A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, March 8th 2020
I was going to start by asking how much you like travelling but realised that that’s the wrong question. What I really wanted to ask was how you feel about the prospect of going on a journey. Travelling is about the process and experience of going to different places, which, in general, I enjoy. Going on a journey, which involves travel, always has a destination in view. We say, “I’m going on a journey to …”
Yes, in Genesis, Abram goes travelling, but it’s travelling on a journey, for, ‘the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country … to the land that I will show you”.’ (12:1) That’s pretty vague, and I suppose that at times Abram must have felt he was just travelling rather than being on a journey. Still, as Saint Paul points out, Abram set out because he ‘believed God’ (4:3). Such belief, such faith, that God provides the destination, turns just travelling through life into a purposeful journey.
Lent – of which this is the second Sunday – is often described as a spiritual journey because it follows in the footsteps of Jesus’s journey. For Jesus, the destination for his journey was Jerusalem, with the prospect of rejection and crucifixion, though along with crucifixion there was to be resurrection. In this Lenten period we are encouraged to reflect upon our own spiritual journey, made in the footsteps of Jesus, who went to Jerusalem. So let’s do that by thinking about someone else who made a journey: Nicodemus.
‘Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus.’ (3:1) Nicodemus was somewhere else and went on an intentional journey to meet Jesus. He did so in response to the things that Jesus had said and done: ‘Rabbi, we know 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.’ (3:2) Nicodemus’s journey was a faith journey (a spiritual journey some might say). He was a religious person – a person of faith. As a Pharisee he taught about how the law might be interpreted by people in everyday life so as to be pleasing to God. Not only was a teacher, but we are told that he was also a Jewish leader. Going on a faith journey to meet with Jesus may have been a controversial thing for a Pharisee and leader to do, however, because we’re also told that he ‘came to Jesus by night.’ (3:2)
Nicodemus doesn’t ask a question: ‘‘Rabbi, we know you are a teacher …’ He makes a statement about Jesus being a teacher who has come from God, one whose teachings are confirmed by the signs that he has performed. As Nicodemus then finds out, though, just because you don’t ask a question of Jesus doesn’t mean he won’t provide an answer anyway! ‘Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above”.’ (3:3) Being born from above? That’s not how most of us normally remember this phrase from John’s Gospel.
Our church bible is the New Revised Standard Version. It translates that phrase of Jesus as saying you must be ‘born from above’. Then they give an alternative translation as a footnote, where Jesus says that Nicodemus (and those whom he represents) must be ‘born anew.’ ‘Born anew’ is closer to what most of us remember, I would guess, but we’re not there yet. I first encountered the Bible through its King James, or Authorised Version translation, in a congregation which then adopted the New International Version translation, so I remember that phrase of Jesus as, you must be ‘born again.’
Born from above, born anew, born again – why the variety or uncertainty? Well, anothen, the Greek word in the Gospel here can mean ‘from above’ or it can mean ‘anew’ or ‘again’. So I guess the poor translators of this into English have to make a choice in the knowledge that not everybody will be happy about it. I guess the translators for our church bibles looked a bit later in the conversation, where there is talk of heaven as “up there”, about the Son of Man descending to earth, and about the Son of Man being lifted up – on the cross and ultimately to heaven – like Moses had once lifted up a statue of the a serpent in the wilderness as a means and symbol of healing: ‘how can you believe,’ John’s Gospel has Jesus ask of Nicodemus: ‘if I tell you about heavenly things. No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’ (3:12-15) Or to put it in fewer words: ‘you must be born from above.’
So why do other translators prefer ‘you must be born anew’ or ‘you must be born again’? Well, they’re in the same boat as the other Bible translators. Anothen could mean ‘from above’, but it could also mean ‘anew’ or ‘again’. And instead of looking at what Jesus says several verses after ‘you must be born’ in verse 3 they look at what Nicodemus says in response: ‘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?”’ (3:4) Now the emphasise seems to be on ‘anew’ or ‘again’. It’s about the natural order in time in which things happen. You’re conceived, you’re born, you grow from childhood to adulthood, God willing. It’s about the universal human journey through time, and to be re-born is to be ‘born again’.
So which idea do you prefer? That to see to see God’s kingdom here on earth involves being re-born in a heavenly way – ‘from above’ – or that to see God’s kingdom here on earth involves being ‘born again’ – so changed that you’re a new person, radically different from the one that existed before. Or maybe it’s a question of both/and rather then either/or, as far as your faith journey in following Jesus is concerned. I think that it’s an instance of both/and.
First, our spiritual birth depends totally upon God. Abram’s journey began when God told him to get travelling with the prospect and promise of a land at the end of his journey. No God, no faith journey. That was the case for Abram and that’s the case for us today. Our new birth, our re-birth, begins with, depends upon God; it’s from heaven; to use the understanding of and symbolic language of the time of Jesus, it’s from “above”. Looking back to Abram, Paul puts it this way: ‘it depends on faith, in order that … [God’s] promise may rest on [God’s] grace.’ (4:16) So, to see God’s kingdom, to participate in God’s reign on earth, we need to be born from ‘above’. It’s God who brings about this spiritual birth in us.
Second, though, to follow Jesus, to participate in God’s reign here on earth, means not only that God changes us but also that we are changed. We are different from the people we were before when we become part of God’s people who follow Jesus in Christ in our beliefs and actions. And the way of expressing the difference between who we were before and who we are now is that of being ‘born anew’ or ‘born again’. When we turn to follow Jesus, when we set out on that journey in life, we become new people – ‘new creation’, as Paul said in another of his letters. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
So there you have it. Two sides of the same coin. Two aspects of the same phenomenon. Putting your faith in Jesus as the way of entering into God’s plans for creation, for this world, for your life, in the here and now, is about being re-born through the power of God – from above – and taking on a new identity – Christian – being born again.
This two-sided aspect to things is why the Christian journey in life is sometimes called a pilgrimage. Pilgrimage, which was big in the middle ages in Europe has been making a comeback in the recent years. Now, for example, every year, hundreds of thousands of people walk the Camino, the route through France and Spain to Santiago de Compostela. I know some people that have done that pilgrimage, made that journey. I know others who have followed different routes. Many of them tell me something similar about their experience. They say that there is great joy and satisfaction in reaching your destination, but that equally important is the experience of the journey itself, day by day, mile by mile, or kilometre by kilometre. They say the journey changes them as they walk, and they arrive at the destination as different people to how they set out.
I think that’s a helpful image for our Lenten journey in the light of this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. God, our destination, draws us to God’s self, and the divine destination needs to exist our journey to have meaning; we must be born from above. And it’s on setting out on the journey and in the experience of it that we are changed; born anew or again. ‘Very truly,’ Jesus says, ‘no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above/anew/again.’