I remember my very first day in ministry with this congregation. I turned up on Sunday morning, and I parked the wrong way in the parking lot. Boy did I feel foolish when someone pointed out what I’d done! I joined up with the choir that morning, and everyone was trying to guess who that new young person was in the second row! After the service I was greeted with a beautiful cake hand-decorated by Sherri Beecroft in the shape of a butterfly – and so my ministry here at Gordon United began. I began with some mistakes, and I began finding familiarity in something I enjoyed – music – and I began with a warm welcome. I found some of you rather intimidating, until I discovered that beneath those gruff surfaces there were wonderful, warm human beings. I understand a couple of you found me intimidating too – which always baffles me, but is good to know! Establishing new relationships can have a lot of bumps, a lot of turns, a lot of ups and downs. For me, starting anything new is always a mix of excitement and anxiety, anticipation and trepidation. I’m guessing that for many of us, it’s the same. I suppose there are people out there who dive into any new experience with enthusiasm and without fear, but I don’t know too many!
Starting something new – even considering starting something new! – can be hard. That’s what I was thinking of when I read once again the stories of Nicodemus and of Abram in today’s Bible stories. Abram was named in the writings of the apostle Paul as the perfect example of faith. At 75 years old, when many of us are thinking about spending a quiet day with a good book or planning a winter cruise, Abram went as God had told him. He stepped out, and started something new. Out of his comfortable peaceful life in Haran. Out of the rocking chair on the front porch of the old home place. And into the road ahead of him to spend his retirement years following a God with no name. No longer would he be Abram of Haran, but he would be Abram of some place that God would show him. “Fearless,” you might say. “Faithful,” said the apostle Paul. “Abraham believed God’s promises, and it was counted as righteousness.” I don’t think Abram actually was fearless. I think he had plenty of fears: just think of how he tried to manipulate the promises of God to produce a son, because he was afraid God wouldn’t fulfil the promise of children for him and Sarai. What a mess he made of things! But in spite of the fears, he started something new – a life following a God he would come to know – a God who would later be known as “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”.
Nicodemus was afraid too. In fact, the way the writer John tells the story it rather sounds as if he’s skulking along through the shadows of the night, not wanting anyone to know he’s coming to see Jesus. He seems to have an inkling that Jesus is someone special, who has something important to teach him – but he’s afraid of what the other religious leaders will say. Nicodemus has status in his community; he doesn’t want to mess that up by associating with some rabble-rouser. Perhaps he’s afraid for his people, too – he doesn’t want the Romans to think the leaders of the Jewish people are associating with a potential revolutionary. That could have serious and tragic consequences.
But despite his fear, Nicodemus visits Jesus – and he learns something from Jesus about making a fresh start. Nicodemus represents all those who are drawn to Jesus but aren’t quite sure what to make of him. You might call him patron-saint of the confused! There are a lot of people like Nicodemus – people who are curious, intrigued, wondering, but not quite sure what to make of this Jesus person. And then John’s gospel gives us something to confuse us more – that famous phrase about being “born from above”, “born anew”, or “born again”. What did Jesus mean? What does John mean by telling us this story? I suspect that it has something to do with baptism: the baptism of water, and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. In the early church both were sought and expected as a sign of new life in Christ.
Does Jesus’ “explanation” to Nicodemus help? Well, perhaps it does. A lot of people have memorized John 3:16 over the years, believing it to be the key to understanding the significance of Jesus. Sometimes we get focussed on the “believing in Jesus” part, or the “only begotten Son” part, and gloss over how it begins: “For God so loved the world”. Everything important begins with love. God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved – which means healed, made whole. That’s what Jesus is about, that’s what God is doing through Jesus – showing us in no uncertain terms that the way to be healed, renewed – yes, born again or born from above – is through love. I spoke last week about how we learn as children to love and trust God when we find our parents and other adults in our lives are loving and trustworthy. In both the story of Abram, and the story of Nicodemus, the word “believe” can also be translated “trust”. The apostle Paul wrote that Abram “trusted” God; whoever “trusts” Jesus will experience this new life. With the love of God, the love Jesus lived, wrapping us round inside and out, we are able to start fresh and live a renewed life.
Can I tell you exactly what those words “born from above” mean? No, I can’t, though I’m drawn to what Marcus Borg has to say about it in the quotation I used for a “gathering thought”. The words remain something of a mystery to me. In a way, Nicodemus’ confusion and misunderstanding is our confusion and misunderstanding. But however confused we are, it comes down to this: that God loves the world, and gave us Jesus. Baptism is an act of love and trust. Each time we celebrate baptism, each time we remember our baptisms as new members join our congregation, we are proclaiming our love of God, and our trust that God loves us and our children unconditionally. God embraces every person, baptized or not, but in baptism we give visible expression to that love and commit ourselves and our children to loving God and following Jesus in return. We pray for the Spirit of God to be active in our lives and in the life of this congregation; we pray that this day will be a fresh start, a new beginning, for each one of us. When surrounded and supported by the love of God, new beginnings can be a source of joy rather than fear. May it be so. Amen.