Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Him by night, and said to Him, "Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him." Jesus answered and said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."
Nicodemus said to Him, "How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born, can he?" Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit."
Nicodemus answered and said to Him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered and said to him, "Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak that which we know, and bear witness of that which we have seen; and you do not receive our witness. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how shall you believe if I tell you heavenly things? And no one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven, even the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life.
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
The Christian faith always demands your very best. This is not a statement of the Law, but a description of reality. Christianity is dealing with God, and with the truth about God and His will. Because God is God and more than human, He can do and say and be more than we can conceive of. So, while a little child can know and believe enough to have saving faith, the brightest minds in the world, working at full capacity and brilliance, cannot exhaust what may be known, or understood, or believed, about God - and will never quite grasp the totality of God and who He is. You can give it all you got and never quite be finished, and you need to give your faith the best that is in you because the more you know, the more you can believe, and the more you believe, the greater your peace and comfort in the faith.
Today is Trinity Sunday. We have already rehearsed the best and most concise description of the mystery of the Holy Trinity - the Athanasian Creed - just before the sermon hymn. The Trinity is one of those things that calls for the best we can do in thought, even though it transcends our ability to fully comprehend it. The Christian faith is like that, simple and pure, and yet demanding our full abilities, our full intellect, our full attention in order to be faithful and to stand in the faith. Anything less will give the devil an opportunity to mislead us, or seduce us, and so destroy us from the faith.
The whole of the Christian faith is as complex and deep as the Trinity. It is spiritual and it is incarnate- physical and real and right now. There are dimensions to the faith in every article which are as complex and wonderful as God Himself. The Gospel for Trinity Sunday is the account of John about the meeting at night between Nicodemus and Jesus. All three persons of the Trinity are there. The Father is the One that Nicodemus addresses as "God", when he says, "Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him." Jesus also speaks of the Father, as He speaks about God, and the Kingdom of God.
The Gospel speaks about the Spirit, when Jesus directly speaks of the work of the Spirit, in verses 5 and 6,"Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." Jesus even speaks about the "Son of Man" who is also the Son of God, as the verse just after our Gospel lesson makes crystal clear. That verse, is, of course John 3:16, "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life."
Our focus on the text, this morning, is on the issue of being "born again." It is much used and much misunderstood phrase, and it is like the Trinity - simple and yet complex. This morning our theme is "Born Again".
The Bible mentions the idea only four times, with an additional five verses about being born of God in the first epistle of John, and the idea of "the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit" in Titus. In the four verses where the English translations say "born again," the Greek text uses two different ways of saying it. The expression Jesus uses is translated either, "to be born again" or "to be born from above." Peter uses a word that means to be born again, as in a second time. Titus speaks of a washing which causes one to be born again, using a word which contains both the word "born," and the word "again" which is translated "regeneration."
Since Jesus corrects Nicodemus when he wonders aloud about crawling back into the womb, we understand that this is not a physical process - not that I imagine many of you were confused about that. This re-birth, is required to see the kingdom of God. "Jesus answered and said to him, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.'" Most of my life I thought that "seeing the kingdom of God" meant "going to heaven." It probably does, in the sense of eternity, but it also means something about actually being able to see, that is to 'recognize,' the kingdom of God. Unless you are born again, you are going to miss the kingdom of God, which, Jesus says elsewhere, is among you.
Only the child of God is able to see or participate in the kingdom of God in this world, which is established by the cross and ruled over by the grace of Jesus Christ in the forgiveness of sins. The unbeliever thinks that life is random, often out of control. The believer knows - or at least can know and should know - that God is with him or her, guiding and protecting and blessing.
The new birth of the child of God is a birth which comes "from above". It is the work of the Holy Spirit, as Peter says, causing us to be born again, and made new again - renewed - by the washing of Baptism. This new birth is not the result of the water in Baptism, but of the promise of God. It is what Paul was referring to when he wrote in Romans 6 that we are buried with Christ by baptism in to death, that like as He (Jesus) was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we, too, should walk in newness of life." It is not something we find by our seeking or something we make happen, it is the work of God. Without it we are never able to enter into, or even understand the kingdom of God, either here or in eternal life: Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God."
This new birth is a birth through the power of the Word of God, as Peter reminds us, saying, "for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and abiding word of God." It is birth into a new and eternal life through Jesus Christ. This new birth is connected to faith and fundamental to believing. Again, Peter writes, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead." The result is that every Christian is a "born-again Christian."
We are born again by being linked in and through baptism to the cross of Jesus Christ. We actually die, St. Paul tells us, in the death of Christ. This a reality and truth, but one of which our senses are totally unaware. God's Word tells us, and we are to hang onto that truth regardless of what it feels like of looks like. Paul says in Romans 6:11, "Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus." Then, Paul tells us, we are raised to new life - born again - in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. In a very real sense, Jesus' resurrection is our resurrection! The only difference between them is that our bodies of flesh still await that death and resurrection thing, but our spirits, our very being, has gone through death and is never to die again!
And all of that is true because Jesus died for our sins, and poured out on all mankind forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. He that believes and is baptized, shall be saved! Your sins are forgiven. It is the glory of God that He has taken our guilt and shame and laid them on His Son, and punished them there, so that we might receive the righteousness of Christ. Because we are righteous with His righteousness, we also have His everlasting life in glory. He poured it out on us, individually, in our baptism. He spoke our names through the lips of His chosen servant, and made us His child.
And now He feeds us with heavenly food, His own body and blood, hidden in this Sacrament, just as surely as our death and resurrection was hidden in the waters of our Baptism. When we eat and drink, Christ is in us and with us in reality, not merely in symbol or in spirit. His presence in us sanctifies us, and strengthens us to live for Him in this world, and to serve Him in all the things He sets before us to do. It is the reality of what we receive here that causes us to exercise such care with the Sacrament and to practice Closed communion, lest someone receives Christ without knowing it, or in unbelief and brings condemnation on themselves.
Born again is both simple and complex. An infant can be born again. I was, at two months and five days of age, when my Grandmother held me over the baptismal font and Pastor Theophil Schroedel poured the waters of baptism over my head and spoke my name on God's behalf, and Baptized me "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." It is that re-birth that is my comfort and consolation. God claimed me, made me His child, and caused me to be born again. I did nothing, I didn't ask, or choose. I was the passive recipient of the grace of God, and I remain the same to this day.
And so is every one of you! Your birth into Christ was precisely the same. The names of the others involved in your baptism were different, and some of you walked up and bent over the font to have the water of life poured out on you - but you, too, were but passive recipients of the grace of God. As long as you trust in Jesus Christ alone, you are His, and have everlasting life. Even if you should stumble from the faith, your baptism is still true, and all that is needed is to confess your sins, repent and believe the words of the absolution, and trust Jesus again for life and salvation. He that believes and is baptized shall be saved.
The complexity of it is that it is real, and you are changed. You no longer belong to yourself, and your life is not your own. You waste energy and time when you live simply for you. If you believe in Jesus Christ, and place all of your hope for eternal life in Him, and have been baptized, then you, too, have been born again! You have been born again to a new life in Christ. You are your spirit, and you have been given the Spirit of God. Jesus Christ and His amazing grace is the meaning of your life, and its purpose. Everything you do is to be done for Christ - and we serve Christ by serving one another.
That means that your actions, your decision and your attitudes are to be shaped not so much around you and your preferences, but around Christ and His grace and the welfare of His people, and the doing of what Christ has given you to do.
That makes things different! Now, as those who have been born again, our personal well-being is God's business, not our own. Mark those words well. Your welfare and your well-being is God's work and God's business and God's concern. You are not to be focused on that. You will think of it, of course. That is only natural, but your deliberate focus is to be elsewhere.
We are to be concerned about the well-being of our neighbor. That is not natural to us. We want what we want, and it is natural to fight to get our own way, and do what seems advantageous or pleasing to us. But we are to be about what is holy, and God-pleasing, and beneficial for others, particularly for the holy people of God. St. Paul says it this way in 1 Corinthians 6, "Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body."
So, what we do - in worship, in our work, and in all aspects of our daily lives - is to be done with Jesus Christ and His forgiveness and love in view. That view tells us that God is taking care of us, and we do not need to spend our lives shaping the world around us, but we can spend our lives taking care of our neighbor. The Apostle Paul writes in Galatians 6, "So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith."
This care for our neighbor includes family, first, then the church of God - our holy family in Christ, then those nearest us, and then the next layer of neighbors out from that, and so on. It includes taking care of our homes and our possessions, for the sake of those who share them, and those who live near them. It includes obeying laws of the land for the sake of the community and the state, and others who will be impacted by lawlessness - or who will see the example of faithfulness and care for the neighbor in our willing obedience. Such living of your new life will also include forgiving one another and working together in peace, not contention and self-assertion.
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead." This new life is lived in hope, Christian hope, which is the confidence that what we cannot see, but God has promised, is true - and so we are certain in ourselves that we have forgiveness and life and salvation, and so we rejoice, and give thanks, and we live out this new life - not according to feelings, or appearances, but according to the reality of God's blessings, forgiveness and protection. We live for the welfare of the neighbor, because God in Jesus Christ has taken care of us, and we have everything we need already in the grace of God.
This new life to which we have been born again in Christ is not normal or natural, and will not feel normal or natural to us. Normal and natural to us is our sinful flesh, which remains the enemy of God and a quisling fifth-column for sin in us for all our earthly lives. We are talking about the new birth in Christ, into the life of the servant of God and the child of God to which we have been born again.
God grant us His grace that we may faithfully live the life to which each of us has been born again.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)
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