This is one of those Sundays when the three lectionary readings are perfectly connected with the same theme. Let's call it, "the plunge into faith."
In the Old Testament lesson, Abraham is called out of his home. If his age, 75, is correct according to our standards, then he was too old a man to leave everything and almost everyone he had known to move to a strange land. A strange land in those days meant unknown dangers-- more so than today. There were no international laws, no police, and no means of land transportation beyond one's feet or a donkey.
But when the Lord spoke to Abraham, Abraham obeyed. He took with him his wife Sara and his nephew Lot and all the persons that were connected to their family (this means servants or slaves) and all their material possessions. The move was irrevocable. They were never going back. And all because of Abraham's conviction that God had spoken to him and had given him promises. Yet when Abraham made the move, there was no guarantee that those promises would be fulfilled. Abraham went on faith. And so spectacular was that act of faith, that both Isaiah and St. Paul refer to it with great admiration. The promise, in addition to material possessions, included a relationship with God. "I will bless you and your descendants," God promises and Abraham believes God.
Paul, in his magnificent Epistle to the Romans, where he deals in complex ways with the subject of faith and works, takes this act of faith by Abraham and says clearly that Abraham did nothing to deserve God's promise. He quotes: "Abraham believed in God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." So the blessings of God were given to Abraham because of Abraham's faith in God. As Paul puts it: "For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith."
In our technologically advanced state where we know so much about the workings of nature and about space and the planets and the moon, where medicine examines everything we eat and do and draws conclusions about how long a life we should expect; at a time when everything we buy has warnings about what might hurt us, the faith of Abraham sounds strange and archaic. But there was nothing strange about it to St. Paul. He makes it very clear that a very similar kind of faith is expected from all of us. A faith that equals the faith of a child in a loving parent. A total and new way of thinking.
Which brings us to the remarkable story of Nicodemus. He was a fine man, one of the learned Pharisees. A leader of the people, the Gospel tells us, a member of the respected Sanhedrin who knew so much about Scriptures, a man who was truly devout. He comes to Jesus at night--which says something about his courage. Nicodemus is attracted to the gifted Galilean who is healing the sick and who already has numerous followers. But Jesus' followers are not really Nicodemus' sort of people. Should he be seen associating with them? Would Nicodemus, the distinguished member of the Sanhedrin, be ostracized if he were seen among Jesus' followers? Would it make him less effective if he helped the young prophet? So Nicodemus came to Jesus by night.
Nicodemus begins his conversation with Jesus affirmatively. "We know that you come from God because of your signs."
Jesus ignores the comment or compliment. He sees the heart of the man who is before him. And he makes a totally unexpected response. "No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born from above." I have been preaching and demonstrating the quality of the kingdom of God, he is telling Nicodemus. But you cannot see it unless you are born from above (or anew, as some translations have it). Yet, as Nicodemus immediately points out, how can an old man do this? Not just re-enter his mother's womb, but break from all the habits and convictions and proofs of a lifetime? How?
Jesus then refers Nicodemus to baptism by water, the baptism John preached, which was preceded by repentance. By water and the spirit, he says. And now the level of possibility rises-- from seeing the kingdom to entering the kingdom. From the things of the flesh, to the things of the spirit. Jesus reminds Nicodemus of what he has experienced: the feel of the wind on his face and in his hair. You know it is the wind, he says, but you cannot see where it comes from. So it is with the spirit. And when Nicodemus is still puzzled, Jesus moves to another level yet--that of personal commitment. Jesus is beginning to use the first person plural, to identify what has happened to his disciples with the desire he sees in Nicodemus. It is a challenge toNicodemus to make an open declaration, join the company of the faithful, the followers of Jesus. "We speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony."
Receiving the testimony is a decision that requires the same courage and faith that Abraham showed, the same faith that is counted as righteousness, according to St. Paul. The faith that allows one to see and recognize the results of the spirit--the coming of the Son of God who descended from heaven only to be lifted up again on the cross.
And the story concludes with the verse that Luther called "the Gospel in miniature," the famous passage from John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life."
The Gospel writer doesn't tell us how Nicodemus responded. We know, however, that he did not finally become one of the open followers of Jesus. He didn't take that second step that faith requires--the plunge that disregards the taunts of friends, that endangers respectability, that separates us from the world and its material goals. But Nicodemus' heart never stopped caring, because it was Nicodemus who, after the Crucifixion, came to Jesus' tomb-once more at night-- carrying 100 pounds of aloes and perfumes to anoint the body of the young prophet that he had admired so much.
In our day there is so much unnecessary argument between those who call themselves "born again" and those who believe that Jesus spoke about and died for more than personal salvation. That the salvation of the whole world is at stake. But this wonderful passage rises above such arguments. It speaks about the kingdom of God as the Son envisioned it and preached it. During the first successful days of Jesus' earthly ministry, the cross seemed far away. Yet when Nicodemus starts by flattering Jesus, he disregards the praise in order to speak of a much higher standard, the standard of the kingdom, where it is faith that matters. And it is this faith that eventually leads to the cross. Whether we call it "being born again," or being born from above, or being converted, or even being confirmed in the Episcopal Church, what Jesus is asking of us is to be born of the Spirit.
In that new realm, which presupposes an abandonment of what is comfortable and known, as Abraham did; which is a plunge into the faith that Jesus is the Son of God; where material things don't matter; we encounter the One who came from above for one reason only: to show us the love of the Father. To give us the gift of eternal life.