Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 15th March 2014
15 March 2014 at 11:00 am
The Reverend David Stanton, Canon Treasurer and Almoner
The Gospel reading today tells us about a man named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader who came to Jesus under the cover of night. He was inquisitive and wanted to ask Jesus questions. Perhaps he didn’t want to be seen enquiring and engaging in serious conversation; perhaps he was afraid of criticism and just wanted to talk quietly. Whatever the motivation, he came with a desire to talk about spiritual things. He’s respectful of Jesus and addresses him as Rabbi or teacher, and then rather courageously he says “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”. Jesus looked at him and said, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit…Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above”. The Greek phrase translated “born from above” appears only twice in the Bible, and both times they feature in today’s Gospel reading. So what on earth does it mean to be “born from above” and does it apply to any of us here today?
This term has generally been used as a marker for evangelicals– and in popular culture refers to an instantaneous moment of conversion, usually accompanied by an intense emotional experience, and as a sign of having truly accepted Christ as Saviour. For some traditions, being ‘born from above’ is the mark of being a true Christian – there are Christians and there are ‘born-again Christians’. It is treated by some as if it were a command from Christ: “What must I do to be saved?” “You must be born again!”. John Stott (for many years Vicar of All Souls, Langham Place) makes a helpful distinction between “regeneration” and “conversion”. For him Conversion implies consciously repenting one’s sin and turning to Christ, accepting him in faith as one’s Lord and Saviour, but Regeneration emphasises new birth as solely the work of God; its sudden and utterly transformational, something that we just can’t do ourselves. Whichever way you understand it, the classic evangelical understanding involves accepting Christ as your personal Saviour, and that when you put your faith in Jesus Christ you are born again.
But there is, of course, a further interpretation, and one that I believe to be at the heart of Jesus’ message to us. It’s held by the majority of world-wide Christians, and this is the understanding that being born from above (being born of water and Spirit) actually refers to the fundamental place of Baptism as the point of entry into the Church, the kingdom of God. If we go back to St John’s Gospel, we see that the Evangelist tells us that immediately after talking with Nicodemus, Jesus took his disciples into the wilderness where they baptised people (3.22). Indeed throughout St John’s Gospel, water is closely linked with the Spirit; for example in Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (4. 9-13) and in the Johannine tradition (1 John 5.7). It’s therefore entirely reasonable to believe that St John understands Jesus’ words about being born from above and born from water and the Spirit to have a sacramental, baptismal meaning.
This goes to the heart of our Gospel reading. For if we bring together the regeneration (the new birth to which John Stott refers) and place it in the context of baptism – the scriptures suddenly open up before us. Regeneration (being born again) is all about the great transformation from death to life that happens in our souls when we first come to God. He washes us clean of our sins – breaking the power of sin – allowing us to live the Christian life. (See Romans 6.1-22; Ephesians 6. 11-17). So when we hear about being born of water and Spirit – we’re being told about the effects of baptism: not two different births - one birth of water and another birth of Spirit – but one single water-and-Spirit rebirth. This is the transformation that St. Peter talks about when he exhorted people to “repent, and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”.
Just a few verses before this morning’s Gospel reading (when Jesus talked to Nicodemus about Baptism) he himself was baptised by John the Baptist – and the circumstances are striking: Jesus goes down into the water, and as he is baptised the heavens open, the Holy Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove. This scene gives us a vivid picture of what happens at baptism: We are baptised with water, symbolising our dying with Christ – and our rising with Christ to the newness of life; and we receive the gift of grace and the Holy Spirit, being made one with Christ.
When we’re baptised we may not feel any different to the way we did before. But we have received the Holy Spirit in a special way. We’ve been regenerated and made a child of God; we’ve been buried with Christ and raised to new life with him; we’ve publically identified ourselves with Jesus’ death and resurrection. If we pause to reflect and think about this, we may not feel it as a subjective religious experience, but we do believe it to be true by faith, and we hold the great privilege of being able to grow in that faith from the point of baptism. On this last point, Nicodemus has a further role to play: In today’s reading from Chapter 3, Nicodemus has seen the miracles of Jesus - but is unsure what to make of them. When we see him again in Chapter 7 - he tells the other Jewish leaders to give Jesus a fair hearing. And we meet him again in Chapter 19, he comes with Joseph of Arimathea to collect Jesus’ body for burial. This pattern of events seems to show that St John had a further use for Nicodemus: he’s used to represent all those who are on the fringes of Christian commitment.
You may just fall into this category: Perhaps drawn here by sublime music or architecture or your connection with the Great School; perhaps intrigued by Christ, even attracted to him, but not having fully made up your mind about him; perhaps wondering, what on earth would I say if someone asked: if you’ve been born again? A glib and unsatisfactory answer to this final question may be to say that you were born again at baptism. But of course we don’t trust in baptism rather than in Christ. We trust in Christ with whom we are united in baptism. In this sense we can all learn from the evangelical tradition. Simply pointing towards baptism is not enough. We must engage our living faith, we must be prepared to talk about our trust and love of Christ; our desire to grow in sanctity and conformity to Christ; and share our total dependence on Christ for salvation. These are integral to the new life of the Holy Spirit that we’re given through baptism, and the phrase ‘born from above’ shouldn’t be used to stereotype or divide, but rather to liberate us all for fully loving lives.
Perhaps St Paul was more than figurative when he wrote “when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead”. (Colossians 2.12).