Born of God
The gospel that we just heard is a story about birth. It is a story about how God gives birth to her children, or to put it another way, how we receive the power to become children of God. It is a story about relationship, about knowing and being known, about how we can come to know the God that we have never seen.
This story begins with an encounter, with conversation, with dialogue, back and forth. Isn’t that how relationships usually begin? Today, and for the next three Sundays, we will read the stories of people who encounter Jesus and have a conversation, a dialogue, questions and answers and more questions. Birth begins with an encounter.
“You must be born from above, born again, born of the Spirit,” Jesus tells Nicodemus. It’s a powerful image. Birth is a symbol of the most profound transformation that we can imagine. I know you can’t remember it, but just imagine the amazement you experienced when you left your mother’s birth canal, opened your eyes and saw the world beyond the womb for the first time. Astonishing isn’t it? And Jesus is telling us that to be born of God is just as astonishing, that our eyes will be opened to a whole new world. But how can we be born of God, what does it mean to be born of the Spirit? This is a mystery that just might be beyond our comprehension. It certainly seems to baffle Nicodemus. “How can these things be?”
There is a way, Jesus tells Nicodemus, and this odd, mysterious, baffling dialogue with Nicodemus gives way a declaration by Jesus that has come to be the most famous verse in the whole 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.”
Martin Luther once called this verse the “Gospel in miniature”. So how about we spend a little time here.
“For God so loved the world” The word ‘so’ here, ‘houtos’ in Greek, actually means “in this way”. A better translation would be
“For God loved the world in this way:”
God loves the world. There are echoes here of the promise made to Abram that we heard in our first reading. “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” It is an expansive, inclusive affirmation. God loves the world. Everyone. Yes, the world can be an awful place, yes there is sin and brokenness and suffering and evil. But God loves the world. Everyone. All the families, all the people, all of us
And this is not just a sentiment. God makes it concrete, God makes it visible. God loves the world. How does God love the world? In what way?
God loves the world in this way: God gave his only Son. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Those of us who are parents know that there is nothing more precious to us than our children, and I suppose even more so if it’s your only child. Your only child is the greatest gift you could give to the world. God’s grace, God’s love for the world is extravagant, generous, undeserved and over the top.
God gave his only Son. But why? To what end? Why did God give his only Son, why did the Word become flesh and dwell among us?
So that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
We do have a tendency to hear that as a transaction, as a conditional offer. We think, Ok, here’s the deal. You believe in Jesus and in exchange you get to go to heaven. At least that’s what we sometimes think eternal life means.
But we don’t have to guess what Jesus means by eternal life. Because later in John’s gospel, Jesus actually tells his disciples what he means by eternal life, as he prays to God his Father.
“This is eternal life: that they may know you, Father, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
Eternal life is knowing God.
Why did God give his only Son? So that everyone who believes in Jesus may know God.
And that’s important because it’s not easy for us to know God. God is beyond us, God is a mystery to us, God is invisible. In fact John says this explicitly in his gospel, in the prologue of the first chapter which is often the key to understanding the rest.
“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son … who has made him known.” The gift of the incarnation, of the word made flesh, of Jesus the only Son is that in him God is made known. And so when we see Jesus, we can say to ourselves, ‘that’s what God is like’. When we listen to Jesus, when we encounter him, when we enter into conversation and dialogue with him, we come to know not just Jesus but God the Father. And this whole process of trusting, seeing, listening, receiving, knowing, encountering and having faith in Jesus, this whole cluster of relational words which are used by John, is summed up in John 3.16 by the word “pisteuOn” which is the verb form of faith, which we translate as “believe.”
Why did God give his only Son? So that everyone who knows him may know God. So that everyone who believes in him may know God. So that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
This is not a transaction. This is a revelation. This is a gift. This is the gift of relationship, of knowing and being known, trusting and intimate, like the relationship between a parent and a child.
Again, back to the prologue, where there is a verse that is very similar in meaning to John 3.16, but said in a very different way: John 1.12
“To all who received him, who believed in his name, God gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood, or the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God.”
This is about becoming a child of God. It is the story of a birth. It’s the story of your birth.
And Nicodemus, the learned man, a leader of people, is baffled. “How can these things be?”
So if you are feeling a bit baffled by these things, still trying to figure out the mystery of what it means to be born of the Spirit, that’s ok. It’s a becoming, it can be a process. Nicodemus is just at the beginning of that becoming . Nicodemus has encountered Jesus. He’s started asking questions, and that’s a good sign. But he’s yet to see the full story of Jesus play out. “The Son of Man must be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” From Nicodemus’ vantage point before Jesus death and resurrection, there’s more to see, there is more, much more that Jesus has yet to reveal about God. Jesus will indeed be lifted up, on the cross and by his resurrection and in his ascension to be with the Father from whom he was sent. There’s a lot left to see for Nicodemus, a lot left to receive. Will he stick with it? Will he stay in the relationship, will he continue the encounter with Jesus? Will he be born as a child of God? We don’t know the answer to these questions. But we do know that God loves the world, and that includes Nicodemus. And that God gave his only Son, so that Nicodemus, and everyone, including you, may come to know God and God’s only Son, Jesus, whom God gave and sent.
My prayer is that you too may have eternal life. That you may know God, and Jesus whom God has sent, and that in knowing, and trusting, and receiving and believing, you too may enter into the astonishing mystery of becoming a child of God.
Homily: Yr A Lent 2, March 5 2023, Trinity
Readings: Genesis 12.1-4a; Ps 121; Romans 4.1-5, 13-17; John 3.1-17
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