Sermon text as prepared for delivery at First Congregational UCC in Ithaca, NY on March 20, 2011
Introduction to Text
At many public events you’ll find someone holding a sign reading “John 3:16,” a Bible verse that has taken on a meaning of its own in our culture. It’s easy for us to think we know what a verse or passage means based on cultural wisdom. If we take this verse out of its context, we miss out on a very interesting story. One thing to note in this narrative is the translators’ choice of how to translate the Greek word Pneuma. This word can be translated spirit, breath, or wind. Because this word carries all three meanings, I will use the word Pneuma in this text, rather than the English translators’ choice. When you hear the word Pneuma, know that it means spirit, breath, and wind.
The text: John 3:1-17
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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.”
Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Pneuma. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Pneuma is Pneuma. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The Pneuma blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Pneuma.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?
No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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. Indeed, God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Will you pray with me?
O God, fill us with your Pneuma. Help us to notice your spirit blowing throughout creation and in every breath we take. And may my words and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing to you, O God, our Rock, and our Redeemer. Amen.
We are only 3 chapters into the gospel of John - the first chapter sets up some important themes around belief in Jesus, who immediately gathers some disciples to follow him. In the second chapter, Jesus is portrayed as a miracle worker who can change water into wine (although he only seems to have done it because his mama insisted), and as a zealot seeking to cleanse the temple in Jerusalem. He is a complex figure, to say the least.
Then we come to Nicodemus, a spiritual leader in the Jewish community. Has he come to question Jesus in order to test or trap him, as the Pharisees seemed fond of doing? Or to mock him? Or perhaps to gently suggest to Jesus that he ought to calm down a bit and act a bit less sensational? Or is he a genuine seeker?
We will never really know, for as soon as Nick’s words of praise - whether sincere or not - come out of his mouth, Jesus takes the conversation in a completely different direction. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Wait. What? That’s not what I came here to talk to you about. But what do you even mean? “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Seriously, Jesus, you are making no sense here!
But Jesus goes on, determined to push Nicodemus to consider a more basic truth - the way to recognize the reign of God is to be born from above - and in order to better understand what is meant by birth and belief in the context of John’s gospel, we can look back at John chapter 1.
You may be familiar with the opening of the gospel - “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. This one was with God in the beginning.” This Word, or Logos, of God, then becomes flesh and dwells among us. And all who receive the Logos - who believe in his name - are given power to become children of God, to be born of God.
And in today’s text, Jesus says that we must be born of both water - which my college Greek professor insisted was referring to baptism, but which I think refers to the waters of the womb - and of the Pneuma, the spirit which is our very breath. Born of water - born of the flesh and blood and fluid of a mother’s womb. And born of Pneuma - the Spirit of God, who blows like wind throughout creation, and whose breath gives life to our flesh in every moment. It is not that our flesh and spirit are two different natures, but that we carry within us that which the Word, or Logos, also carried within himself - both the water and the spirit.
The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus continues and they begin talking about belief, and we might wonder what being born of the Pneuma, or spirit, has to do with belief. In the English language, we tend to think of belief as acceptance of something as true. When someone tells us a story that seems far-fetched, we might say, “I don’t believe it.” But we also use it, as the Greek language did, to mean placing our confidence in someone or something. We might tell a child, “I believe in you,” meaning, “I have confidence in you.” And the Greek word for belief, pisteuo, can also mean to commit to or to place trust in.
So, again, what does this have to do with being born from above? When I think of being born, I think of my niece Maaida, at whose birth I was present. When Maaida was placed in her mother’s arms and brought to nurse at her breast, she believed in her mother - she felt complete and utter trust that her mother would hold her and not let her go, and that she would be cared for.
One of the lectionary texts which we did not read today was from Genesis 4, about Abram and Sarai, or Abraham and Sarah. One of the names for God that Abraham fondly used was El Shaddhai - which some scholars translate “God of many breasts.” Like Maaida looking to her mother, Abraham looked to God as his birth mother and his nurturer.
In the world we live in today, it is easy to forget how to be born from above, how to have that childlike trust. We have only to turn on the television, open the paper, pull up the news online, or look at Facebook statuses and Twitter feeds to be reminded that our earth and many of the creatures on the face of the earth are suffering. The U.S. has launched military strikes in Libya, whose people are being abused at the hands of an unrepentant tyrant. Wars continue to rage in Afghanistan and Iraq. And Japan, where there are no words for the devastation brought about by earthquake and tsunami, races to contain the radiation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
And in our own community, loved ones are ill and dying, there are people without enough food to eat, and young people are suffering from alcohol and drug abuse.
I don’t know about you, but all these things and more leave me with a heaviness in my heart and a sense of great sadness.
And I find it easy to be a person of flesh - to ache with sorrow for our hurting world - and to wonder how we can ever get ourselves out of this mess. But to put my trust in God - to be born of the spirit - is a harder thing to do. Nicodemus had a hard time grasping it, too.
A lot of contemporary theology is pretty horrible. Consider the governor of Tokyo, who said that the tsunami was divine punishment. Unfortunately, a theology of “you brought this on yourself” is all too common - when people think God is going around punishing every evil deed or thought with unspeakable destruction - is it any wonder that we have trouble being born of the spirit?
But every once in a while I come across some pretty good theology - this time in music. Natalie Grant, a Christian singer, has a song called “Held.” I’d like to share with you the lyrics of the chorus, which, I think, illustrate what it means to be born of the Pneuma -
This is what it means to be held
How it feels, when the sacred is torn from your life
And you survive
This is what it is to be loved and to know
That the promise was that when everything fell
We'd be held
Even when it seems the world around us is falling apart and there really are no good answers, even when we’re not sure what we can believe in the sense of accepting as fact, we can have pisteuo - belief that is a deeper trust. The wonder of God’s promise is that we are loved, and that when we allow ourselves to be like children, born from above, resting on God’s bosom, we will truly be held. Amen.