Sermon by Andrew Linn 30.05.2021

Trinity Sunday (John 3:1-17)

It would, perhaps, be an understatement to say that the phrase born-again has become tainted and tarnished today; both through its abuse by people within the church and its connotations in the media and portrayal in popular culture.

If we think of a born-again Christian, it comes loaded with a stereotypic of perhaps an over enthusiastic or pushy person, perhaps a person who believes ridiculous things.  From the US, perhaps it comes with ideas of a person who holds a certain political stance.

It is a phrase that is problematic, and, in many ways, it would be great if we could just ditch the whole thing. The issue is that it is something that Jesus used to describe what it means to be his follower; one who would see and enter the kingdom of God.

It is a word picture that conveys deep truth about what it means to be in a relationship with God. That completely new start, becoming a new creation, setting out on a different life. Hence for at least us, internally, we need to hold on to what Jesus is teaching, even if we cannot control how others use or abuse the phrase.

The first thing the phrase throws up for us, is, perhaps, the conversation it comes in. John relates two individual, private encounters in this early part of the gospel.

The first is with the pharisee, Nicodemus. A member of the Jewish religious council. Someone who has trained for years in the law and the prophets, the Hebrew scriptures, our Old Testament. This is a man who would daily be doing everything that the law said, trying to follow it, and hence God, perfectly. In a very religious country those of the ruling council will have been at the very top.

The second conversation is with a Samaritan woman at a well. Someone who is not Jewish and hence not considered, at that time, part of the people of God. Someone who has had a difficult past with five prior husbands and now living with another man. An outsider, an outcast, perhaps, even in the village she lived in.

Now if Jesus had said to this woman “you need to be born again”, you need to restart, you need to radically change your life, we could see that as being quite reasonable. But no, it is the religious man who is told of the need to be born again. Jesus cutting straight to the heart of things after Nicodemus’ greeting.

So, this tells us our first thing about being born again: it has nothing to do with where we are starting from. To see and enter the kingdom of God has nothing to do with being very religious. The heart of what one of the most religious people in the country had to know was that he needed to be born again.

Secondly, we have this idea of birth that is used as the picture. Funny enough I do not remember anything about being born. I cannot remember being consulted about it, someone checking where I would like to be born or so on. Growing up in Scotland having been born in England I could have saved myself a certain about of grief if only I had been asked.

 

Of course, our human births have both nothing to do with us and, since it is the start of our life, everything to do with us. It is someone else who makes the decision, who brings it about. But it brings massive change to us; it is the start of us.

The same thing feeds in here about the kingdom of God. It is not something we can do for ourselves. John has already written about this in the opening of his gospel, “to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”

Those who are in the kingdom of God, who have been born again, are in that state because of what God has done.

Jesus a little later in his discussion with Nicodemus also makes this clear pointing on to how it is to be achieved. He reminds him about an episode from Israel’s history from the wanderings in the dessert. At the time, the people had been disobedient to God and God sent a plague of venomous snakes on the camp. When the people repented God commanded Moses to craft a snake on a pole and set it in the camp. Anyone who had been bitten only needed to turn and look at the snake and they would be healed. The only action on their part was to look, God then did everything.

Jesus says of this episode “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

It is God who takes the action in someone being born-again and the means of this is through the Son being lifted up, as he was on the cross when he died for our sins, summarised in the famous verse just below, Jonh 3:16. All that is needed is to believe.

Jesus gives our final aspect of what it means to be born again, and how we should know it is true, in his response to Nicodemus’ confusion about how you could possibly be physically born again.

Being born again is not physical, it is being born of water and the Spirit. There are differing views on what the water may refer to. It could point to baptism and the public confession of faith in Jesus. It could be referring to an outer cleansing, with the Spirit then referring to inner cleansing.

Whatever the path we take, Jesus is clear that the work of the Spirit is predominant. As Jesus goes on to say, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” The new life is a life in the Spirit and enlivened by the Spirit, as we celebrated at Pentecost last week.

Paul identified this when writing to the Colossians “Your whole self, ruled by the flesh, was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.”

How do we know this is the case? Well Jesus says in the same way we know there is wind; we look to the effects. You don’t know where the wind has come from or where it is going but you can hear it. In the same way the people living in the Spirit, born again in the Spirit, will be known by their actions. Actions do not make the life in the Spirit, but they demonstrate the life in the spirit. As Martin Luther said, “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone”; that is there are actions that flow out of such a faith.

So where does that leave us this morning?

Firstly, because this is a work of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, it is something that is available to all, and it is something we cannot lose or un-earn.  We can have assurance in our faith, even in the times we struggle, because God has done it for us through Jesus.

Secondly, in the same way as the ancient Israelites only had to look at the staff with the snake to be healed, this life in the kingdom, the born-again life, is as easy to attain through faith in Jesus Christ. The invitation is available to everyone.

Being born again is not about a particular stereotype, or believing in certain political views, or anything else the world may tell us. It is the life in the Spirit, part of the Kingdom of God, through Jesus Christ producing fruit in our lives for the kingdom.


Trinity Sunday (John 3:1-17):
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