Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that 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.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 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?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’”
A mechanic who worked out of his home had a hound-dog named Mace. Mace had a bad habit of eating all the grass on the mechanic's lawn, so the mechanic had to keep Mace inside. The grass eventually became overgrown. One day the mechanic was working on a car and dropped his wrench, losing it in the tall grass. He couldn't find it for the life of him, so he decided to call it a day.
That night, Mace escaped from the house and ate all the grass in the backyard. The next morning the mechanic went outside and his wrench shone in the sunlight. Realizing what had happened he proclaimed, "A grazing Mace, how sweet the hound, that saved a wrench for me!
Today, we are not talking about a grazing Mace, but amazing grace. Grace is foundational to our identity as Christians. Grace is absolutely essential to our understanding and experience of God. Grace is God’s freely-given, undeserved, unmerited gift to the whole world, and for those with eyes to see, grace continues to shape our lives. May we pray.
To really understand grace, we have to go back in the story just a bit. To the beginning, in fact. In the beginning, God created the world and God got it right, so God said, “It is good” (Genesis 1). Human beings were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), so human beings were created good.
But, oops, something went wrong in the story just as soon as it started. Where things went wrong is told as the story of Adam and Eve, and their story is our story. Through we are created in the image of God with the purpose of reflecting God’s image, we are unable to do so, creating a condition of separation between us and God, and we call that condition “sin.” But God doesn’t want things to stay the way they are. God wants us back. God wants us to get over the separation of our sin. God wants us to be active participants in God’s kingdom, in order to bring the whole world back to God.
In today’s text, Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, when it is dark. Anecdotally, I like to refer to this text as “Nick at Nite.” Darkness represents many things in Scripture, including unbelief, ignorance, temptation, and sin. The text evokes images from Isaiah 9:2 that were made famous in Handel’s Messiah: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.”
Light in the darkness – signs of prevenient grace
The people have been walking in darkness – darkness of sin, darkness of separation, darkness of unbelief – but they have seen a great light, and the light has a name: Jesus. Jesus is the light shining in the darkness, the perfect reflection of the image of God. He restores broken relationships, and he points the way to the kingdom of God.
Here’s something cool about how God works: while it was still dark in our lives, the light of Christ was already shining. When we were groping around the darkness, Christ had already paved the way for us to find the full sunshine of God’s delight. Long before we asked for help or ever made the first reach in God’s direction, God was already reaching toward us, and you know what we call that? Grace.
In the Methodist tradition, we have a name for grace of that particular shape – we call it “prevenient grace.” Prevenient simply means “to go before,” so prevenient grace is grace that shapes our lives before we know it, before we claim it, before we name it. It is the grace that is at work within every human being, whether they acknowledge God or not.
Read further. Only a few verses after today’s reading is John 3:16, arguably the most well-known verse of the Bible. “For God so loved the world, he gave his only Son.” Jesus didn’t come simply to deliver a message, rather, God sent Jesus to reconcile us to God, and to reconcile us to each other, even if it meant his own death, and his death was on our behalf.
And this beloved nugget of Scripture exposes the scandal of grace. “God so loved the world, he gave his Son.” Wait a minute – did God even ask us if we wanted God’s Son? God didn’t even consult us. God just does what God wants to do and sends the Son . . . to die . . . for us – simply because God loves us, whether we realize it or not. God just gives us what is best. It doesn’t matter if we’re ready, it doesn’t matter if we offered our consent – God gives us grace whether we ask for it or not!
We would probably prefer for God to make grace conditional. Unconditional love is a really hard thing to accept! We want to negotiate! We want to stay in control, we’re often like little kids who say, “I do it myself!” If God says, “I’ll love you IF you’re a good person, or IF you read your Bible, or IF you do good things,” we can work with that, we can DO something, but that’s not how God works. God just loves us – completely and unconditionally – whether we want God’s love, whether we ask for God’s love, God just loves each of us no matter what.
Karl Barth, one of the most influential theologians of the 20th Century, was once asked what was the greatest theological discovery he had made during his life. He thought for some time and finally stated, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” There is no greater truth than that, nothing more foundational for our theology. If you can understand that simple truth – that Jesus loves you, no matter what, whether you acknowledge it or not, then you can understand grace.
New birth and justifying grace
But then, God invites our response. Jesus tells Nicodemus that those who would see the kingdom of God must be born from above, born again. What does Jesus really mean here? Nicodemus’ responds sarcastically: “Born again, you say? Explain the mechanics of that to me, Jesus. You mean old people like us have to be born a second time?”
Jesus says: “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.”
Water and the Spirit – let’s hold up there just a minute. Water is connected with nature and earth. It knows no obstacle. Going around, under, and through, it always attains the lowest level. Water is the great decomposer, ultimately more powerful than any other form of matter. The wild and free Spirit, on the other hand, is airborne, blowing where it wills. It’s going someplace, although it’s not at all clear where. Spirit is both creative and chaotic, unpredictable and dangerous, inspiring and irrational.
Jesus says that we must be born again, born anew, born from above – we must be born of water and the Spirit. Being born of “water and the Spirit” is about the decomposition of the old and the generation of the new. That’s the difficulty in the new birth to which Jesus calls us. The old things are familiar, and even if they’ll eventually kill us, we want to keep them, even when the old thing, the old ways, the old attitudes and desires are decomposing in our hand.
And if we allow the wild winds of Holy Spirit to blow in, who knows what will happen? If we invite the Holy Spirit in and experience new birth, we might lose control! The wind of the Holy Spirit wafts away items to which we have become attached and blowing in others we would not have chosen.
But friends, experiencing new birth in Christ is about giving up control. Different people experience this new birth differently – some have dramatic stories of conversion in which the light of Christ suddenly pierced the darkness of their sin-sick soul, others have stories in which divine grace slowly wooed them to Christ. Both types of experiences are valid, and they have something in common – God is the initiator, God is the primary actor. Salvation is really a story about what God has done and is doing by grace much more than it is a story about what we have done by ourselves.
Richard Heitzenrater says, “For Wesley, Grace is what God is doing at the depths of your life by the power of the Holy Spirit.” So then, being born from above, experiencing the new birth, is letting the Holy Spirit do what God wants done at the depths of our life.
Growth and sanctifying grace
New birth in Christ is a starting point rather than the end of the line. In John’s Gospel, it’s a daily pilgrimage of opening the door to our soul and letting Jesus in. It’s a daily process of taking down the sign that says, “God, please do not disturb,” and instead saying, “Holy Spirit, please come in, and help me clean up this mess.” It’s a continual shift in our disposition to say, “Lord, my life belongs not to me, but to you. You are the potter, I am the clay. Shape me. Mold me. Fire me up with your Holy Spirit. Use me, use my life, however you want.”
John Wesley taught that coming to faith, the new birth, is not the goal of the religious journey. It is important. It is critical. It is necessary. But it is not the goal. When parents give birth to a child, once the birth is over, do the parents say, “OK, we got this child born; our job here is done!” Of course not – birth is the starting point. Likewise, new birth in Christ is a starting point of the life of being a disciple of Jesus, and grace will continue to shape us. In the line of the hymn, “’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
The point of new birth is to start us on a journey of following Jesus, of growing more like him every day, of letting the Holy Spirit come in and do whatever God wants within us. New birth is about opening ourselves up to God’s grace and allowing it to shape us so that each day, our life is a little better reflection of God’s image than it was the day before.
And you know what makes that possible? Shocker of shockers, it’s grace. For the grace that comes in our lives after we have experienced new birth we call “sanctifying grace,” because it is grace that makes us holy, restoring the image of God in which we were first created, restoring our souls to the condition in which God created them in the first place.
Think of it this way. The Christian faith is like a great big house with lots of different rooms, and every time you go into a different room, some of God’s divine image is restored within you. So using that analogy, repentance is like the porch. You have to get onto the porch before you can get into the house, but it’s not the goal. Once you are on the porch, the door is faith, the door is new birth. You can’t get into the house without going through the door. The goal is to get inside the house, to explore room to room, to have the divine image of God restored within you as you grow in holiness. If all you do is come to faith, then you get stuck in the door!
For Methodists, repentance is important; there are 24 hymns in The United Methodist Hymnal in the section on ‘Invitation and Repentance.’ Pardon from sin and assurance of forgiveness are also important; there are 21 hymns in The United Methodist Hymnal in the section on ‘Pardon and Assurance.’ But what we really care about is holy living; guess how many hymns in The United Methodist Hymnal are in the section on ‘Holy Living?’ 168!
We care so much about holy living because that’s what happens after the new birth. In the Wesleyan tradition, the end of the road is not an altar where one has knelt in deep repentance and accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The end of the road is a life that fully reflects God’s love.
Friends, the best way to identify a life growing in and shaped by God’s grace is that it reflects God’s love. Because if we open ourselves up to grace, to the Holy Spirit coming in and cleaning us out and putting whatever God wants inside of us, then God is going to plant love every time. So it’s simple – when God is in us and we are growing in grace, then we carry out the Great Commandment Jesus gave, the one on which hang all the law and prophets: love of God and neighbor.
And it’s all a gift from God. It’s nothing we can do on our own. We can’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. We can’t be good enough for it. It’s unconditional. It’s given to us whether we like it or not. And after we have come to faith, after we have experienced the new birth, grace continues to shape us and transform us, molding us in God’s image, shaping our lives in just the ways God wants. Grace is the ultimate reminder that no matter who we are, what we do, or where we go, ultimately, we belong to God.
No matter where you are today on your spiritual journey, may you see how your life is shaped by grace.