First Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday
June 15, 2003
The Gospel: John 3:1-16
Sermon: "Enlightenment: Born Again or Born From Above"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
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 Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' 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." 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."
Enlightenment: Born Again or Born From Above
First Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday - June 15, 2003
I love the Indiana Jones movies. I particularly love the last one where Harrison Ford and Sean Connery play the major roles. In the film they are in search of the Holy Grail, the cup of Christ. Part of the reason I like this film so much is due to by Sean Connery. He has spent his whole life trying to find the Holy Grail. The cup has been his life's quest. In the film he delivers two lines which are wonderful.
The first line occurs when he is talking to Harrison Ford about three traps developed to protect the Grail. He tells his son these traps are present and they are lethal. Harrison Ford asks how to defeat them. With a huge smile on his face, Sean Connery replies, "I don't know. We'll find out when we get there." The second line occurs at the end. The cup has been lost forever. For Harrison Ford the search has ended badly. Harrison Ford looks at Sean Connery and apologizes for losing the Grail. Then he asks him what he got out of the search. Sean Connery's reply is wonderful. He says one word, "Enlightenment."
I realize Sean Connery and Harrison Ford are actors. They are looking for the mythical cup of Christ shared by the disciples at the Last Supper. But the character played by Sean Connery in this film could easily be patterned after Nicodemus. Both of them are searching for something. Both of them know some of the answers. But both of them are still somewhat in the dark.
In Sean Connery's role he is a very learned man. He is highly educated. He is on a quest for truth. He doesn't know or understand all of the answers. He searches around for the answers and the clues like a man stumbling in the dark.
Nicodemus is also a very learned man. He is a member of the Sanhedrin. He is well versed in The Law of Moses. He too, is on a search, a search for truth. He is stumbling in the dark looking for answers. He comes to Jesus looking for the truth. He comes to Jesus because he feels he knows the truth.
Nicodemus is a little scared though. He comes to Jesus at night. He doesn't want others to see him. In the Gospel of John, darkness has another meaning. Darkness means separation from the presence of God. Nicodemus is searching for the presence of God. He is blind. He doesn't realize the presence of God is sitting right in front of him. Nicodemus is searching for enlightenment.
As Nicodemus and Jesus begin their conversation, Nicodemus recognizes Jesus as a teacher and prophet of God. His actions of teaching and healing are what has drawn Nicodemus to Jesus. Nicodemus has seen these acts and has been drawn to Jesus like a moth to a flame. Nicodemus knows Jesus has the answers to his questions.
Like the character of Sean Connery, Nicodemus is stumbling around in the dark. Not only is he physically in the dark, he is unable to comprehend the spiritual dimension of his conversation with Jesus. He comes to Jesus and wants answers. Jesus' first reply holds the key to his quest. However, he doesn't understand the response. Regrettably, we usually do not understand the response either. We do not understand because of the subtlety of the Greek language as it is translated into English. Jesus tells Nicodemus, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." The two words "from above" come from the Greek word anothen. Anothen has multiple meanings. The word means "from above", "again" and "anew". All three meanings are possible. What we tend to do is take one of the meanings and make it fit. Nicodemus does the same thing. In the conversation with Jesus he interprets the word to mean again. He interprets it literally as a physical rebirth. We might interpret it the same way. How can we be born again? How can we say or do anything differently to change our birth status?
However, Jesus is not talking about a physical rebirth. He is talking about a spiritual birth. This birth comes through the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit of God. The third part of the Trinity, God's Spirit, comes to us and brings us out of darkness into the light. The Spirit of God moves us from the ways of the world into the ways of God. We are moved from darkness to light, from absence to presence, from death to life. Through the power of the Spirit we begin to understand that the ways of God are better than the ways of the world.
The ways of the world are selfishly oriented. I'll give you yours as long as I can get mine first is the bottom line of the world. Many of our corporate systems are set up this way. That is why we call it climbing the corporate ladder. In a ladder system there is always somebody below you. Unless you are at the very top, there is always someone above you. Many of our school systems are being set up this way across our country. Political lines are being drawn following this pattern. Name the system, large or small, and somewhere in it this pattern can be found. It may be corporately or it may be within individuals who want to come out on top.
But the way of God is different. They way of God puts love of God and others first. This way doesn't mean that we don't love ourselves. This way shifts the priority. This way moves the priority away from self to the other. We give to other the same love God has already given to us. This action is accomplished through the power of the Spirit. When we begin to act in this manner we are truly born again and born from above. For we can not accomplish this task by ourselves. To truly love as God loves us requires the presence of God in our lives. To be willing to love the other to the extent that we would deny ourselves creature comforts, the added extras, and possibly even our own lives requires God's presence within us. Because to follow this way means we have turned away from the ways of the world.
Sean Connery says he found enlightenment when he found the Holy Grail. He knew the presence of God was real in the film at that point. Nicodemus also found enlightenment in his conversation with Jesus. He would stand and support Jesus in front of the Sanhedrin on the night Jesus was arrested. He may not have realized the answer on this night in our reading, but he did at some time. He could not have stood before that body and defended Jesus if he had not received the Spirit of God. We, too, can be born anothen. We received the baptism by water. We can receive and have received the Holy Spirit. Now, we take the power of the Holy Spirit into the world within us. We move and live our lives in the way of God. We move and live our lives with love. AMEN.