Preached at Trinity Protestant Chapel, Canadian Forces Base Borden, The Second Sunday of Lent, 8 March, 2020
Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”John 3:3
Nicodemus wants what we all want in life, a light to guide his steps and good path to follow in life. He comes to Jesus “by night”, and we can’t blame him for seeking out Jesus under cover of darkness, as no doubt many of his friends might want to punish him, a Pharisee, for wanting to seek Jesus.
However, in the symbolically rich gospel of John, everything has more than one level of meaning. That Nicodemus should come “by night” means that he is still of the world, which in chapter 1 of John’s gospel means spiritual ignorance of Jesus: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Nicodemus has the wisdom to perceive that Jesus is something special. He knows, because of the miracles and “signs” that Jesus has done, that this rabbi must somehow come from God and that Jesus must somehow bring “the presence of God” closer to the world.
Jesus is sympathetic to this seeker who has come with sincere questions, but he raises the stakes. It’s not enough, he seems to say, to want to see God, because if you want that, it’s going to be a significant, even life-changing. ”Very truly, I tell you”, Jesus says, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
We need to unpack two things before we go forward. The first is the idea of being born a second time, or being born again, a phrase with ia very specific meaning in certain parts of the Christian tradition today. Nicodemus mistakenly thinks that Jesus is speaking of a second physical birth, which would be impossible. Rather, Jesus speaks of this second birth as a spiritual process, for he says that “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (Jn 3:5).
I think it’s fair to say that for many Christians, the idea of being “born again” is part of the conscious decision to become a believer, to accept Jesus as Saviour via a personal decision, and thus to become saved. For some parts of the church, this belief maps to practices of baptism (being born of water and Spirit) that one must seek out, and understand, as an adult. Other churches might baptize the very young, and then encourage them to grow in understanding and faith as they journey through life.
I think one can make a case either way, but if there is a trap that Christians sometimes fall into, it is to stress human agency in the process of belief. We, like Nicodemus, seek Jesus out, we decide what to believe, and we then somehow force the Spirit’s hand through our conscious declaration and act of will.
In fact, if we look at the famous ending of today’s gospel reading, John 3 verses 16 and 17, all the agency is in fact found with God. Look at the verbs: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Likewise in verse 17, the operative verb is send, even if it is phrased in the negative. The human decision to believe – “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Jn 3:17) – can only be made in response to God sending his Son into the world, and the transformation that believe entails can only be achieved through the power of the Spirit, which God as Trinity, three persons on one, sends into the world along with the Son.
To sum up my first point, then, we can only believe because God allows us to believe, by making knowledge of God possible in Christ, and we only receive the power to believe and to be changed because God sends the Spirit, which remakes us as new beings with a second birth. The power and the initiative are all God’s. We only believe and we only are changed because of the Spirit. Understanding these points, I think, saves us from thinking that religion and even salvation is a human project that we achieve by doing certain things. If there is anything we do in all of this, I would say, it is only to be open to the work of the Spirit. The rest is God’s work.
My second point has to do with the church as the place where God’s action of salvation comes to us. Jesus tells Nicodemus “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (Jn 3:3). The phrases “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” are used repeatedly in the gospels to mean, I think, something like “the world as God wants it to be”. Think of the parables, where Jesus repeatedly says “the kingdom of God/heaven is like …”, and where some veiled truth about God’s way of doing things follows.
If we look around us, right now, do we not see something of the kingdom of heaven? I’m not speaking of this physical building, which belongs to the Armed Forces and government of Canada, but rather of the believers herein, the body of Christ as it gathers in this one specific place on a specific date, just as it has gathered across space and time for two thousand plus years. And indeed, where else, in our earthly lives, can we hope to see the kingdom of God if not in the church?
The church, after all, is called into being by the Spirit at Pentecost, as we learn in the Book of Acts. The church is told by Jesus in the Great Commission at the end of the gospels to go and make disciples, and the church is given the Spirit to baptize those disciples. The church is in every respect dependent upon the work of the Spirit for its vitality. Indeed, the order of the creeds, the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds, asks us first to believe in the Holy Spirit before we are asked to believe in the church. As Stanley Hauerwas notes, “The grammar of the Creeds means we first and foremost believe in the Holy Spirit and because of the work of that Spirit we also believe in the existence of the church”. Without the Spirit, there is no church, and without the church, there is no way to see the Kingdom of God.
The church is the church, whether it is a grand historic cathedral, a suburban big-box mega-church with a flashing neon sign, or a Canadian Forces chapel such as this one. We could meet in a field, or a living room, or a school gym. The size of the building, its furnishings, its denomination and organization, the flavour of its worship or liturgy, are irrelevant if that church remembers, and again I quote Hauerwas, that it’s “first order business … is to be a people who under the guidance of the Spirit point the world to Jesus Christ”
That’s the mission of the church – of any church, parish, or chapel – “to be a people who under the guidance of the Spirit point the world to Jesus Christ”. As we move into our Annual General Meeting after our worship this morning, and ask ourselves what the goals and projects of Trinity should be in the year to come, we would do well to guide all our discussions by this simple question – how will Trinity, in obedience to the work of the Spirit, point the world to Christ and so reveal the word of God to this Base and to this surrounding community?
So we will have our meeting and make out plans, realizing that our congregation, like every Canadian Forces chapel, is transient. People come, and people go. Chaplains and leaders can make plans, hope to accomplish goals, evangelize, build programs – and yet that chaplain may be gone within months of receiving a posting message. But if we in this military chapel are transient, well, so too is the Holy Spirit, which, as Jesus says, blows like the wind. Who knows what work God will send us from here to do? Who will God send here to take our places, to carry on our work, or to do something new? God’s work, like the wind, is restless and ongoing.
So while today we do certain administrative things – meet, approve a budget and programs, etc, we do so with a healthy trust in the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that Christ promises will work in God’s church in ways that we might not fully anticipate or understand. Who knows who will come to this place in a year or two, or what crisis might bring them here, seeking the comfort, love, and saving power of God? Only the Spirit knows these things and the Spirit, thank God, leads, guards, and inspires in ways that cannot be predicted.
Note: The references to Hauerwas are from his essay “How the Holy Spirit Works”, Chapter Two of his book, The Work of Theology (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2015).