Scripture - John 3:1-18
The scripture passage that we’ll be hearing today is one appointed for Trinity Sunday - the day we pay particular attention to the doctrine of the Trinity - God in three persons, three in one and one in three (as I shared with the kids). Interestingly enough, the word Trinity never appears in the Bible. The doctrine of the Trinity evolved over centuries of conflict and controversy as an attempt to understand how Jesus was fully 100% God and the Holy Spirit was fully 100% God and yet there is only one God and how can Jesus be God’s Son and still 100% God and have co-created the world and how can God send the Holy Spirit into the world and so on and so on. It’s often pointed to as one of the deep mysteries of the Christian faith - and many passages in the New Testament mention all three aspects of this Trinue God without going into detail explaining how they all work together. This passage we’ll be hearing from the Gospel of John is one of those places in Scripture where we see God, Jesus, and the Spirit all at play.
The text contains some verses that I suspect are familiar to many of us here - that of John 3:16 - and we’ve all got a lot of thoughts about what that verse means to us. So to allow a fresh perspective, I’ve chosen to read these verses from a different translation, which may open us to other meanings of the text.
As we hear these words, I invite you to take a moment, to breathe, to perhaps close your eyes, and to notice what catches your attention as we hear about this encounter that Jesus has with Nicodemus - one who has sought out Jesus - for this conversation.
John 3:1-18 (The Message)
3 1-2 There was a man of the Pharisee sect, Nicodemus, a prominent leader among the Jews. Late one night he visited Jesus and said, “Rabbi, we all know you’re a teacher straight from God. No one could do all the God-pointing, God-revealing acts you do if God weren’t in on it.”
3 Jesus said, “You’re absolutely right. Take it from me: Unless a person is born from above, it’s not possible to see what I’m pointing to—to God’s kingdom.”
4 “How can anyone,” said Nicodemus, “be born who has already been born and grown up? You can’t re-enter your mother’s womb and be born again. What are you saying with this ‘born-from-above’ talk?”
5-6 Jesus said, “You’re not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to this original creation—the ‘wind-hovering-over-the-water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. When you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can’t see and touch—the Spirit—and becomes a living spirit.
7-8 “So don’t be so surprised when I tell you that you have to be ‘born from above’—out of this world, so to speak. You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by the wind of God, the Spirit of God.”
9 Nicodemus asked, “What do you mean by this? How does this happen?”
10-12 Jesus said, “You’re a respected teacher of Israel and you don’t know these basics? Listen carefully. I’m speaking sober truth to you. I speak only of what I know by experience; I give witness only to what I have seen with my own eyes. There is nothing secondhand here, no hearsay. Yet instead of facing the evidence and accepting it, you procrastinate with questions. If I tell you things that are plain as the hand before your face and you don’t believe me, what use is there in telling you of things you can’t see, the things of God?
13-15 “No one has ever gone up into the presence of God except the One who came down from that Presence, the Son of Man. In the same way that Moses lifted the serpent in the desert so people could have something to see and then believe, it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up—and everyone who looks up to him, trusting and expectant, will gain a real life, eternal life.
16-18 “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under the death sentence without knowing it. And why? Because of that person’s failure to believe in the one-of-a-kind Son of God when introduced to him.
*Hymn - He Came Down (FWS 2085)
Water and rebirth. God’s love of the world. Salvation. Eternal life (as many translations would note it). This story of Nicodemus’s encounter with Jesus is rich with metaphors and symbols and ideas that are central to our understanding of the Christian faith - from the movement of God’s Holy Spirit to the impact of God’s kingdom to what it means to have a whole and lasting life in Christ. We see the dance between Nicodemus and Jesus - one a prominent religious leader within an established religious sect, and one a virtual nobody from Nazareth… one who speaks literally and concretely, and one who speaks in parables and metaphors… one who can’t seem to move beyond the tangible, material world, and one who sees the stuff of the Spirit, who points to the reality of God’s kingdom.
In this conversation we have one of Christianity’s most beloved verses - some of us may be able to recite it by heart. “For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” I learned it in Sunday School - King James Version - with that beautiful poetic cadence that sticks in your memory. It’s a verse appears to state fairly plainly and straightforwardly what God sent Jesus out to do and what our response should be - believe in Jesus and in return you get everlasting life. Simple, right? Everlasting life - meaning your ticket to heaven - based on a personal acceptance that Jesus is who he says he is - the son of God - sent here to save sinners one by one from eternal punishment.
Yet it’s a bit more complicated than that. I remember the first time I learned that verse 16 was followed by a verse 17. It wasn’t due to negligence on the part of my early childhood Sunday School teachers - I mean, John 3:16 is pretty memorable on its own. I was in high school and part of the adult choir at my home church, and the anthem was John Stainer’s “God So Loved the World” - which gorgeously sets these two verses to music. “16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.”
And then came the realization that these two verses - two verses that we place so much weight and meaning upon - are part of a whole conversation that Jesus is having, and that you can’t fully appreciate the complexity of these statements without taking into consideration the context out of which these famous lines come.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of night. He is struggling to fit Jesus into his worldview and can’t do so publicly because of his prominent social standing within the Jewish community. He clearly understands that God’s presence is uniquely with Jesus and that Jesus himself reveals and points to God in his teaching, in his acts, and in his very being. But there’s one key component missing - this nature of rebirth -- a process that Nicodemus can’t help but think literally about even as Jesus spells it out in spiritual terms - being born from above, submission to the life of the spirit, being reformed and reshaped from within into a life that we live in the present moment...into the reality of God’s Kingdom all around us, not just for an afterlife removed from this world, but for the sake a world in the process of redemption. But to see it and be a part of it? Rebirth is part of the package.
This spiritual rebirth - it’s not something that you can get right, or earn, or work yourself into, probably much to Nicodemus’s dismay. After all, he’s the model religious figure - a devout man, who knew the right prayers and could say the right things and perform the right rituals - and even recognized many right things about Jesus - but couldn’t quite make the leap with what Jesus was saying. This all leads up to the moment where Jesus declares: “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed...that those who believe are not condemned….that anyone can have a whole and lasting life.”
Walter Bruggeman has this to say about that moment:
“Nicodemus - and his whole people - are invited into a second birth where they are not condemned, but beloved, redeemed, reconciled, made whole. Being born again is to learn to live with the staggering freedom of being fully the beloved. That birth in turn entails love of the light, to be pulled out of the world of calculation into utter gospel-given, peaceable freedom and well-being. The birth is a shock because Nicodemus never dreamed of who he could yet be.”
This….this is the invitation for the whole world. For the cosmos. For the whole universe which God created.
For God so loved the world.
This is why we can’t assume that 3:16 only refers to a person’s individual quest to gain this everlasting, eternal life -- which, by the way, the hearers of John’s gospel would have taken eternal life to mean a full life in the present. Belief isn’t about intellectual assent to a set of statements, it isn’t about ascribing to a rigid set of rules or even about confidence in God’s promises. It’s about relationship - about rebirth in the spirit - about that inward transformation of the heart that comes from God’s radical love incarnate through Jesus Christ. Nicodemus draws near to Jesus only to discover that in the cosmic scheme of things, Jesus is the one who draws near to him...to all of humankind...to all of creation, to offer the knowledge and assurance of being fully loved by God - not because of right statements or correct beliefs or good acts...and not despite the uglier parts of our reality like violence, hatred, apathy, fear and sin. God draws near to us in Jesus out of love for our actual world...for our actual lives…broken and messy and beautiful and wonderful as they are. God draws near to us in Jesus and embraces us in love not for anything we do or don’t do...or for anything we aspire to be...but simply because we exist.
What good news that is for all of us Nicodemuses of the world - and we good religious people are like that….wanting to do the right things, say the right things, show our devotion to God in the proper way. What freedom there is in knowing that we can’t work our way into greater favor with God, that we can’t earn God’s love, that we can’t checkmark our good Christian to-do list and think that it makes any bit of difference for our place in God’s great kingdom.
John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Movement, had this to say about being born again, from his sermon The New Birth. He says, “Be you baptized or unbaptized, "you must be born again;" otherwise it is not possible you should be inwardly holy; and without inward as well as outward holiness, you cannot be happy, even in this world, much less in the world to come….Go to church twice a day; go to the Lord's table every week; say ever so many prayers in private; hear ever so many good sermons; read ever so many good books; still, "you must be born again:" None of these things will stand in the place of the new birth; no, nor any thing under heaven.”
God loves the world so much to offer this birth into new life - to each and every one of us - to offer us this birth into restoration and wholeness, into creation as it was intended, into life transformed by the Holy Spirit so that we become those who are fully alive - fully ourselves - fully the people God created each of us to be.
Is this new birth true for you? Some of you may be able to point to a moment in time as to when you decided to claim God’s love for yourselves...for some of you it was more of a journey of slow, incremental change...and perhaps even for some of you, you aren’t there yet...you may not even be fully aware of the path ahead...or may not know you want to be on the path all together. But God’s love for you is unchangeable - it’s constant and abundant and will never waver or falter.
This week, lean into God’s love for you. Take time to sit and remind yourself that the creator of the cosmos loves and cares for you. Take time to remember Jesus who came so that all may know and experience that love for themselves. Take time to invite the Holy Spirit to lead you to the heart of that love, and let it transform your spirit and make you more whole - so that the world may know more fully of God’s great deep and abiding love. Amen.
Acts 10:44-48 (The Message)
44-46 No sooner were these words out of Peter’s mouth than the Holy Spirit came on the listeners. The believing Jews who had come with Peter couldn’t believe it, couldn’t believe that the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out on “outsider” non-Jews, but there it was—they heard them speaking in tongues, heard them praising God.
46-48 Then Peter said, “Do I hear any objections to baptizing these friends with water? They’ve received the Holy Spirit exactly as we did.” Hearing no objections, he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
Then they asked Peter to stay on for a few days.
What happens when the Holy Spirit’s agenda is not the same as our agenda?
When we lived in Haverhill, Ben and I did a lot of small group ministry out of our home. Often two or three nights a week, we had people gather around our dining room table to share a meal before diving into some activity together in the living room - studying a passage of scripture, talking about ways to serve our community, praying for one another, or some other faith formation experience. One favorite of ours was a question Bible Study, where we read a passage together, and then everyone would write down questions they had about the passage on strips of paper and then we’d organize the questions and talk about the text from there.
One particular evening, we had gathered in our living room with a mix of folks; there was Ken, the middle-aged, middle class business man, there was Patrick, the chronically anxious guy with severe depression who sweated bullets every time he mustered up enough courage to speak, there was Jennifer, a woman in recovery who also suffered short-term memory loss due to a brain injury and who worked overnights at a group home, there was Adam and his fiance Sarah, both of whom wrestled with health and weight issues and struggled to keep consistent employment. We had Bob - another guy in recovery who had just gotten out of jail and was working at the Salvation Army, and his friend John, another ex-felon in recovery who was struggling to find his way. We also had Jared and Cameron, friends who were baristas, in their twenties, trying to figure out life and taking their first steps into adulthood.
We were doing our question Bible study. I don’t remember the passage. I don’t remember if it was Ben or me who was leading that night. But we had gathered all the strips of paper with the questions on them and started reading them aloud, one after the other. And one question was clearly not like the others, so much so that it was tempting to ignore it -- because this was a Bible Study night, and this was not a Bible Study question. But whoever had put the question in would know that their question hadn’t been read aloud, and so the words came out.
The question was this: Why does my life suck so much?
Given the life circumstances of the people in that room, with everything they were dealing with in their lives, that question could have belonged to anybody. But as if on cue, all the heads in the room, at the same time, turned toward Adam, who was sitting on the couch, his head hanging low. It was Adam’s second or third time with us, but in that moment, he shared with his depression, his strained relationship with his daughter’s mother, and a whole host of other issues he was dealing with.
So instead of proceeding with what we had planned, instead of running off of that “good Bible study script” that we were trained how to do, we stopped - as a group - to be with Adam -- to listen to him, to pray for and with him - to honor his struggling and wrestling… to offer him the group’s support and love. The Holy Spirit had a different plan for that evening - and in that moment, we were able to notice enough of what was going to follow the Spirit’s lead and to put aside what we thought was supposed to happen.
When the Spirit acts, we pay attention, and that’s what we have in this passage from the book of Acts this morning. To give you the context of what is going on, we have to back up the story a bit. It starts with a man named Cornelius, a Gentile - a Roman centurion - who lives in Caesarea, who is a God-fearer. One day he sees an angel of the Lord, who tells him to call for Simon Peter, and so he sends some men to fetch Peter from Joppa which is about 30 miles away from Caesarea.
While the men are on their way, the scene shifts and we have Peter going up to the roof to pray around lunchtime and he sees this sheet descend from heaven with all kinds of four-footed creatures and birds and reptiles on it. He hears a voice saying, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.” Peter protests, and the voice insists, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happens three times and Peter is pretty bewildered by what has happened.
In the meantime, these messengers arrive from Cornelius, and Peter goes with them, along with some of the faithful from Joppa. When they get to Cornelius’s house, Peter starts to put two and two together - the sheet, the unclean animals, the Gentile household, and realizes that something bigger than himself is going on here; that God might be trying to tell him that the Gentiles - who were considered by Jews to be unclean - were not actually profane or unclean...and, in fact, God might actually be including them in this new way of life in Christ. He launches into a sermon to that effect, about how God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with power -- and right in the middle of his speech, the Holy Spirit descends and we have these Gentiles speaking in tongues, praising God. The Jewish believers who came with Peter can’t believe it, but neither do they have any problem when Peter asked “Do I hear any objections to baptizing these friends with water? They’ve received the Holy Spirit exactly as we did.”
The Holy Spirit cannot be contained or controlled, and has a tendency to move in ways we haven’t thought possible….and even move out in the world, out beyond the bounds of the church.
We got an inkling of that last week - where the Holy Spirit was working in an Ethiopian eunuch, a man who was clearly an outsider because of his status as a eunuch, and the spirit connected him with Philip and led him to desire the waters of baptism and inclusion into the fold. This week, we see how the Holy Spirit erased the distinction Jews had set up between themselves and the Gentiles, to the shock and surprise and - perhaps even discomfort - of the good, observant Jews who had come with Peter to Caesarea. We see the Holy Spirit moving out in the wider world, not confined to the Apostles and their followers, but working in hearts and communities to bring them into relationship with God... breaking the traditions of these early Jewish Jesus followers wide open as it did so.
Peter was able to see what was happening; God had been working in him to bring him to the point of being able to follow when the winds of the Spirit descended; he had been listening and paying attention, pondering the vision he had, and trusting that somehow it would all come together when the moment was right. So when the Holy Spirit showed up, he was able to name what was happening for those around him, put the pieces together, and be about the work of extending God’s kingdom.
It makes me think - where might the Holy Spirit be moving in this congregation today? Where might the Holy Spirit be working out in our community that we as a church need to get in on? What is God trying to say to us through the Holy Spirit that we need to pay attention to?
I’ve only lived here for not even three years yet, so what I see and what I hear about life on our island may be different or incomplete as some of you who have grown up here or who have summered here or who have had a longer connection to this place. But what I do know is that Chebeague is changing. The older generation is passing away, and with them leaves much of the island’s history, its stories and its identity. There is so much grief - both in missing those loved ones in our community and in the way of life that seems to be slipping away with each passing. There is worry and anxiety around who will fill the shoes of these matriarchs and patriarchs and carry on the traditions of this place...there’s worry and anxiety that change is happening too fast; that people are burning out because they are tapped for too many committees with too many organizations, that the way we are doing things is unsustainable. In and amongst all this, we face the same issues that many communities face all over - with neighbors who live in poverty, wrestle with food insecurity, addiction, or mental illness.
At the same time, new families are moving to the island, wanting to build a life here, looking for year-round housing and for a caring community. There’s something here in this place that draws people to its shores. People are looking for a community that reminds them of a simpler time, a less hurried and frantic pace, that invites you to slow down and to get to know your neighbors. Now - we aren’t like that all the time - especially as we head into the summer season - but so many people who come to this place - to this island - want to come back. Such an influx of people brings mixed blessings - new ideas and new energies...and new ideas and new energies that aren’t the same as what we’re used to.
The church - our church - seems to be caught between these two realities….between reliving what has been and is no more, and the energy of the new and possibile; between the desire to cling fast to what seems to be slipping through our fingers and the desire to open our hands and let go to receive new dreams and visions, between memorializing our ancestors in a mausoleum and standing on their shoulders to step boldly into what our church - and our community - can be together.
Church historian Rosemary Radford Reuther has this to say about the church - that it must be organized to do two things:
The tradition that Reuther speaks of is a living tradition - it’s the tradition of being faithful to Jesus, of following the risen Christ, of spreading the work of God’s kingdom and making that kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven...and our task is to see how that faith comes alive with each new group of people it takes root in; and it may look similar to ours...and it may look very different.
Incidentally, passing along this tradition is something that we as a church believe is important as well - one of the core values of our life together is Rootedness - We believe that new shoots come from strong roots. The winds of change may blow, but our roots sustain us and enable us to grow and flourish. Our traditions, faith, and connection to this island give us strength to pass on the seeds of love to the next generation.
Peter’s rootedness - in the rich tradition of the Jewish faith, in his dedication to Christ, in his listening to the Holy Spirit - enabled him to see this new thing that God was doing. In that moment, Peter chose not to run off of the established scripts of his tradition to try and manage the work of God; he didn’t make them take membership classes or memorize doctrine or convert to Judaism, as would have been the tradition at the time. Peter chose the work of the kingdom, the new opportunities and possibilities God was opening up with the inclusion of the Gentiles into this new faith community.
Like Peter, we are challenged not to run off old scripts, but instead we are invited to chose the work of the kingdom, to see what God is doing, to be open to the winds of the Holy Spirit to see where new energies, new possibilities - where the kingdom is sprouting forth in our community. We’re invited to tend our rootedness in faith - through prayer and study - and continually be seeking what the spirit might be saying to the church in our present time and place.
I invite us this week to prayerfully consider as we think about where we are as a congregation and where our island community is right now: what might God be saying to us through the Holy Spirit about who we’re called to be as a church? What old scripts might we need to ignore in favor of the living tradition of faith? Where do we need to give up our agenda in favor of that of the Holy Spirit’s?
I don’t have answers as to the challenges we face or the opportunities that might present themselves - maybe none of us do right now - but we have the Holy Spirit, and the ability to prayerfully listen - and to respond to our community out of that place of openness and discernment rather than out of fear or pain, and to choose God’s kingdom work for our community. May we seek to follow that Spirit this week, in all that we do. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and three year old son and 6 month old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.