This morning’s service at Archway offered a challenge; as the worship would include a time of discussion for our General Church Meeting, the sermon had to be shorter than usual. I also wanted to connect the Gospel reading with the discussion, which would be a SWOT exercise as the first step to producing a new development plan for the church. Although John 3 is often interpreted in an individualistic way, I wanted to suggest how it might be applied to the church as a community.
Today’s service includes our general church meeting, which is an opportunity for us to reflect together on the life of our church. American Methodists have a great name for this; they call it ‘holy conferencing’. We have a particular task to do together, which is to produce a new development plan to guide our ministry and mission over the next five years or so. Later in the service we will be working on an exercise which will help us to take a snapshot of the church and identify issues that need to be addressed as well as opportunities which need to be grasped.
But before we do that, I want to look very briefly at our scripture reading, the story of Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus. It contains a number of verses that are often quoted and lifted out of their context. There are three that I particularly want to focus on now.
3:3 “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Hold on a minute – that doesn’t look quite right. Shouldn’t the end of that sentence read ‘without being born again’? I should know, because I have been asked that question enough times over the years by well-meaning evangelists: are you born again?
The problem is that behind it is one of those tricky Greek words that can be translated more than one way. There’s no doubt that Nicodemus thinks this is what Jesus is saying because he starts going on about going back into the womb and being born all over again. This is not what Jesus means. When Jesus talks about being born from above the origin of this new birth is quite clear: it is of heavenly origin, in other words it is of God. Remember what John the Baptist testifies about Jesus in 1:32: “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.” The Spirit descends… being born from above (or, if you prefer, being “born again”) is the work of the Holy Spirit.
Now let’s turn to the first part of that text: “no one can see the kingdom of God”. In John’s Gospel that little word see is very important. It can mean seeing in the physical sense, but it can also mean seeing in the spiritual sense, what we might call insight or discernment. It can also mean to experience the kingdom of God.
Now this is very important for us as a church if we are trying to discern God’s purpose for us. It is very important if we are trying to live as people of the kingdom. It is very important if we want to see the kingdom becoming a reality in our church and in our lives. If we want to see we have to be open to the Holy Spirit, we have to be born from above.
Remember last week’s reading from Acts chapter 2? It’s Pentecost, the Holy Spirit has swept into the house like fire and wind, the apostles are speaking in all manner of different languages and finally, when it’s started to quieten down a bit, Peter preaches a sermon with his text from the prophet Joel: “God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”
That’s what we need, as we seek to discern God’s vision for us in these next few years.
3:8 “The wind 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 Spirit.”
Last week I preached from the story of Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones. Ezekiel was told to preach to the wind – or was it the breath? If you have an exceptionally good memory you might recall that in Hebrew the same word Ruach can mean wind or breath or spirit. And it’s the same in the Greek language of John’s Gospel. There the word is pneuma. The problem in English is we have to choose which word to use. Jesus says: the wind blows where it chooses, but he might just as well be saying the spirit blows where it chooses. Like the wind, the Spirit of God is mysterious, unpredictable, ever moving, dynamic. Like the wind, you can’t see the Spirit of God, only its effect.
That means that if we, as a church, are to open ourselves to the prompting of the spirit, we may be in for an exciting and unpredictable time. Like an eagle soaring on the currents of the air or a sailing ship opening its sail to the gusting wind the church must be prepared to be carried by the Spirit into new directions and new places.
3:16 “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”.
I could hardly skip over this verse, which is arguably the most quoted verse in the entire Bible. But how does it connect to the rest of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus?
Remember Nicodemus’ opening words: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” That’s a pretty good statement – as far as it goes. Jesus has indeed come from God, but there’s a bigger picture here which Nicodemus and his friends have not yet begun to discern: that Jesus was sent by a loving God as his rescue plan for the world. Love is the driving factor and eternal life is the goal.
The big picture is important. It seems to me that churches often lose the big picture. We tend to focus down on a hundred little practical details: new keys for the front door, fixing the leak in the basement, finding a leader for the Boys’ Brigade, a preacher at church anniversary, a destination for the church outing. Not that these are unimportant, but they can absorb our energy and time to the extent that we forget that there is a bigger picture, a broader vision. We need to turn again to the lesson of John 3:16: Love is the driving factor and eternal life is the goal. We do what we do out of love for God, for other people, for the world God has made. And our goal is life for all people: eternal life, that begins here and now, with a new quality of living, a new relationship with God, so new that it’s like being born again, born anew through the power of the Spirit.
This is what Jesus offers Nicodemus; this is what Jesus still offers people today. Today we begin to consider how this can become a reality in our church, in our community and in our city.