Sermon for Trinity Sunday
Trinity Church, Mt. Airy, NC
May 27, 2018 8:30 AM
ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ· ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν, οὐ δύναται ἰδεῖν τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ.
Jesus answered and said to him, “In truth, I tell you, unless one is born again/from above, that one cannot see the kingdom of God. (John 3:3)
You can’t live in the South very long and not have somebody ask you whether you’ve been “born again” or have someone tell you that they’ve been “born again.” It must rank in frequency in the lexicon of Southern language somewhere between “you all” and “bless your heart.” But Nicodemus the Pharisee a leader of the majority party in the Jewish Senate in Jerusalem had never heard of being born again; and, quite frankly, when Jesus said something about it to him one night, Nicodemus found the idea gross. This earnest leader already believed in Jesus, believed that his great works of healing came from God, believed that his teaching was from God; and in that he was unusual, because most of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle thought whatever Jesus did or said, he represented a mortal danger to Israel. True, Nicodemus grabbed his Jesus time at night when his powerful associates were in bed, but he was not timid about speaking up in the Sanhedrin for Jesus and for the temple police that had refused to arrest him and risking his own arrest (John 7:45-52). And while the disciples were all cowering in their hidey holes after the crucifixion, Nicodemus was taking Jesus’s body down from the cross, anointing it with myrrh and aloes, and helping Joseph of Arimathea lay it in the tomb (John 19:38-42). Nicodemus believed. Nicodemus believed in Jesus. But Nicodemus didn’t know what to make of getting born again and thought his mother might find the concept off-putting too.
Friends and preachers and front-door-knocking proselytizers have all tried to explain to me how you go about being “born again,” and I must confess that I have been as mystified about the process as Nicodemus was. There’s stuff you’ve got to do to be “born again,” I understand, and the activity isn’t for the faint-hearted. You’ve got to repent of your sins to be born again. Everybody seems to agree on that, but there’s more. You’ve also got to have faith in Jesus. You’ve got to believe. I’m probably better at the believing part than I am at the repenting part, but I’m not perfect at either requirement. Some of my informants have added requirements about joining their church, not drinking alcohol, and other such requirements; but repenting and believing seem to top everybody’s list. When I turn to the only place in the Bible where Jesus talks about being born again, the passage we just read, I can find plenty about believing. But here's the catch: Nicodemus was a believer. If he had to believe to receive new birth, then he was as born again as any newbie Christian at a revival. Jesus doesn’t say anything to Nicodemus about repenting, but the Pharisees were the world champions at repentance—they called it תשובה---so perhaps Jesus didn’t need to mention it. In other words, whatever we might imagine Nicodemus needed to do to receive new birth, it’s hard to believe he hadn’t already done it by the time Nicodemus and Jesus have this discussion.
But thinking that someone being born has to do something to accomplish that miracle of birth, however one defines it, boggles my mind. Whether it is birth in a suite at Forsyth Hospital or rebirth in the power of the Spirit, just what does the guest of honor at either event have to contribute to the undertaking? My own mother through her great strength and endurance brought me into the world, tipping the scales at ten pounds, an insult for which I hope she eventually forave me. So far as I can tell, I contributed nothing at all to the operation beyond a loud protest when somebody whacked me on the fanny to start me breathing. I’m with Nicodemus on this one. What are we supposed to learn from the information that we have to be born anew? Do we have to do something? And if we have to do something, then what do we have to do? Indeed, what could we do to accomplish this rebirth?
Nothing at all.
Maybe I can clarify with a short, albeit foolish thought experiment. What if I disbelieved? What if I just couldn’t bring myself to believe that back in Mr. Roosevelt’s third term my mother brought me to life in Alexandria’s old City Hospital. What if I decided to discount the evidence of my birth certificate, ignore the information my parents provided me, and even doubt the evidence of my own five senses? Perhaps I am the son of a billionaire or an unacknowledged member of the royal family! You might call such disbelief delusion and wonder ow a sane person could live that way; and I would agree with you. Maintaining such a delusion would be the very definition of madness or what the Bible calls sin.
Believing, on the other hand, expresses the truth of things and I’m sure that’s what Jesus means when he tells Nicodemus that new life comes to those who believe. Belief in Jesus is not a requirement of new birth, it is the outcome, the reasonable outcome, the joyful outcome of that new birth. So, Nicodemus doesn’t have to go out and find a new spiritual discipline that helps him believe in Jesus. He already believes in Jesus. He doesn’t have to learn to repent of sins. He’s been repenting all his life. In fact, there is nothing at all that Nicodemus has to do to inherit eternal life because he has already received it. Just as his mother gave birth to him, so in Christ has God given Nicodemus new life. The challenge for him will be not slipping into the world’s pessimism and cynicism and coming to disbelieve in the very truth of his existence. “The wind blows where it wants to,” Nicodemus, and she decided to blow on you. The only mistake you can make is not believing!
I’m ready for that next knock on the door, for that next preacher that wants to know whether I’ve been born again. Well, of course, I have. And of course, you have too. God loved the world enough to send the divine Son, not to bring us a list of things we have to believe and do but because we, like that divine Son, belong to God and with God. The good news isn’t that God created a system of salvation that is going to let some people into the kingdom and the slam the door shut on the rest of us. That kind of thinking is the bad news, something like believing we don’t really exist. God’s love saves us, not our piety, not our attempts to believe the unbelievable, not our confessions of true faith. God’s love does the sending. God’s love does the saving. We might choose an everlasting denial of that love. We might decide not to believe. We might come to admire unfaithfulness as independent thinking or radical intelligence; but God never chose against us even when we were busy thinking up ways to reject God. God never did anything but love us.
Today, we begin the next new year of Trinity Church’s life. We do so as believers, not because we have all the answers or even many of the answers, but because the way of faith and new life has become our way. Our ministry will increase to the extent that we can trust ourselves to the loving arms that have brought us this far. Our witness will increase not by getting our doctrines right but by getting our love for each other and for our neighbors right. Have we been born again? Count on it!
 Sometimes we get too focused on the little word trick our Gospel uses to introduce the subject of “birth from above,” as if Nicodemus weren’t sufficiently literate in Greek to know that word ἄνωθεν has two meanings. This subtle word play falls flat for English readers of John because English, unlike Greek, doesn’t have a single word that means both “from above” and “again.” If you, like the King James Bible, have Jesus tell Nicodemus in English that he must be “born again,” then your readers will never know that Jesus describes this birth as birth “from above,” a divine birth, a birth of the Spirit. On the other hand, if you do as the translator of the New Revised Standard Version does in our lesson this morning and have Jesus tell Nicodemus that he must be born “from above,” then nothing Nicodemus says makes any sense at all. Beyond that problem in English, we have the historical problem of having two Palestinian Jews, whose common language should have been Aramaic, misunderstanding each other in Greek because of the double meaning of a Greek word. Like English, Aramaic has no word like ἄνωθεν that means both “from above” and “again.”