‘It’s very strange that you are a vicar’ she said to me, ‘given how horrible you were about Christians before you went to Tokyo!’ I was sitting next to a colleague from the law firm where I used to work at a dinner for Alumni.
She was right. There was a time maybe only 20 years ago when I could no more conceive of being in a dog collar delivering a sermon, than I could imagine flying to Mars.
When, having spent 5 years living in Tokyo and become a Christian there, I returned to the London office, I felt I had to go and apologise to the half dozen Christians in the law firm to whom I had been so horrible about their faith. ‘You were right’ I said. They were very gracious.
How can I explain such a radical transformation? How can I explain how an enemy of the Christians, a mocker, can become a Christian himself?
I love this story of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus. Because it helps to provide an answer to this question.
I think Nicodemus would have made a good lawyer. He looks at the facts – he looked to Jesus’ miracles. And he follows the facts to their logical conclusion, regardless of how uncomfortable this might make him feel. He follows the path of logic, regardless of how this might make him question the assumptions upon which he has based his life.
Maybe this is why so many lawyers become Christians. When we look at the facts, when we look at the evidence, we may not become a believer, but at least we may overcome our logical objections to Christianity; we are very likely to be open to the possibility that what Christians say is true: that Jesus is the son of God.
Nicodemus concludes that Jesus must have ‘come from God’ because no-one could perform the signs that Jesus was doing if God was not with him…..all very logical.
Today we might travel an equivalent logical journey by looking at the evidence for the most significant miracle of all – Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
I have preached before in the parish on why it is, in my view, entirely rational to believe that Jesus physically and actually and historically (can I make it any clearer than that) rose from the dead. That sermon is posted on our website for Easter 2013. I am not going to go through this again now. http://itchenvalleychurches.org.uk/2014/05/17/easter-sermon-2013-the-evidence-for-the-resurrection-by-alex-pease/
So Nicodemus has probably come to see Jesus thinking ‘maybe this really is the one – the prophesied Messiah’ – maybe.
And there could be many of us here today who are effectively agnostic about God, about Jesus, who are effectively in the same boat as Nicodemus – the maybe men and women.
Some of us may have got to the stage that we are no longer so convinced by the arguments of the grumpy Richard Dawkins. Perhaps we have concluded that the idea of atheism – the belief that there is no God, is just as much a system of belief as much as the idea of theism – that there is a god.
So we come to church, hoping against hope in the deep recesses of our hearts, that we will hear or feel something, something that will actually make a difference; something that will make sense of it all; something that will make sense of our lives; something that will make sense of our suffering and the suffering of people we love and the millions we see suffering on television, something that will explain why, why life is not just ultimately pointless.
And we meet with our friends we sing some hymns and then perhaps we go away disappointed, but looking forward to lunch.
But today is the day, to find the answer, if you want it to be.
Because it’s your choice whether you travel from maybe to must be.
You see you don’t build a life on a ‘maybe’.
You cannot trust a ‘maybe’.
It would be foolish to obey a ‘maybe’.
It would be embarrassing to step out and stand up for a ‘maybe’.
So perhaps that is why Nicodemus comes to see Jesus by night. He thinks that if it turns out that Jesus is a charlatan then he can just disappear back into the darkened streets and no one will know that he ever even wondered whether it might be true. He has got to a place of neutrality. He had reached ‘maybe’.
Attending church can be neutral in rural England. It is not always of course, but it can be, neutral. I can say to myself ‘the reason I go to church is to see my friends and neighbours; It’s a community thing’ or ‘it’s what I was brought up to do’.
It doesn’t necessarily have to mean that I would call myself a disciple of Christ.
It doesn’t necessarily mean that I plan to follow his leadership in all I do, regardless of the opinions of other people, regardless of the temptations to another sort of life.
And of course whatever the motivation for attending church –that does not matter at all. Even if you are just after the biscuits, you are very very welcome.
But the point is, just because we come to church doesn’t necessarily make us a disciple of Christ. And that’s OK. We are always totally delighted to see you, whatever you believe or don’t believe.
So Nicodemus came looking for something – some logical proof that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah –that Jesus was the One who makes sense of it all.
But he must have been so astonished by what Jesus said to him: ‘no one can see the Kingdom of God, unless they are born again’. In other words:logic might get you to come and see me, might get you to come at night to visit me, might get you to do something deniable; logic might get you to ‘may be’ but it is not going to help you at all get to the next stage,which is seeing or entering the Kingdom of God.
Logic won’t get you from ‘maybe’ to ‘must be’.
For that you have to be born again, or to use the other translation ‘to be born from above’.
You can feel the objection rising in the logical mind of Nicodemus –but how is this possible? Can a man or woman enter again into their mother’s womb?
‘No’ says Jesus you are not getting this at all. You need to be born again of water and of the Spirit.
It’s just not just about logic, Nicodemus.
You see if something is logical, we can predict its outcome. If we can predict it, we can learn to control it. And we see this in science every day. We expect knowledge to lead us to an ability to predict the future. To control the future.
We assume, for example, in the area of medicine, that if we were to know everything about the human body and everything about everything affecting the human body, that we could, by using logic,by using our reason, we could eradicate disease, eradicate illness, because we could predict exactly how the body would respond to different treatments and therapies. In this way we could get control of our bodies and remove those things which we don’t want.
But Jesus is saying it is not that way with the Kingdom of God. Because the first and most important point of the Kingdom of God is that it is the Kingdom of God, not the Kingdom of man or, mostly importantly, it’s not the ‘kingdom of me’.
It is God who is in control of the Kingdom of God – he is the King, not us.
Not you Nicodemus.
And if we are to enter or even see the Kingdom of God, we have to submit to the King. And this is what being reborn by water means –the water of baptism – by repenting, by turning away from our lives focused on being in control ourselves, our lives of the kingdom of me, my wishes, my rights, my control over my future, and submit to the King, allowing God to be in control.
But also very importantly submitting to being reborn by the Holy Spirit.
And we cannot predict where the Holy Spirit will lead us, any more than we can see where the wind has come from or where it is going. But we can see the Holy Spirit’s effects in transformed lives and changed behaviour. As the spirit leads us in becoming more and more like Jesus.
And we may have experienced this very recently like me, 20 years ago, or a long time ago when we were children – when we made a decision that we were going to submit to Christ all our lives. We might even not remember when we did make that decision. But like being on the sleeper train between France and Germany, we may remember a time when we were in France, but know we are now in Germany, but cannot recall when we crossed the border, when we made that decision.
As we are reborn of the Spirit, our likes and dislikes change. Our behaviour changes. We are transformed. We become more like Jesus.
Of course this take time. Particularly in my case for example. And of course these changes may be embarrassing. It was embarrassing for me when I returned to the London office of the law firm to apologise to those Christians that I had mocked in the past. It was so embarrassing that I said ‘ I have become a Christian on the Alpha Course while in Japan, but please don’t tell anyone’.
As I say they smiled and were gracious. But within a few months I was running the Alpha Course at the law firm itself, regardless of the embarrassment. ‘So you want to become Mr Holy Joe of the Partnership’ mocked the Director of Business Development. ‘Ok’ I said.
Am I sorry that I took that step of submitting to the Spirit? Not in the least. All the best decisions I have taken since Japan have been led by the Spirit, even though at the time I often thought I was being foolhardy. I often did not know what was round the corner.
For example, I retired from the partnership aged 49, in the most friendly of circumstances about 10 years before I had to, thinking I was mad, but guided by the Spirit. The firm was booming. 3 years later came the economic collapse. If I had stayed until then I would almost certainly have had the humiliating experience of being sacked, as almost 50 of my partners were.
But you see I was basing this decision not on a ‘maybe’ but submitting to the King because I felt guided to do so. I had moved from a maybe to a must be.
So what about you?
Are you still at a ‘maybe’ like Nicodemus? Assuming you have been baptised already, do you want to be reborn of the Spirit? Do you want to see and enter the Kingdom of God? Are you willing to submit to the King of the Kingdom of God?
Because if you are, you can do this now.
As Amanda did a couple of weeks ago I am going to read out a prayer which you can say silently in your hearts, and then again at home if you want to move from ‘maybe’ to ‘must be’.
A prayer to be ‘born from above’
Lord Jesus Christ, I am sorry for the things that I have done wrong in my life [take a few moments to ask for his forgiveness for things which are particularly on your conscience] Please forgive me. I now turn from everything that I know is wrong. Thank you that you offer forgiveness and the gift of your Spirit. I now receive that gift. Please come into my life by your Holy Spirit to be with me for ever. Thank you Lord Jesus Amen
If you have said that prayer for the first time let Amanda Rebecca or I know after the service and we will pray with you for an infilling of the Holy Spirit.