. Imagine this tired old world where love is the way. When love is the way - unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive. When love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again. When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook. When love is the way, poverty will become history. When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary. When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside, to study war no more. When love is the way, there's plenty good room - plenty good room - for all of God's children. "Because when love is the way, we actually treat each other, well... like we are actually family. When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all, and we are brothers and sisters, children of God. My brothers and sisters, that's a new heaven, a new earth, a new world, a new human family. Dr King was right: we must discover love - the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this old world, a new world.
RE-BORN - into the love of God . . . . for loving others.
“Reclaiming Jesus” – this is a movement gaining momentum, led by Bishop Michael Curry and many other familiar leaders in the church, saying that these perilous times demand us to re-think our loyalty to Jesus, which leads these leaders – in a public statement - to offer six affirmations and six rejections for these times:
- every human being is made in the image and likeness of God, which leads to rejections of nationalism, racism, tribalism that seems to be growing in these days.
- we are one body of Christ, which leads to the rejection of mistreatment and the violent abuse of women and others.
- it matters how we treat the least of these – the stranger, the sick, the prisoner, the foreigner, which leads to the rejection of plans and policies that abandon children, immigrants and the most vulnerable.
- truth-telling is important, which leads of the rejection of the growing tendency of lying that has invaded public life;
- Christ’s way of leadership is servanthood, which leads to the rejection of policies and political leaders that continue to serve personal interests.
- we are part of an international community, that God so loved the world, which leads to the rejection of unpatriotic xenophobia and selfish nationalism.
This compelling statement – “Reclaiming Jesus” - says that we should all be concerned about the soul of the nation and the integrity of Christian faith. We are called to be more deeply connected to God, to one another, especially those who are different from us, and particularly the under-served, the less fortunate, and those most at greatest risk. This is what Christian faith and life are about. (see reclaimingjesus.org)
As the apostle Paul reminds us, if we live according to the flesh we will die; but if we live according to the Spirit we will live. May it be so. Amen
Prayer of Commitment: Holy God, to turn from you is to fall; to turn to you is to rise; to receive your Spirit, your presence, your love – and to live in your love by spreading love – that is to abide forever. We seek that way following Jesus. Amen
Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday worship on May 27, 2018. This is a rough manuscript.