Preached at Light of Christ Anglican Fellowship in Kenosha, WI on February 17th, 2008...
Today’s Gospel contains what’s arguably one of the most popular and familiar verses for the Church. John 3:16. I suspect many of us even have it memorized. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” It rolls off our tongue. And it’s an incredible verse, in it we have the entire message of the Gospel summarized. But I think sometimes it’s become so familiar it simply becomes a cliché that is disconnected from the dialogue between Nicodemus and Jesus in which we find it. So it’s my hope that by looking at it in light of the entire passage we can see more clearly the crux of this message which I believe is that Kingdom People are Cross People.
So we have Nicodemus, he’s a Pharisee and a ruler of Jews and would be considered one of the best and most trusted teachers of Israel. And he comes to Jesus to tell him he thinks Jesus is sent from God. It seems like an admirable thing to do, doesn’t it? “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.” You would think Jesus would commend him for this. But how does Jesus reply? "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Huh? It almost seems like Jesus answer doesn’t even match what Nicodemus just said. Sort of, “Hey I just said I think you’re from God because of your signs and wonders and you reply by telling me I can’t see the Kingdom of God unless I’m born again?” Why would Jesus respond this way? Well what’s Nicodemus really saying?
First, he addresses Jesus as Rabbi. Now with Nicodemus being who he is, a Pharisee and teacher, by addressing Jesus as Rabbi what he’s saying is, “We’re equals. I’m a Rabbi, you’re a Rabbi. This is a safe relationship.” Second, and more importantly he says he knows something. He knows that Jesus is a teacher sent from God because of the signs He does. Nicodemus is telling Jesus, “I understand the Kingdom of God and what it looks like.” He’s telling Jesus, “I have the Kingdom of God all figured out. I know what it looks like. I’m a Kingdom Person.” And I think what Nicodemus wants to tell himself is, “I’m safe. I’m in. I’m doing enough. I’m doing enough to be a Kingdom person. I don’t need to change.” But Jesus’ reply says to him, “Actually, you’ve got it all wrong.”
What Jesus’ reply says to Nicodemus is, “You’re claiming to see and understand the Kingdom of God. You’re claiming to be a Kingdom Person. But I’m telling you, you can’t even see the Kingdom of God unless you’ve been born again.” Jesus starts his statement with “Truly, truly…” which is his customary way of saying “Listen up! Because what I’m about to tell you is one of the most important things you’re ever going to hear.” And what is this most important thing? If you want to be a Kingdom Person you’ve got to be born again. Kingdom People are Cross People. To paraphrase an early Christian Saint, Theodore of Mopsuestia, what Jesus is telling Nicodemus is “If you really believe I’m from God, and my miracles have convinced you of it, then you have to do something about it.” You have to have a completely and utterly new way of life. A Kingdom life. St. Basil, another early Christian, says that being born again means you have to cut off your old life and then start a brand new life. What would it look like to cut off our old life? Many of us might think of this in monumental terms of our first big step toward Jesus when we first surrender our life to Him. Our conversion. And at that moment we cut off our old life to begin our new life with Him. But what about those little pieces of our old life that still pop up from time to time? We need to cut those off too, and sometimes it may be a daily process. It may be frustrating and difficult. But if we want to be Kingdom People, we can’t play it safe like Nicodemus. We have to completely surrender ourselves to Jesus. We have to be born again.
So Jesus replies to Nicodemus’ claim to be a Kingdom Person by telling him he has to be born again. Nicodemus then is confused or struggling with what Jesus is telling him. He asks how a man can be born again and takes it in a literal sense. So Jesus explains it for him. Being born again means being born of the water and the Spirit. So what does that mean? I suggest that for Nicodemus the phrase, “born of the water” would call to mind for him something like John’s baptism. A baptism of repentance. A baptism that is that cutting off of the old life in order to start a new life. A taking up our Cross. “Born of the Spirit”, to a Jew of the time like Nicodemus would bring to mind the Holy Spirit, which hovered over the waters at Creation, who spoke through the mouths of the prophets and rested upon the Kings of Israel…this same Spirit will empower us and transform us when we start our new life. And isn’t this exactly what the Sacrament of Baptism is? It’s our profession that we desire to cut off of our old life and the means by which we begin a Spirit-empowered new life in Christ. All of us need that cutting off of our old life. To die to ourselves by taking up our Cross. And by doing so we receive the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit which makes us, and empowers us as Kingdom people.
So Nicodemus claims to be a Kingdom Person and Jesus says you’re not because to be Kingdom People are Cross People. Nicodemus doesn’t understand so Jesus explains it to him: being born again means being born of water and the Spirit. And Nicodemus still doesn’t get it. But it’s not that he simply doesn’t understand. I think he’s refusing to because he doesn’t like what he’s hearing. He doesn’t want to take up his cross, he doesn’t want to change. The reason I think so is because of how Jesus responds: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this?” Essentially Jesus tells him, “You come to me as a Pharisee, one of the most trusted teachers in all Israel. Claiming to be my equal. Claiming to understand the Kingdom of God. Claiming to be a Kingdom Person. And you can’t even understand the most basic things of the Kingdom?” And he then tell him “you do not receive our testimony.” You’re rejecting what I’m telling you.
I think this begs the question for us: Are we coming to Jesus with what we want to see? With our expectations of what the Kingdom of God should look like? And when Jesus shows us the Truth do we resist? Or are we willing to cut off the old life and allow the Holy Spirit to help us? Because the question isn’t, “Will this happen in our life?” but “When this happens?” There are going to be times when we’ve got it all wrong. We’re going to think we’ve got it all figured it and that we know what being a Kingdom Person means. But the Lord will show us an area that needs to be cut off. He’ll give us an opportunity to take up our Cross. And sometimes we’re like Nicodemus. The Lord is trying to tell us something, and explain it, but we resist. But we need to surrender to Him and allow the Lord to change us because if we don’t then we’re going to get stuck spiritually. Stagnant. Jesus tells Nicodemus, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” In order to see the Kingdom we’ve got to trust the Lord in the mundane things, only then will wee see the heavenly things.
And this leads to what seems to be a disjointed set of statements by Jesus. “No one has ascended into heaven…” and “As Moses lifted up the Serpent…” Why would Jesus throw these in here? He just got done telling Nicodemus “If I’ve told you earthly things and you don’t believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” and then says He’s descended and will ascend to Heaven. Why? He’s telling Nicodemus “You shouldn’t resist what I say because I speak with more authority regarding the Kingdom of God than anyone because I alone came from heaven and will return to it.” Those moments will arise when Jesus is a calling us to believe Him in an area of our life in order to be Kingdom People. If may feel scary or unsafe or difficult. But the reason why we can put our absolute trust in what He says is because He is the final authority on the Kingdom of God.
And He is not merely the final authority on the Kingdom of God, He is the source of the Kingdom of God. What makes the Kingdom of God possible is the Cross. For the Jews, like Nicodemus, the reference to Moses lifting up the serpent would have been a symbol of the provision of life for God’s people. When Moses lifted up the serpent people were saved. They were healed. Jesus is telling Nicodemus that He is God’s provision of life, of salvation and of healing for His people. And this brings us back to John 3:16, that Jesus is the source of the Kingdom of God. And the source is His Cross. Kingdom People are Cross People.
And the season of Lent is such an appropriate time to submit ourselves to this. Lent is that great season in the Church, to quote Fr. Eirik Olsen, of preparation and fulfillment. In Lent we’re preparing to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. What greater celebration of the Kingdom is there than the feast of the Resurrection? But in order to come to it rightly we need to prepare ourselves. We enter the Kingdom through the Cross. And in Lent we have two disciplines of abstinence and engagement. Abstinence which is fasting from perfectly good things simply to make more room for God to work but also cutting out the pieces of our old life. And engagement being the taking on of disciplines such as meditating on Holy Scripture, more prayer, giving alms or acts of service. By taking up our Cross, and participating in the Cross of Jesus through our remembrance of His Passion, we can truly become Kingdom People. And sometimes it the thought of taking up our Cross sounds burdensome, or difficult, or frustrating. And this is why we have to keeps our eyes fixed upon the goal, the Kingdom. We have to let the Kingdom fill our horizon and hold our Cross in the foreground. And then, with our horizon filled with Kingdom, our cross is in its appropriate perspective…like a little scraggly tree cast against a tremendous beautiful sunset. Keeping our eyes fixed on the Kingdom while we bear our Cross is our source of expectant hope. What could be more wonderful to become a Kingdom Person? A person formed into the image of Jesus Christ. This Lent may we truly be born again, of water and the Spirit, transformed; that we might see the Kingdom of God. Amen.