There is nothing about me that resembles an evangelical preacher (you’ll either be glad or disappointed that I’m not even going to try). My great, great uncles were evangelical revivalist preachers in Scotland in the late 1800s but I of course never heard them preach. As a teenager, I spent time in a charismatic United Church youth group in Richmond led by a minister awakened by the North American wave of revivalist tent meetings decades earlier, but I didn’t adopt their exuberance. So I have no soft-back bible in hand; no tall stool to perch on.
Some of these are stereotypes and some of these are facts but the truth is that evangelical preaching is not something I ever learned to do.
So, I don’t know what an evangelical preacher might say to you about John 3:1-17. What he (and it would be he) might have leaned over the pulpit to declare decades ago when our United Churches had plenty of evangelical preachers, or what he (because it’s still most often ‘he’) might lean forward to explain today. I don’t know what phrases he’d pull out of the text to patiently unpack, what words he’d knowledgably translate from the Greek, or THE cross-references to the epistles he’d make by memory. But I can make a guess about WHY he would do any or all of these things. The heart of evangelical faith is a desire to bring Jesus closer to anyone who is reaching for him, to help them over the threshold from wondering about Jesus to knowing him – knowing him and experiencing, through the Holy Spirit, his life-saving company.
Looking out at us, the evangelist might see Nicodemus. He might see in us the very quandary this follower, or at least admirer, of Jesus represents in John’s gospel. Even though, in Jesus, the Light had come into the world, Nicodemus is fumbling in the dark. Not for lack of interest or lack of trying, but Nicodemus hasn’t grasped exactly who Jesus is – how he could be who people say he is – the Messiah, the Son of God. So in the dim night of unknowing, Nicodemus makes his way to the Light of the World; goes right to Jesus’ door to seek illumination first hand.
And Jesus willingly enlightens him. If only it were that simple. Sometimes it is. Jesus could see that Nicodemus is trying to sort out Jesus’ identity based on what he already knew. So when Jesus starts up about new birth, introduces this wild notion of being born from above, born of the Spirit, Nicodemus insists that humans are only born once and they are born of the flesh in the flesh. Nicodemus is earnestly trying to get from A to B – from what he knows about the world to who Jesus is but he can’t make the connection. . . . Maybe you can’t get from A to B without Jesus’ help. Can’t get from the impossibility of faith to the sure promise of faith – “once was blind” to “now I see”, from death to life, without him. Without “first taking Jesus into your own heart,” as Rev. Heather Joy put it.
Maybe that’s so. For those with what we are calling evangelical faith, this is most definitely so. They are convinced that the difference between admiring Jesus and knowing him is like night and day. And for them, as for Nicodemus, JESUS gives them what they need to get from A to B. “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Whatever we think that means, those with evangelical faith in their hearts will remind us not to try to understand it by making Jesus more like us – not to go piecing human experience all over Jesus in order to build our faith logically from the ground up when it comes as a gift from above (by which Jesus meant, from God, the source of life – all things physical and all things spiritual). Don’t be lowering Jesus to your level instead of asking to see him for who he is, the Light of the World, the Word made Flesh, the Bread of Heaven. And if we find that difficult, the way Nicodemus found it difficult, ask for new eyes instead of straining your old ones in the dark. Ask to be born from above because faith doesn’t come by piecing the facts together on the ground, they’ll tell us. Faith is more like a second birth, than a second thought.
Nicodemus had serious questions about being ‘born again.’ We might too. Maybe we don’t have the same objections Nicodemus had, but we may have them nonetheless. Some of you might share my experience of a well-meaning evangelical Christian trying to talk me onto my knees to accept Jesus as my Lord and Saviour. Likely their own very earnest way of helping me get from A to B. I know for a fact that some of you have more painful, even traumatic stories of less charitable attempts at rebirth through repentance from things for which no one need ever repent. Either way, it’s fair to say that some people recoil from ‘being born again’ and Nicodemus had his own reason to object.
Jesus sorts out Nicodemus’ objection by explaining that he isn’t talking about a rebirth of the body. Someone may sort out our objections too, by explaining that Jesus isn’t talking about a re-birth of moral or religious commitments either.
It turns out that rebirth is a good metaphor because faith isn’t an add-on to the life we already have; it IS more like getting a new one; it’s a way of belonging, in the language of John’s gospel, to the Spirit’s life, the life your life sits in the way the world sits in the palm of God’s hand. You don’t reach out and take “life in the Spirit,” you let go and let it take you. . . . If only it were that simple. Sometimes it is.
We cannot, according to this gospel, get a handle on Jesus because faith isn’t what you take, it’s about what you allow to hold you. Evangelicals call it ‘giving your life to Jesus’. You can call it what you like. But it’s not about what YOU take in or take on. It’s about whether you’ll say yes to what’s already holding your life now.
Eternal life, Nicodemus learns, is simply a “yes.” Not a yes to belief because we don’t win God with belief any more than God wins us with proof. A yes to the Living Water. A yes to the Bread of Heaven.
Being born again, born from above, with eternity in our blood, is a yes to living as if the Spirit is our parent as much as our earthly mother is. It is a yes to living as if you belong to Jesus because you do. You’re the one he came for, remember?
Maybe now, the evangelical preacher would open up the bible to read this (chpt 3 vs 16): For God so loved the world. So loved it. Loved it not with affection but with abandon, with utter self-offering, with letting go of the beloved Son, sending Him into the world. “For God so loved” that God “sent” God “surrendered.” Let go to save. ‘Save’ here is a word that means to make whole, to make healthy, to be the salve for the world’s suffering and pain. God so loved, that Jesus came into the world to make it whole, to make us whole. He came here for you, to be your Way, your Truth and your Life, to be Water in the desert, Light in the darkness — the preacher would explain. So just say yes.
And they do. The messengers of good news among us are full of the yes of faith. They will tell you in their own words, of the time they lost their way and said YES to the one who searches for the lost – the lost coin, the lost sheep, the lost soul. When you’re left holding nothing, they’ll tell you, it’s simple to decide to be held instead. They will tell of the time the prognosis was bad, and they carried within them a prayerful YES to the one who promises to be with us to the end. When you can’t save yourself, they’ll tell you, it’s easy to fall into God’s hands instead. Sometimes it IS that simple. They might tell you about breaking their own promise to themselves again, but keeping their promised YES to the One whose forgiveness sets them free. When you know you didn’t earn your life, they’ll tell you, it’s easy to see it for the gift that it is. It’s truly that simple. They’ll testify to knowing that their lost child is held in the YES they have pledged to the One who abandons no one. When you know you’re powerless to save, they’ll assure you, it’s easy to surrender what you love to Love itself. It’s simple because it’s all there is.
The messengers of good news bring angel-like tidings of joy. Filled with the Spirit, they are bearers of the gospel of Jesus – not because they have figured out how to get from A to B, but because they have opened their hearts in a “yes” of thanks and praise to receive what has been offered.
Looking at them, saying yes looks simple→ because sometimes it is. Because God so loved this world, yes. Yes to being born again and again and again into this life-saving love.
Let us pray (underscored):
Jesus, you brought Light and Life into the world. You wait while we search for what you have already offered us. Open our hearts and come into our lives. By the Spirit, birth us again and again in your image, to be filled with your light. Shape our lives into the holy ‘yes’ to your life-saving love. Open the eyes of our hearts to your presence, we pray, in your beloved name.