Well its been eight months since I was licensed as your Rector at that amazing service in April on what would have been our Valley Worship Sunday here in Easton.
The warmth of your welcome and encouragement was palpable and was commented upon by Bishop David. It was amazing!
You will remember that the passage that I chose for that service was John 3:1-15; the passage Harry has just read, which is the story of Jesus being visited by Nicodemus.
Jesus says to Nicodemus ‘Very truly I tell you no-one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above’
As we know, Nicodemus replies ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’
Then Jesus says‘Very truly I tell you, no-one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit’.
‘Born again Christians’ have got a bit of a bad name. There is something about English society which traditionally prefers (at least until Brexit came along) a lack of extremism, a middle of the road, a common sense, a live and let live lets all just get along approach.
But Jesus is saying in that passage from John that ‘no-one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above’.
In other words unless we are born again, unless we have a new heart given to us by being baptised not just by water but by the Holy Spirit we just won’t get it…we won’t SEE the Kingdom.
We all need to be born again in this sense.
But when we are born again of the Holy Spirit, we find that we can change in all sorts of positive ways; changes in our character which we might have thought impossible become within our reach; because the Holy Spirit enables us to change and the most obvious feature of this change is that we want to change. The Holy Spirit enables us to go from ‘wont’ to ‘want’.
As you know, at Valley Worship this year we have been working our way through Paul’s letter to the Philippians. It is a letter which he is sending to those in the church in Philippi; to those who have been born again who have the new heart in Jesus Christ.
It’s so important to understand this; that these letters which Paul writes are written to people who desperately want to know what Jesus wants for their lives. They are not a series of commandments which are to be laid on the heavy pressed person who doesn’t have that new heart. They are not designed to be understood as a series of statements about how people who are not reborn should live; who either don’t want to live like that or who feel bad because they don’t feel that they have the resources to do so. No, they are for people who have already moved from ‘won’t’ to ‘want’.
As we have discovered over the year, Paul explains how, by being reborn, by having the new heart we are enabled to find a new and rewarding purpose to our lives; we are enabled to have a new attitude about our wants and needs and through humility find unity with others; we are freed from the various slaveries in our lives, so that we don’t have a wasted life; we can have incredible new friendships in which we can be open and honest about our lives; we can find a new confidence based not on our own character (which often lets us down) but on our relationship with Christ; we can have a new ambition to know Christ, as Tim Clapp put it, in an intimate and exhilarating way, in his resurrection, and in his suffering; we can have peace despite our circumstances and finally we can be generous when led by the Holy Spirit and give of our time and talents in a way which has eternal significance.
So we have access to all these wonderful character traits when we are born of the Holy Spirit: purpose; attitude; freedom; friendship; confidence; ambition; peace and generosity.
But, as Nicodemus would say, how can this change be? How do we get this new heart?
There was an article in the Times 13th December 2018 on Thursday (“We are hard wired to resist changing our minds”) by Jenni Russell. She looks at the issue of Brexit and why it seems so difficult to shift other people’s opinion on this issue…She refers to the work of the neuroscientist Tali Sharot who wrote the book the Influential Mind. His work demonstrates that ‘data has only a limited capacity to alter the strong opinions of others’. Russell continues ‘Emotions usually override [data] not because we are stupid or stubborn, but because our survival for millions of years has depended upon trusting our fears hopes and desires. Our brains are built to prioritise them. Data came later’. She then applies this as a lesson in how to convince people about your case so far as Brexit is concerned.
It seems that it is more through the emotions, more through the heart and less through the mindthat radical Epiphanies happen. And if, of course, we close our hearts, if we refuse to be guided by emotion then its possible that we might never know the re-birth that Jesus speaks about.
This is why looking at the story about Nicodemus, which of course was written 2000 years before Tali Sharot’s work, is so interesting.
But it is difficult to allow our emotions to take charge over our brains and perhaps this is why almost all of those who became followers of Christ that I interviewed for my (as yet unpubllished) book ‘Lemon Drizzle Cake and other fruit of the Spirit’ had some kind of emotional crisis: a bereavement or a breakdown or existential crisis, or started on the journey because of the kindness of someone in the church.
Pain, crisis or kindness…..the path into the Kingdom.
We can see this principle working throughout the passage we have just read:
Nicodemus, entirely directed by logic, says (verse 2) ‘We know that you are a teacher who has come from God for no-one can do these signs [the miracles] that you do apart from the presence of God’.
Logical, logical, the mind dominating….but Nicodemus is completely flummoxed by Jesus’ response`; ’Very truly I tell you no-one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above’.
Again the logical Nicodemus struggles with this, verse 4 ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old, can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born’?
Jesus’ response may not have helped his mind fathom it out: ‘very truly I tell you, no-one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is spirit…the wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit’
In short, it is up to the Holy Spirit and we don’t know where he is coming from or where he is going.
But we cannot expect to start this journey, to have this new heart, by the logical processes of the mind (although it is by no means irrational to believe there is enough evidence for that). We need to open our hearts.
The passage doesn’t relate what Nicodemus said in response whether he just stole out into the night, astonished or unconvinced……
But this is not the last we hear of Nicodemus. In the final days of Jesus’ ministry, he makes some choices which are very risky for him personally. We find him making two dangerous decisions: in John 7:50, we find him standing up for Jesus in the Sanhedrin the Jewish council which is determined to have Jesus put to death and then we find him going with Joseph of Arimathea to Pilate to ask permission to collect Jesus’ body.
None of his logical questions have been answered…….but his life has been transformed
Nicodemus Visits Jesus
3Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.