The last two Sunday’s had the theme of Transfiguration and Temptation; today we add Trust. The Lord said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you….So Abram went.” And that is how the story begins, the great journey of humanity following the calling and promptings of God’s Spirit. Abraham trusted God with his life.
Paul picks up this theme in the second reading. Abraham was not blessed by God because he kept the law but because he believed. It was his trust in an unseen God which led to his becoming the ancestor of trillions of people, and the spiritual ancestor of even more.
Like Paul, Nicodemus was a Pharisee. The Pharisees were a leading Jewish group who interpreted the Torah in a more inclusive way than the Sadducees who were very literalist. The Pharisees spent much of their time reinterpreting the old laws in the light of contemporary experience and tradition. We might say that they were the Episcopalians of their time! The problem, from Jesus’ perspective, was that they had a tendency to be so busy defining what good Jews should do, that they lost sight of what it was all really about. They lost sight of God in the busy-ness of defining godliness. Just like we can lose sight of God in the busy-ness of being an active faith community.
Naturally they were appalled by Jesus who seemed to pay no attention to the niceties of the law. Nicodemus came to him by night because he didn’t want his colleagues to know. He couldn’t afford to be associated with the scofflaw Jesus, but he wanted answers. And Jesus said to him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the
So the most important thing this busy, law-abiding religious leader needed to hear was that no-one can see the reign of God without being born again from above. How we are to understand this statement depends on how we understand the reign of God. I have come to think of the reign of God as the unseen realm which permeates the universe and the seen world but is quite different from the way we usually see and think.
In the reign of God we trust that all things are being worked out for good and for the redemption not just of humanity but of the whole universe. In the reign of God we play our part in bringing about that redemption by working with the Holy Spirit to bring the qualities of the reign of God into our hearts and lives.
This is the work of a lifetime. It means letting go of the human inclinations to criticize, to judge, to hold grudges and nurse anger; it means instead nurturing forgiveness, humility and gentleness – working to become more Christ-like in our thoughts and interactions. It means serving Christ in all persons and in fact in all beings. It means living out our baptismal vows.
As Christians we live with a foot in both realms. We don’t turn our backs on any part of the world because God made it and it is good. We cooperate with God in the redemption of the planet by working in whatever circumstances we find ourselves to bring gospel values into manifestation. At the same time we know that the reality we see around us and the reality we see on television and the internet are not all there is. God’s reign is the realm which will eventually become the whole of reality. God’s reign of gentleness, love and light is the one which is eternal.
In order to experience and live in God’s reign, Jesus says we have to be born again from above. This is a gift of God, this is grace, not something we can do. But we can seek to be born again – we can ask for the gift.
I imagine that in this room there are some of us who know we are twice-born, some who aren’t sure and some who have not yet received God’s gift. For a moment I want to address those who aren’t sure.
The gift of second birth is given by God in God’s own time, but also in answer to prayer. If you have asked to be reborn, you can trust that your prayer is answered; but just as a newborn baby’s eyes do not focus at first, so too our initial perception of God’s realm is very misty and vague. It takes effort to focus your spiritual eyes and it takes effort to keep them focused.
This is the effort that we call spiritual practice. Through prayer, spiritual reading and worship, we begin to perceive the outlines of God’s reign appearing in the fog of the physical world. As we continue on the spiritual path and return to it whenever we wander off in our own ideas and confusions, so we see clearer and clearer. We never lose the need to trust but it becomes a stronger muscle with exercise.
All of you who are parents and grandparents and even those of us who are aunts, uncles and godparents, have seen the innocence and openness of a new-born, a young child who has not yet learned the ways of the world, who has not yet become cynical, manipulative or judgmental. That is what it is like to be born again – to see everything with new eyes – the innocent and trusting eyes of a child. So perhaps very few of us can truly claim to be twice-born – perhaps we are all in the birth canal.
But most of us can see the outlines of the reign of God. We can believe that astonishing statement, “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.” God loved the world, and by this it means the whole cosmos, God loved the expanding universe so much that she gave her own life to enable it to come into communion with the divine. God loved the world that much, and still does.
Even in the devastation that is
Abraham trusted God and packed up his family and moved into an unknown and uncertain future. Paul trusted the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist,” enough to go to
My prayer of reach of us is that we are reborn with eyes to see the reign of God and trust in his grace so that we may know the peace which passes understanding and share that peace with the world.