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Conversion is a Comma, Not a Period
a sermon based on John 3:1-17
by Rev. Thomas Hall

I have some investment in todayís gospel lesson. Iíve shared this story of Nicodemus with prisoners crammed inside a penitentiary near Bagio City in the Philippines. I once had the privilege to be on the same platform with Dr. Billy Graham in Durban, South Africa as he preached this same story to 60,000 people of all races who had come to hear the gospel. And then thereís the deacon who, after my try-out sermon in a rural Appalachian town in eastern Kentucky, came up and announced to me triumphantly, "Praise God, preacher, Iíve been borned agin." I knew where that language came from: the deacon had been to John chapter three. Years later now a seminary graduate, I leafed through People Magazine waiting for my Dodge to be repaired. A well-meaning zealous Christian told me this story and asked me point blank, "Have you had a born again experience?"

John chapter three has given many people a map by which to navigate the Christian journey. Some of you in worship this morning would take us right to this passage to describe your own spiritual experience. The story gives us a vocabulary and a pattern for conversion. So letís take another look at what this story might be saying to us.

In the Gospel of John the first act of discipleship you can offer is to seek out Jesus. So Nicodemus is taking that first step; he comes to Jesus. Strange time to begin a journey of discipleship-he comes at night. Why?

Part of the answer is that the man is a "Pharisee." Josephus says that there were about 6,000 Pharisees around Jerusalem. I have a book in my library entitled, The Phariseesí Guide to Total Holiness. The book describes Pharisees as people who took their faith seriously. Unfortunately their high standards kept God out of reach for most people. In their very passion to love God they became rigid and inflexible and down right nasty when their interpretations of the Law were broken.

If you had been a Pharisee Jesus would be dangerous to you for two reasons. First, Jesus broke the rules. He touched a leper which violated the holiness code of Leviticus. He healed on the Sabbath-which they took to be act of work, which one couldnít do on the day of rest. Second, Jesus drew huge crowds. That can make anyone nervous when someone suddenly draws large crowds. But to an established institution, large crowds are deadly. This man was clearly jeopardizing their way of life.

And no one could deny the good that this rabbi was doing in the community, especially the healings. The random acts of kindness were killing them-they were unauthorized, violated the Sabbath, and threatening long established institutions.

So they had traded swipes back and forth-Jesus challenged their system and the Pharisees vilified him:

 

"Praise God, we know this manís a sinner!"

"Well the reason he can cast demons out

is because the man is Satan himself."

So we can understand why Nicodemus-a Pharisee-might come to Jesus at night. Dangerous times for everyone.

But there is another reason. In Johnís gospel "the night" carried another meaning: separation from the presence of God. Nicodemus is in the dark about who Jesus is. So he comes to Jesus and says, "we know youíve come from God, for no one can do these signs apart from the presence of God." I wonder if behind that we is an I? "Hereís what I know about you: Youíre a teacher and thereís something that rings true about God in what you do and say. But youíre not one of us, so who are you?

This is where the story gets interesting. "Unless youíre born again, you cannot see the kingdom of God," Jesus tells Nicodemus. You can just see his face contort with one of those "huh?" looks. The conversation is clearly in trouble. Jesus uses a word-anothen-with a double meaning that is only possible in Greek. There is no Hebrew, Aramaic, or English equivalent to it. One word has caused so much confusion.

Jesus says, "you must be born . . . " What? Could be "born again." Most of our Bible translations go that route. If thatís what Jesus meant, then heís saying, "Nicodemus, you must have a spiritual rebirth if you want to experience Godís Kingdom. But Jesus could just as well have said, "Nicodemus, you must be born from above. From outside of yourself. Thatís how it appears in your pew Bibles-"from above."

Whatís the difference? Jesusí response is intentionally and unavoidably ambiguous. The born again translation stresses a specific time in our life when we undergo a spiritual transformation or experience. But the other translation, "from above" stresses a place-"from above"-the Spirit blowing on our lives..

Nicodemus like a lot of others only hears one version-"Okay, Nicodemus Rebirth time. Go all the way back to the beginning, start all over again. So analytical Nicodemus takes the words literally and ends up stuck in the birth canal trying to begin life all over again.

Jesus tries to correct Nicodemus, but he never does seem to get unstuck. He was so confident that he knew the answers. Knew Jesus. But in the end, Nicodemus is reduced to questions: "How can this be?"

Jesus says, "You must be born from above." It takes the Spirit to bring us into Godís Kingdom.

Thatís the story. Whatís the lessons?

Conversion is not reformation, but new life. Being born from above means that conversion comes to us from beyond ourselves. The Nicene Creed calls that life-giving agent, the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the Lord and Giver of life. Nothing we could ever do will convert us or make us good enough. We must be born from above. By the Spirit.

Conversion is part of the Christian journey. Some of us may point to the font as the moment when the water and the Spirit began our Christian journey. For others the journey began with a more dramatic personal encounter with Jesus, a moment in time when we personally and deliberately offered our life to God.

Conversion is a comma, not a period. The moment we have responded to Godís call on our life, the journey begins. Conversion doesnít end at the font, it begins. Conversion doesnít end at the altar or after the "sinnerís prayer," it begins the journey with God.

 

"Are you a Christian?"

"Oh yes, I was baptized as an infant."

"Oh, yes, I came forward to receive Christ at First Church, 1954."

"Are you a disciple?"

"Oh yes, Iím on the church board."

"What is God doing in your life right now?"

Conversion is a comma, not a period.

Being born again is a life lived-today and tomorrow- in the Holy Spirit. It is not a once and for all event, but a process that will fill up the rest of your life. As one Greek Orthodox Christian has said, "Every day each of us has to say yes to Godís saving grace-not just once, but over and over." Amen.