May 30, 2021

John 3:1-17

“Born of the Spirit”

For a number of years, I used to volunteer to serve as the Chaplain at Camp Christopher during the Senior Teen Camp – the week at camp for high school students. I enjoyed the engagement with the teen campers, counsellors, and staff in worship, Bible study, and lots of good conversations about life, the universe, and everything.

One of the activities we used to do towards the end of the week was called the Fish Bowl Activity. Over a couple of days, campers were invited to think of questions, write them on a slip of paper, and place them in the fish bowl we had for that purpose. They could be questions about God, the Bible, the church, or anything else at all that they wanted to talk about.

The fish bowl allowed them to raise their questions anonymously (no names attached) but we discussed them together as a group. I would pull out a question and read it aloud. The teens would share their thoughts on each other’s questions, and I would weigh in occasionally when it seemed helpful.

I often think about that fish bowl activity when we read the story about Nicodemus. Nic wasn’t a teenager, just beginning to figure out life and faith and his choices and calling in life, but he had questions and I think he was a bit nervous about asking them (or being seen to be asking them).

The Gospel portrays Nicodemus as a learned man with impressive credentials, describing him not only as a Pharisee but as a “ruler of the Jews,” and Jesus refers to him as “the teacher of Israel.” But he comes to Jesus at night, under the cover of darkness, to have a conversation about who Jesus is.

Mostly we see the Pharisees engaging with Jesus in the daytime in public spaces. They ask him questions there too, but usually with the goal of stumping him, tripping him up, or getting him to say something that will get him in trouble with the authorities. They’re not sincere, honest questions. They’re debate-style questions designed to undermine his message.

But Nicodemus’ question is different. He may not be ready to ask it publicly, in front of his Pharisee colleagues, but I think he’s honestly wondering about who Jesus is and what is Jesus’ connection to God. It’s a good conversation to read about on this first Sunday after Pentecost when we are marking “Trinity Sunday.” After all, this is a day when we also are pondering who Jesus is.

Who is Jesus in relation to God the Father or the Creator of all things? Who is Jesus in relation to the Holy Spirit that is given to him at his Baptism – that same Spirit that is poured out on his followers after Jesus’ death and resurrection?

Neither Jesus nor the Scriptures in general mention the Doctrine of the Trinity. That’s a later theological development within the Christian church that is rooted in Jesus’ teaching and the Scriptures, but goes beyond what the Bible says to try to explain who God is.

“Living Faith,” our Presbyterian statement of belief says this:

Therefore, with the one church universal
we believe in one God, eternal Trinity,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
three in one,
one in three,
equal in power and glory.

God is the Father to whom we come,
the Son through whom we come,
the Spirit by whom we come.

We worship almighty God, the source of all life.

Does that make it perfectly clear? If not, perhaps you can feel for Nicodemus who is just not sure that he’s ready to go out on a limb and declare publicly that Jesus has come from God, or even that Jesus IS God.

Nicodemus does say to Jesus: “Rabbi, 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.”

Technically, it’s not even a question. It’s more like Nicodemus is looking for some kind of confirmation or explanation of the idea that he is coming to believe – that Jesus is more than just a man, but a messenger from God.

And then unfolds a very confusing conversation between the two of them. It’s like they’re speaking different languages or “speaking past each other.”

Jesus tells him that no one will see the Kingdom of God unless they are “born from above” or “born again.” (Those are both valid translations of the Greek word used in the text.) Nicodemus hears only “born again,” takes it literally, and asks how someone can enter again into their mother’s womb after having grown into an adult.

Jesus tries again, saying “No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” He’s not talking about a physical rebirth – like a baby being born out of a mother’s womb. But he’s talking about a spiritual rebirth – a new beginning in which a person receives the Holy Spirit into their life, and is thereby guided to see what God is doing in the world through Jesus and to participate in God’s mission of love.

Unfortunately, Nicodemus still doesn’t understand. The last thing that we hear Nic say in the conversation is to ask the question, “How can these things be?”

I think it’s a bit like Jesus is saying that he can’t give a logical and intellectual proof for the reality that he has indeed come from God. Nicodemus and others may be looking for irrefutable evidence that Jesus is the Son of God before they’re willing to stake their lives on it. But Jesus is saying that it’s a matter of faith, not proof. He’s saying that the Holy Spirit of God blows where it chooses, and it is the Spirit that will help Nic to believe when and if he is born of the Spirit.

Although Jesus’ teachings in this passage do hint at the intimate and dynamic relationship between God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, they should not be mistaken for a theological treatise on the one God in three persons. Instead, in this encounter, Jesus challenges Nicodemus to move from theory to practice, from knowledge to faith, from curiosity to commitment.

It’s not so much a matter of figuring out who Jesus is, but more a matter of following him and learning along the way. It’s not so much a matter of understanding the nature of the Spirit of God, but more a matter of breathing it in and letting it nudge us in new directions. It’s not so much a matter of knowing all the correct names and characteristics of the God who created all things and is the Parent of us all, but more a matter of trusting God and growing in love and thanksgiving with each new discovery.

I don’t know if Nicodemus felt like he had a little more clarity about his questions by the end his conversation with Jesus. Certainly, there were parts of what Jesus was telling him that were going right over his head. But I wonder if he did understand when Jesus told him that “the Son of Man had come down from heaven”? Did he hear Jesus’ promise that whoever believes in him would live forever? Did he notice that Jesus emphasized how deeply God loves the world and all its people, and God’s desire not to condemn us for our failures or our misunderstandings, but to love us and heal us instead?

Does it make you wonder what happened with Nicodemus after that night? Did he come to believe? Did he follow Jesus on the way? Did he receive the gift of the Holy Spirit? We do actually meet Nicodemus a couple more times in the Gospel of John, so we have a few hints.

In chapter seven, there is an argument going on about Jesus’ identity. Some in the crowd that have been listening to him in the temple are saying, “This is really the prophet.” Others are going even further by claiming, “This is the Messiah.” And still others are asking, “Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he?”

Some of the people want Jesus to be arrested for the things he has been saying, but the temple police aren’t ready to do that. The chief priests and the Pharisees do think that Jesus should have been arrested. But in the midst of that conversation, as Jesus’ safety is in question, Nicodemus speaks up: “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”

The others scoff at him. But for the time being at least, they leave Jesus alone.

We don’t hear about Nicodemus again until chapter nineteen, after Jesus has been crucified. We read that “Joseph of Arimathea [a secret disciple of Jesus] asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body.”

And then Nic is back. Verse 39 says this: “Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. [And the two of them] took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom.”

These brief references remind us that Nicodemus hasn’t disappeared. Though he may still be wondering, he’s also still following. He finds the courage to speak up for justice, and he makes the bold step of helping with the burial of Jesus, even though both those things could put his life at risk.

It seems to me that if the Holy Spirit blows where it chooses, it has blown into the life of Nicodemus and he is undergoing a rebirth into God’s Kingdom that comes not by knowledge or doctrine, but by faith. His risky speaking and acting signal a change of heart, the beginning of a transformation, even if he does not yet fully understand who Jesus is.

Friends, no matter where you are at in your knowledge or understanding of God, faith, and theology, I pray that you will keep your hearts open to the Spirit of God. After all, no matter how many Trinity Sundays we celebrate, how many Bible studies we do or theological courses we take, none of us will fully understand the nature of God in this life.

Trust the God who loves you so much as to send the Beloved Child into this world to be with you. Follow Jesus whose way is boundless love, mercy, and welcome to all. And let the Holy Spirit give you the gift of a spiritual rebirth now and the promise of life forever.