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“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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
They are such familiar words, aren't they. The absolute basis of our faith – they are pretty much the heart of what it means to be a Christian. But, of course, like all of these things, it's really hard to unpack what it originally meant. We all have our own interpretation, of course, and who's to say we're wrong?
But let's look at the whole passage, first of all, before trying to look more closely at our text, since it's a well-known fact that “a text without a context is a pretext!”
Nicodemus seems to have been an older man, prominent among the Jews, a Pharisee. Maybe the local equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury, or of Westminster. Certainly well-known in his community, and very much looked up to as a religious leader. But, for him, something was missing. He was beginning to realise, perhaps, that he was coming to the end of his life here on earth, and wondering what his religion had to say about this. And now there is this new young teacher going the rounds, doing miracles, really seems to be from God. Nicodemus begs a very private interview. He can't be seen to be too closely associated with Jesus, although he does, in fact, stand up for him in the Sanhedrin, and helps Joseph of Arimathea prepare his body for burial. But at this stage he doesn't want to be seen to be too interested in what might, after all, prove to be another cult.
But it wasn't. Jesus tells him that he doesn't just need to be physically alive, he needs to be spiritually alive, too. He must be born from above, born anew, born again – the word used translates as all those things. And Nicodemus doesn't understand. Perhaps he's not really used to thinking in spiritual terms, or perhaps it totally doesn't make sense to him. So he blanks it. “How can you enter your mother's womb a second time?” But Jesus explains that this second birth is of the Spirit. We need to be born spiritually, to recognise that we are more than just animals, to allow God's spirit to work in us.
And Nicodemus says, “Yes, well, how do you do this?” and the answer, of course, is through Jesus. “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.”
You note, of course, that this is all God's idea! It's not something we humans can do. We may or may not have our own interpretation of the phrase “Born again”, but I think we all agree that it's something that God does, not something that we do. Had God not sent his only Son, Jesus, then it would not be an option for us. But Jesus came, we are told, out of God's love for us.
And our response must be one of believing. Again, people differ, sometimes, as to what degree of belief actually “counts”, whether it is a mild intellectual assent, or a total commitment to the exclusion of anything else, or somewhere in between.
For some of us, “being a Christian” is kind of like being pregnant – you either are or aren't, there's no two ways about it. Others see it as a journey, a process, starting, perhaps with a tiny step of faith, an intellectual assent to the fact that God could exist, that Jesus perhaps is God's son, and so on. And gradually growing more and more into our faith, going through various stages, and gradually, perhaps over many years, developing a mature and wonderful faith, and becoming the sort of Christian we all look up to and admire!
It's a bit of both, isn't it. Many of us will look back to a moment when we first said “Yes” to Jesus – perhaps we even remember the date and the time! For me, it was the tenth or the seventeenth of October, 1971, I can't remember exactly which. Sheesh, was it really that long ago – help! But loads of people don't have a datable conversion – it happened so gradually that they simply can't point to a date and say “before then I wasn't a Christian; after it I was.”
But even those of us who did have a definite date which they remember as their conversion, it didn't happen in a vacuum. It might have felt, at the time, like a total bolt from the blue, something totally unexpected, but when you look back, it probably wasn't.
Let’s take John Wesley as an example. We remember the date of his conversion, on 24 May. Remember what he wrote: “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
A not untypical conversion experience, perhaps. But Wesley was already a minister of the Church. He had been on missionary trips in the USA, and he had been searching and searching for the faith that he knew existed, but that he himself couldn’t find. One of his counsellors – I forget who, offhand – had told him to “preach faith until you have it, and then you will preach it because you can’t help it”. So for John Wesley, that experience on Aldersgate Street was very much a part of his Christian journey. Would anybody really say that before it he was not a Christian? I don’t think I would, and I’m not sure that Wesley himself did, either!
And another thing to notice is that although Wesley was searching and searching for the personal faith he knew was a reality for so many, it was, in the end, God who gave him that faith. Wesley didn’t manufacture it himself. He wasn’t working himself up at an emotional revival meeting. He was just sitting listening to a sermon on the Epistle to the Romans! And God acted.
I’ve seen that happen, too. I remember once, many years ago, a group of us were sitting in a café, singing Christian songs, when quite suddenly the words we were singing became real to one of the group in a totally new and different way. I’ve long since lost touch with that person, and have no idea whether she still follows Jesus or not, but I will not forget how it suddenly became totally real to her.
But that young woman had been coming to Church, and joining in our fellowship, for several weeks. I can’t remember whether she’d been a churchgoer at home, or university, or whatever – this was in Paris, and a great many young people came to the church to meet other English people.
I did, myself, for that matter! And for many years I assumed that I had not been a Christian before I went to that church, and heard someone preach on “Behold, I stand at the door and knock”.... but, when I looked back, I realised that in fact, I had experienced a call to preach some years earlier than that, when I was about fifteen! And I had been a regular attender at Church – usually because I had to, because it was required when I was at school, but also at the voluntary mid-week Communion services the school held occasionally, where I acted as a server. I know my Confirmation was very real and special to me, too. I reckon that what happened that October evening was a huge milepost on my Christian journey, but it was a milepost on the road, not the start of that journey!
Of course, the start of a journey to faith is just that, a start. Like Abraham and Sarah, from our first reading, we have to carry on. Jesus told Nicodemus that we need to be born from anew, but it’s always so sad when people have a baby who simply doesn’t develop and grow, but remains an infant throughout life. As Christians, we need to be open to allowing God to grow and change us, to become the people he created us to be, the people he designed us to be. Abraham was told to get up and move to the land God would show him, and God would bless him abundantly, in a way that perhaps would not have been possible had Abraham remained in Ur. And we know how Abraham believed God, and he and his brother Lot got up and travelled, leaving a very comfortable and civilised life in Ur to become nomads, travellers. And were blessed enormously by God, despite all sorts of trials and tribulations, times when they lacked faith, times when they sinned, all sorts of awfulnesses.
But there again, it was God’s idea. Abraham didn’t just suddenly decide that he’d abandon his settled life and go off into the desert in the hope that God would bless him for doing so. God told Abraham to go, and that if he went, he would be made great.
Sometimes, we who are Christians forget that it’s all God’s idea. We act as though our relationship with God depended totally on us. It doesn’t. It depends far more on God. “For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” God has far more invested in the relationship than we do, no matter how committed we are. God loves us far more than we love him! And God’s love is constant, unremitting, and never, ever grows cold. We can be very variable in our faith, but God never changes. There are times when we move away from God – and you can practically see the Good Shepherd donning Barbour and wellies to go off in search of us!
Of course, there are those people who say “No” to God. As C S Lewis once said, if people go on refusing to say “Thy will be done”, eventually God will, with great sadness, say “All right, have it your own way!” But that, I think, does not apply to any of us here. We have said “Yes” to Jesus, we have said, like Martha, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the son of God, who has come into this world.”
And we know, deep in our hearts, that “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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
Thanks be to God.