Those are some pretty powerful words in the lexicon of the Christian faith. Some would even implore that they are the very foundation of what makes one a Christian . . . through God’s “grace” in Jesus humanity is “saved” from the its wickedness and sin to be “born again”. It is the old “salvation” plan taught to Christians from the very beginning of the faith journey. It is the common belief and understanding . . . the fundamental gateway towards redemption and one’s slot in heaven. At least that is what is believed. But, is that the way that it works? Is that what makes one a person of faith?
Think about it.
Think about it as we consider the story of Nicodemus.
Nicodemus, from what we can glean from our scripture reading this morning, is a Pharisee . . . an educated individual, educated in the scriptures of the people and God . . . an important individual, maybe even a person with a little power and prestige within the community and the Pharisees . . . someone who figures he has it all figured out. Because of this, Jesus is a curiosity to him . . . Jesus the individual and Jesus the teacher . . . and, Nicodemus needs to know. Nicodemus needs to know whether or not this Jesus guy is the real McCoy.
To satisfy his curiosity he goes straight to the source . . . he makes a call upon Jesus . . . but, he does so under the cloak of darkness. After all, he is an important person and it is better to be safe than sorry. Whatever the case, he visits Jesus and begins a discourse . . . a discourse that only seems to confuse him more than when he started. Jesus is quite blunt with him, “You are Israel’s teacher and do you not understand. I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?”
In other words, Jesus is telling Nicodemus that if he has it all figured out then it should be no problem in embracing and living what it is that Jesus has been teaching and preaching to the people. The problem is, Nicodemus is smart in “book knowledge” . . . smart in “head knowledge”; but, he is flunking the course on the spiritual side . . . on the “heart” side. He, and others like him, are nothing more than robotic drones who are going through the motions of faith creating a toxic and dogmatic expression of faith that is more damning than being ignorant of the faith.
That which Jesus is speaking about is not dogmatic . . . it is not ritualistic. No it is spiritual and freeing . . . something that you cannot box up and sell off the shelf of the church. Jesus states: “I tell you the truth, unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” It is not book learning that Jesus is talking about here . . . something you learn and mindlessly regurgitate . . . it is not ritual. It is spiritual, and being spiritual it takes on a whole new form.
Jesus explains the Spirit—the spiritual: “You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Faith is not some habit that one learns. Faith is a relationship . . . an act of establishing a relationship of love and community. As one commentator put it: “The focus is life. This means relationship. The motive is love.” As anyone of us who has ever been in a relationship will say, relationships are about as predictable as winning the lottery. When it comes to relationships there is nothing basic and formula-matic . . . if that was the case there would not be thousands and thousands of books out on the market about relationships—there would be one book for everyone. That is the work of the Spirit.
Basically Jesus is telling Nicodemus . . . for all that he is worth, for all the education he had, for all the “faithfulness” to the teachings and rituals and posturing he went through . . . he was not saved. Nope, he needed to be reborn . . . and, to be reborn he would have to let go of all that he knew and thought he understood, latch onto the Spirit, and hang on for the ride . . . to hang on because the Spirit’s ride was unpredictable and wild . . . it would be an adventure.
And, how would Nicodemus know that he had been reborn? By the way that he lived his life . . . in relationship to God . . . in relationship to others . . . all grounded in love.
So, we go back to those three phrases—those three words: Saved, born again, and grace.
As Christians we bank on it . . . we rely upon it . . . that through God’s “grace” in Jesus humanity is “saved” from the its wickedness and sin to be “born again”. We believe that we are saved as Christians. Which makes one think, is it working? Or, do we have it all wrong?
Apparently something is not working using this formula. If the formula was working the state of the “church” today would not be in the shape it is in with its decline in society. So, what is the problem?
I think, and this is my opinion and thoughts . . . but, I think that the current formula has put the impetus all on God and that Christians believe if they accept and learn the teachings of Jesus and the “church” all the bases are covered . . . that things are hunky-dory . . . and that that is all that we have to do. All we have to do is to believe . . . believe with our heads. But Jesus tells us that it is not the head that guides the body, but that it is the heart. The heart is where the Spirit dwells.
Now it is true that it is through the “grace” of God that we are given the opportunity to be “saved” . . . “grace” that was exhibited through Jesus—his life, words, actions, and even his death. It is through “grace” that God makes the opportunity available for anyone who is willing to embrace the “gift” and to follow in his footsteps . . . God provides the opportunity, but God does not force anyone to take it. No, to receive the “gift” one has to take it . . . has to embrace it . . . has to come into relationship with it. And, there it is again, that word—relationship. That is where all the action takes place . . . that is where life is lived . . . that is where community is built . . . that is where the Spirit moves—in relationship.
We are not “saved” because we say we are “saved”. We are not “saved” because we can recite the Lord’s Prayer without even thinking about it. We are not “saved” because we attend worship every Sunday. We are not “saved” because we know our Ten Commandments or we can rattle off scripture from memory. We are not even “saved’ when we gather around the table to break the bread and lift the cup. No, we are not “saved” until we have entered into a relationship with God and one another that is built on love. Relationships are not built on words, but on action. The Spirit guides us where God wills.
When we are “saved” we are “born again” to the Spirit. The Spirit moves us towards doing God’s will. God’s will is that we be in a relationship with God that is open and loving. God’s will is that we be in relationship with others . . . all of God’s children of creation . . . in such a way that we truly become one family under God. Such salvation is does not come through the head, but it comes through the heart. Jesus showed us the way.
As the followers of Jesus we need to really consider whether or not we have truly been “saved”. Are we following Jesus . . . his words . . . his life; or are we following the “church” and its ritualistic and dogmatic words that reside in the head? The Spirit resides in the heart. There are too many words in the “church” . . . there needs to be more action. The Spirit needs to be set free . . . to live . . . to love . . . to do the will of God. Amen.