Just Between You and Me
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, June 2, 2019
Reading: John 3:1-15
Nicodemus, between you and me, I don't know why you're here - you really should be reading the Talmud and saying something instructive about the Mishnah. You really should be with your friends at the chaburah, the holy gathering of leaders. You really should be dwelling on your role as a ruler. Between you and me, Nicodemus, I have no idea why you are here. I think Jesus, when he was encountered by Nicodemus, would have said something like that.
Nicodemus initiated the contact with Jesus. It wasn't as if Jesus had gone looking for Nicodemus - Nicodemus had come looking for him. We're told that Nicodemus was a ruler, a member of the Pharisees, part of the Sanhedrin, and powerful. Jesus must have wondered what on earth he was doing there. But he came under the cloak of darkness; when he thought no-one was looking to find out more about Jesus. What he wanted to know after witnessing some of his miracles, after listening to some of his teachings, was if he was really, truly, honestly from God. It seemed that way, but Nicodemus being the inquisitive sort wanted to know more.
So here we are, with this incredible encounter between Nicodemus, one of the great leaders of the Pharisees, and Jesus of Nazareth. In this encounter, is some of the most powerful teachings of our faith. For you see, Nicodemus wanted to know whether Jesus was really of God, and Jesus responded to him in the most incredible words: “I tell you the truth, no one can see the Kingdom of God unless they are born from above.” An alternate translation is, unless you are born again.
Nicodemus gave what I think was a natural response to Jesus; I think it's a response that you or I would give if we were placed in a similar circumstance. He said, “Do you think I have to climb back into my mother's womb to be reborn?” In other words, “Jesus you're absurd.” But Jesus's response to him was powerful, “Nicodemus, flesh gives birth to flesh, but the spirit gives birth to the spirit.” You are thinking in literal terms, but I'm about something different, something unique, something powerful.
Then Jesus says something incredibly powerful to Nicodemus, and I paraphrase “You shouldn't be surprised by this, Nicodemus.” In other words, what I'm saying to you really shouldn't be that new. After all, as a good and a faithful Jew, Nicodemus would have known that for those who were not born Jewish, but who decided to become part of the Jewish people and the Jewish faith, they went through a process, the new Proselytes did, of cleansing and a ritual washing like a Baptism. After this ritual cleansing and as a male after circumcision, they would belong to the new community of faith and they would be given a new life as if they were born again.
Nicodemus would have known that in hermetic mysticism that existed hundreds of years before Jesus, there was this belief, particularly in the Greek world, that you are twice born. You are born once when you are born physically, but you are twice-born when you realise that you are a child of the Divine. So whether it was from his Jewish roots, or from popular Greek culture that was also prevalent in Israel, what Jesus was saying should not have been earth-shattering, although clearly it was.
Because Jesus was associating the new birth, not with a ritual cleansing or the joining of a community, not in spiritual awakening, as in hermetic mysticism, but in seeing firsthand the Kingdom of God at work in Jesus himself. He says to Nicodemus; “To see the Kingdom at work in me, you need to be born again, you need to be born from above, you need to have a complete change in your life.” Just between you and me, Nicodemus, you need a new life.
When Nicodemus came to see Jesus very much in the throes of an old life, he did so to try and figure out, like a puzzle, who Jesus was. He'd seen what Jesus had done, he heard about what Jesus had said, he knew that there was a buzz about Jesus and he wanted to understand a little bit more about him, but he did so from the point of view of simply an enquirer. It wasn't as if he was giving Jesus an endorsement. He wasn't coming to say “I know that you are the Lord - I know that you are the Great One.” He was checking up on Jesus - wanting to find out a bit more about him, but he was looking at him from the lens of a simple enquirer. You can't really see who Jesus is by enquiry. You need a new life. You need a new birth. You need to make a commitment if you are going to see who I really am.
Jesus then says something very strange but Nicodemus would have understood; he said, “Nicodemus, no-one knows where the wind blows. We don't know where it is coming from and we don't know where it is going. Such are those who were born of God, those that are born again.” You do not know it. You cannot control it. It is the power of the Spirit that does this.
Now Nicodemus, as a good scholar of the Torah, would have known that the very words Jesus was using were the words in Genesis about the very creation of the world. That when the Ruach, the Spirit, blew across the earth, the earth was formed. That God created the earth with the power of the Spirit. So the very same God who made the earth, the very same God who created, also creates within us a new life. It is the power, the Ruach, the wind of the Holy Spirit - that is what does it.
I'm sure many of us in reading this story, will identify with Nicodemus. Honestly, is there really a need for us to have something as drastic as a new life? Do we really need to have something that powerful in order to be able to see the Kingdom of God? After all we can't see the wind of the Spirit. We can't touch the wind of the Spirit. It seems inconceivable to us that the Spirit is that powerful that it can bring about rebirth.
This last week I watched the most fascinating documentary on Nova about Albert Einstein's theory of relativity. I confess there were moments in the show when my lack of knowledge of physics, calculus, and mathematics left me completely and totally void of understanding. But I got the gist of what was being said, I got the heart of what was said at the end by some Stanford physicists who said, “This wonderful theory of relativity is something that we still build on, still develop - it's not a static thing, this theory - it is something that continues to grow and evolve and we're engaged in it all the time.”
While quantum physics has come along and changed the way that we see the world, nevertheless there are parts of relativity that are important. At the end my imagination was caught when one of the physicists said that the universe continues to expand and grow and develop at an incredible rate. There is this energy creating this new world and then new universes that is powerful, and therefore this movement, this change that is taking place is beyond our ability to grasp. The energy that is behind it is so great that mathematically we're not able to determine it or constrain it, confine it, or define it. It is a powerful thing.
So even the great intellects are willing to accept that there is a powerful energy that is continually creating new universes. Is it therefore too much to believe that there is a power, a Ruach, a wind, an energy of the power of God that can actually change our lives, with whom we can be in contact through prayer? Even though we do not see the connection, or always feel it, or the power of the new birth in the Spirit? Is it anymore beyond our conception that this is true than the conception that there is an energy that's continuing to create new universes?
I was blown away. I sat there for about an hour after that program was over and I couldn't help but feel this overwhelming sense of awe. Jesus in essence is saying to Nicodemus; that you can have a new life and you can see the Kingdom of God, if you're born from above. Just between you and me, do you know who I really am? You have looked at my history, you've chatted with the neighbours, you've heard the gossip, but do you know who I am?
One can look at the life of Jesus, and many do, through the lens of history. There are so many books that have been written over the years on the Jesus of history and the history of Jesus. Many of the greatest scholars like Albert Schweitzer, who I quoted last week, had done a wonderful history of the life of Jesus. You can know the history and you can enquire into what he is like, but it is the Spirit who directs us to see who Jesus really is. And to give us the knowledge and the intimate connection.
Nicodemus wanted to keep Jesus at a distance, to come at night to enquire quietly. He wasn't sure if the power of the Spirit was going to show that this was not just an ordinary man doing some extraordinary things, an extraordinary person come from Heaven doing extraordinary things.
All the reading, all the enquiry, all the thought in the world cannot bring a person to an intimate knowledge of the person of Christ. Because all of that is detached, all of that is removed, all of that does not require the power of the Spirit. But the Spirit reveals who Christ is and that's what Jesus wanted Nicodemus to know. Nicodemus, between you and me, you need something else. You can't do all this alone. You can't just come and observe what I'm doing – you need a power to help you know, you can't just do this on your own.
I don't know how many people I run into who genuinely want to have a strong faith, they want to do the right things. They want to have a living faith but they think somehow it's all on them, and they feel the weight of it. Jesus is saying you're not alone. There is this power, this is this Spirit.
I was deeply moved last week when an Anglican friend of mine directed me to the Anglican website of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who is a wonderful person. He has initiated an incredible program that started this week for 11 days, and it's called “Thy Kingdom Come”. Along with the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, they developed a prayer partnership that should be global. This what the website says, and this is really helpful, folks:
Thy Kingdom Come is a global prayer movement that invites Christians around the world to pray for people to come to know Christ. What started in 2016 as an invitation from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to the Church of England has grown into an international ecumenical call to prayer. Hence why we're talking about it here.
During the 11 days of Thy Kingdom Come, it is hoped that everyone who takes part will do three things. One, deepen their own relationship with Jesus Christ. Two, pray for God's Spirit to work in the lives of those that they know. And three, come to realise that every aspect of their life is the stuff of prayer. After the very first Ascension Day, the Disciples gathered with Mary, constantly devoting themselves to prayer, while they waited for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Like them our reliance on the gift of the Holy Spirit is total - from the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, these words. "On our own we can do nothing."
This is an incredible call to prayer; prayer for others, prayer of the depth of our own understanding of Christ, and it's to realise that there is not one facet of our life, or of the world, that is not of concern to our Lord and our God. That's what Jesus wanted Nicodemus to have. He wanted him to have that realisation in his own life.
I was deeply touched very recently by somebody who had received an award for being an outstanding citizen, for working for something that's dear to my heart, which is racial justice and helping those who are under-privileged. What was really touching for me was that after that person received the award, I received a note from them saying that it is not the award that means so much to them, but their sense of gratitude. That everything they have been able to do, every change they'd been able to make for the good in society, every person's life who has been changed because of whatever they have done, is all because of the Glory of God.
One of the greatest letters I've ever received. I thought “Oh, this is Jesus talking to Nicodemus again.” This letter could have been written to Nicodemus. Nicodemus, between you and me, you can have all the wisdom and power and religious authority and influence in the world. You can be a change-maker, to use the popular phrase. But it comes from, it arises from the power of God. Just between you and me, Nicodemus, do you get that? Just between you and me, do we get this? The power of the new life in Christ – just between Christ and us. Amen.