It was a Friday afternoon in the middle of the summer nearly thirty years ago. I was then the pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church near Okolona, Ohio. I was looking forward to going home, getting a bite to eat, and then doing some hospital visits before returning home to finish getting ready for Sunday morning.
The church telephone rang. “Hello,” the voice at the other end of the line said. “Is this the pastor?” After I told the enthusiastic-sounding man that I was, he began, “You don’t know me. But, my name is Joe Smith [not his real name]. I used to go to that church when I was a little boy and my ancestors were among the founding members there.” “I see,” I said, wondering what this guy had up his sleeve.
“Well,” he said, “my fiancé and I want to get married….” Pause. “And we’ve decided that you should be the one to perform the ceremony right there at Bethlehem!”
Joe Smith spoke these words as though he was announcing that Bethlehem and I had won the lottery! Just imagine it, he seemed to be saying, of all the churches and pastors in the world, you are the ones privileged to have our wedding.
I tried to contain my enthusiasm and asked Joe Smith, “When would you and your fiancé like to be married?” “Tomorrow!” he said.
When I explained to Joe that that wouldn’t be possible and that I didn’t know of any responsible pastor who would perform their wedding on such short notice, he was shocked. He, after all, was Joe Smith, descendant of a founding family of the parish!
He seemed to feel that he was conferring a privilege on the congregation and me because he had, at the last moment, picked us for his wedding day. He appeared to have no appreciation for the fact that a Christian marriage isn’t primarily about the couple or traditions or family ties or the places the marriage ceremony or the reception happens, but about God and the gift God gives to a man and a woman who marry.*
In today’s Gospel lesson, a man named Nicodemus visits Jesus. I think that Nicodemus felt that he was conferring a privilege on Jesus by visiting Him. After all, Nicodemus was a respected teacher of the Jews, a renowned ruler of his faith. (In the original Greek in which John wrote his gospel, Nicodemus is referred to as the teacher of the Jews.)
Nicodemus truly did enjoy the sort of high status among religious folks that Joe Smith thought he could expect from the pastor and people of Bethlehem Lutheran Church at Okolona, Ohio when he called me on that summer Friday afternoon.
But, when Nicodemus comes to converse with Jesus, amazingly seeming to treat Jesus as his equal, the carpenter’s son from Nazareth delivers essentially the same message that He’s been delivering to all who hang on His every word.
“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again,” Jesus says.
The word translated from the original Greek here as again can also be translated as from above. Because of the richness of the word, I think that Jesus has both meanings in mind: “You must be born again. You must be born from above.”
“There are no privileged characters in the kingdom of God,” Jesus was saying. Or to put it another way, "Everyone is a privileged character in the kingdom of God, all equally so."
So, first point of this message: We all need the new life God gives through Jesus. Every single person is a sinner. And every Christian is a sinner given a new life by God.
This message from Jesus had to have been jarring, maybe even a bit insulting, for Nicodemus.
Jesus seemed to be telling him that he wasn’t such a privileged character, after all. Even he needed to exchange his old life of sin and selfishness and presumption, to embrace one simple title, the one that every Christian receives from God above in the waters of Holy Baptism: Child of God.
Nicodemus, this prominent, powerful teacher and ruler of the Jews, probably may not have been sure that he wanted to become a child of God.
He was probably content, as all of us can be after we've moved out of the house and started lives of our own, with being a grown-up who got to do whatever he wanted.
And he couldn’t have been too keen on the notion that he, just like all the other sinners Jesus interacted with each day, needed to get a new life.
More than anything, probably, Nicodemus didn’t want to accept God’s new life as a free gift. Years ago, when our son was about ten years old, we'd just had a worship service at the church in Cincinnati. There had been about forty people there. On the way home, Philip and I passed several restaurants whose parking lots were packed. "That's the problem, Dad," he said. "The restaurants are selling every thing and you're giving it away."
Fact is, it's human nature to try to attain things by our own efforts or even thievery rather than be humbled at having to accept a gift we didn't get by our own devices, brawn, brains, or shrewdness.
It goes against the grain for all of us. We’d like to think that we deserve the riches of heaven, as well as the accolades of others.
Back in our Bethlehem days, we had a five-week Bible and Catechism school for the eighty-five young people in the third through eighth grades. It was part of their Catechism training, which included weekly school-year Catechism classes for the sixth through eighth graders. We had the kids for chunks of whole days. So, we would have break period when we played kickball, softball, and other games.
Once, I divided the kids into teams. I set up tournament brackets. But in this tournament, the losers advanced to the next games. The two losingest teams were the last ones playing. (I didn’t do this because I thought it would crush the kids’ spirits to lose, but to make a point.)
One kid, who later played college football was frustrated by this system. "How will we know who the winner is?" he asked. "We won't," I told him. "Oh."
Under this topsy turvy bracketology, the losers wore the crown, the unworthy ones were the champions, and the kids who couldn’t run, jump, throw, or keep up with others were the winners, the ones who didn't earn the laurels got them.
Just like the kingdom of God that belongs not to those who earn it or deserve it, but to all with faith in Jesus!
Steve Taylor, a Christian rock singer, with a satirical wit, says, “Jesus is for losers.”
And he’s right. Jesus belongs to those willing to lose control over their lives and lose their sin and lose death.
If you’re like Joe Smith or Nicodemus, certain that God is privileged to have you on His team, certain that you’ve got a handle on righteousness, there’s no place for you in the kingdom of God.
And if you are part of Christ’s eternal Church, you know that you can’t take credit for it at all. It really is a gift!
“Very truly I tell you,” Jesus tells Nicodemus, “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”
Every time a person is baptized, whatever their age, born from above, and every time a person renews their faith through daily confession of sin and profession of faith in Jesus’ name, the Holy Trinity is at work to give them new life.
God the Father sends the Son.
The Son offers the benefits of His death and resurrection on the believer.
God the Holy Spirit preaches the Word about Jesus to us through the Bible, fellow believers, and even preachers so that we can grasp the gifts of forgiveness and salvation God offers us for free. This is all God’s doing.
So, point two: We can take no credit for the new and everlasting life that comes from God. We can’t take credit for our faith. It’s pure gift.
When, at the initiative of the Father, through the action of Jesus on the cross and at the tomb, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we believe and believe again, God gives us new birth, new life.
This is part of what Jesus is getting at in the Bible’s most famous verse, which appears in our Gospel lesson, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
That word that we translate as believes can be more literally rendered as, is believing. The tense in the Greek is more complicated than our present tense in English. It denotes continuous action. Belief isn't static, but keeps being renewed.
The idea is that the believer is trusting God, not just because she or he was baptized or confirmed or had a warm. fuzzy feeling back in the day, but because they’re actively trusting Jesus Christ today, in this moment.
Jesus is their Lord now and they are trusting Jesus moment to moment.
They keep surrendering to Jesus every day and they know that they have to keep surrendering to Him, lest the devil, the world, or their sinful selves take control of their minds, hearts, and lives.
Of course, because new and renewing life from God is a gift over which we have no control, we can’t decide to be born again.
But we can, like a child about to be born who has no control over the contractions that will happen in labor, respond to the promptings that position us to be born anew.
We can put down our dukes and let the Holy Spirit have His way with us.
We can let God love us.
We can bow to the authority of God’s Word as expressed by Jesus and the Ten Commandments and surrender our thoughts and actions and work and play and bodies and mouths and past, present, and future to Jesus Christ.
Point three: We need to keep being born from above.
Some days, in times of Scripture reading and prayer, I come close to God and see the blazing light of God’s purity and I see my darkness.
I see my sin and I see His grace.
I see His power and see my weakness.
I can hardly believe that God, the maker of the universe, bothers with me, loves me, and gives me new life.
And often, in light of all this, I say, “Thank You, God, for not striking me dead as I deserve. It’s the judgment my sin has earned me. Thank You for the gift of life with You forever!”
The God we know in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit is truly the only One deserving of the adjective, awesome!
Three points about the Three-in-One God on this Holy Trinity Sunday.
Point one: There are no privileged characters in the kingdom of God. We all need the new life God the Father gives through Jesus, God the Son.
Point two: We can take no credit for the new and everlasting life that comes from God the Holy Spirit. It is pure gift.
Point three: We need to keep being born above, letting the Savior Who put religious teachers in their places and Who accepted even prostitutes and extortionists, put us in our places in His kingdom. We need to let Him accept us and make us His forever.
Let God--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--give you new life every single day and in eternity. Amen!
*It’s when one or both marital partners lose this appreciation of the giftedness of marriage, when one or both take the other for granted, that pain happens in marriages and when they are ripe for trouble, by the way. But that's another sermon.