We’ve just heard what is probably the best known verse in the Bible: John 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. '
When hearing or saying those words, we might put an equal sign between “believe” and “eternal life,” as though, quoting from the Apostle Paul, “to confess with your lips and believe in your heart” (Romans 10:9) will earn the reward of “eternal life.”
That’s why Nicodemus, a rich and prominent lawyer and a member of the Jew’s Supreme Court called the Sanhedrin, sought out Jesus under the cover of night. He didn’t want his colleagues to see him talking with Him.
It could threaten his reputation and position. But he wanted to hear what Jesus had to say he had to learn, to know to think, to believe – (as a Jew) in order to “walk in the way of the Lord,” with the “way” being the Hebrew Law, or, as we Christians say, “have eternal life.”
Jesus’ response was,
‘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.”
Nicodemus immediately put his mind to work on what he thought he was hearing Jesus say, “You must be born again.” You must do the work of thinking, accepting, believing that the One you have sought is God in human flesh, and believing that, you will earn the grade of eternal life with God.
We might insert our own name, or anyone else’s name;
“YOU” _______must do the work to earn eternal life.
And what if we or a loved one doesn’t have a date to give, like a grade to show or a diploma to display, to document a time when a personal confession was made? What if we or someone one else fears flunking and doesn’t even try, or decides to play hooky, because there are other, more exciting things to do?
What then; is the answer “perish?” or in harsher words, “Damned! Condemned to hell’s fire?”
There are times, when, as a pastor conducting a funeral service, someone will come up and say, “I’m really worried. I don’t think he/she was saved.” Implying the deceased never made a public confession of Jesus as Lord and Savior, or, as some say, “never got saved.” It is then that we need to hear what Jesus said:
‘Do not be astonished that I said to you,
“You must be born from above.”
“Born from above,” not “born again.” Not our work but God’s labor that is like natural birth.
As a teenager, I worked summers and weekends in a hospital’s maternity department where my aunt, the supervisor, gave me on-the-job training to work as a practical nurse, usually in the 12-bed ward. One day the staff in the labor room was shorthanded and I was asked to oversee a patient while the doctor and nurse ate a quick supper, and they would be as close as a phone call.
Well, the baby everyone thought would arrive several hours later, didn’t wait. I called, wheeled the soon-to-be-mother into the labor room, praying as I did, and raised a silent “Amen,” as the staff arrived. It was a vivid reminder that being born into life as a child of God is as Jesus said, “from above,” an action of God beyond our timing or control. which Jesus stamped with the “Amen” of John 3: 17
‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world
to condemn the world,
but in order that the world might be saved through him.’
And then Jesus turned John 3:16 and 17 (let’s not forget to add that “Amen” verse) into the sight of Good Friday’s cross with His arms out stretched to embrace the entire world in what Nicodemus first heard:
'No one can enter the kingdom of God
without being born of water and Spirit.'
One outstretched arm as a sign for “being born of water;” the other as “being born of Spirit,” with a capital “S,”
the embrace the early church leaders struggled to find a way for new Christians to accept as a gift and not what they worked to earn. What they did was to develop an order for Baptism that was really a funeral service. (Reference: “Body and Soul” M. Craig Barnes, P. 82)
As each person descended into the water, the charge was given to give up the old life of sin and vices; as a sign of submission they took off their old clothes. Then they were submerged or water was poured over them as the words were spoken,
“Buried with him in baptism.”
When they stood and left the water, they heard,
“Risen to walk with new life in Christ.”
As the leader declared how God’s Spirit clothes us with the new life of Christ, they put on new clothing. Today’s Orthodox Churches continue this ritual when baptizing infants, and from the first centuries on whole household were baptized, infants through adults…the sign that parents and the whole church family through their examples and prayers, influence a child to grow into the Baptismal vows, and as we do here, take them in the “yes” of Confirmation…
...Which takes me back to what may be said at a funeral. “I’m really worried. I don’t think he/she was saved.” with the implied fear being, “He/she will be damned, sent to an eternity in hell’s fire!” and maybe a fear we have for our own future.
I think of the Baptismal font where parents and a church vow to be a nurturing influence and never stop giving the newly baptized infant to God in prayer, praying for him or her, even to the grave, prayers that silence the worry, “Was he/she saved?” For through prayer the way is open to Jesus, with arms outstretched to take everyone in,
those who have had a dramatic experience of being accepted by God, those who can only say, “I want my life to be a thank-you to God,” and those we fear will not be welcomed, because the life they lived seems to be a rejection of God’s call in Christ. Look to the cross and hear God saying, “Come in! Come in to My embrace!” that is greater than all our sin and can even overpower rejection with welcoming love.
It’s the warranty Jesus attached to our life; read the words printed in today’s Gospel. AMEN.