a homily based on John 3:1-17
by Rev. Thomas Hall
A young man came to the door of a monastery with a big, fat duck in his arms. His
uncle, who happened to be one of the monks, answered the door. "Here, Uncle
Stanislav, is a gift for you and the other monks." Well, Uncle Bartholomew took the
duck and plucked it, stuffed it, basted and baked it and the brothers lived high on the
hog (so to speak) that night.
Several days later, another knock came on the monastery door. "Alollo? I am a
friend of the nephew who brought you the big, fat duck. I'm a bit down on my luck, and I
wonder if I might impose on you for a bite to eat and a place to sleep for the
"Of course you can, my son, you are most welcome here." So that night, he
joined the monks for warm duck soup. A few days later, another knock. Halloooo! I am a
friend of the friend of the nephew who brought you the duck. Could I impose on you for a
bit of hospitality? He too was welcomed . . . more duck soup.
A few more days went by. Another knock. Hi, I am a friend of the friend of the friend
of the friend of the nephew who brought you the duck. That night at dinner he was
presented with a steaming hot bowl of water. He tasted it, looked up, perturbed.
"Whats this? "This?" asked Brother Stanislav. "Oh this. Why this
is the soup of the soup of the soup of the duck that my nephew brought."
Theologically speaking, second-hand, third- or fourth-hand faith can end up being
pretty watered down. Living by the faith of the faith of the faith that we once owned in
confirmation class or from a Bible study or prayer group can be pretty bland and tasteless
over the years.
Yet this is precisely the problem that this morning's gospel lesson appears to address.
Under the cover of darkness, a man comes to Jesus. Consider Nicodemus. This is no lost
soul. Nicodemus is no local thug, nor a desperate man. Hes a prominent figure in
town. Powerful. Influential. A member of the Sanhedrin. Very Mainline. Well off,
financially speaking. He's a leader in his community. He believes that his faith requires
that he do something, not just believe something, that what he believes determines how he
lives. Like most of us, Nicodemus is a thinker-doesn't just swallow anything that the
preacher says. Has to agree with the Scripture and tradition. You wont see this guy
coming forward at a Billy Graham Crusade for spiritual counseling-he is the
counselor. Hes the adult Sunday School leader. The District Superintendent.
Nicodemus is a model Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran and Pentecostal. Hes one together
So what's someone like this slinking up to Jesus when nobodys looking? Our lesson
doesnt tell us. But there are some clues left for us. Our writer places him in the
dark for more than one reason. Hes in the dark about Jesus. And that bothers him.
Maybe his faith has sort of leveled off. He's gone on in his faith for so long t lived on
the faith of the faith of the faith that he once owned for so many years that his faith
seems more an empty ritual like a couple still married, still polite but who havent
had a meaningful conversation in fifteen years. Suddenly this new teacher blows into town
and starts preaching a Will Rogers style sermon.
And the signs! What disturbing signs! Some of Nicodemust fellow Methodists had been
terribly disturbed at some of the goings-on: massive crowds jam the stadium to hear this
prophet preach against the way they practice worship. Part of Nicodemus wants to reject
Jesus out of hand. But the signs! Who can deny anyone with these signs? Hes heard
the stories of crippled legs made strong and withered arms made straight, of blind eyes
restored to sight. Too many things about this stranger to ignore.
He moves away from the light and begins a hushed conversation with some small
talk-"how's the back?" Doesn't quite know how to begin. But Jesus cuts Nicodemus
"Listen, no one even gets within sight of the city limits to God's town without
first being born again." Nicodemus' face contorts with frustration. "Born
again?" What's that? The conversation is clearly in trouble. The two have come to a
communicational fork in the road. The writer, who includes this story, has Jesus using the
word anothen--a tricky word that is almost untranslatable in English; it describes
an event, something that is experienced. One possible translation is "born
again," anothen. That's how Nicodemus hears it. Rebirth. He hears Jesus
telling him to go all the way back to the beginning; to start all over again. "Begin
again," Jesus seems to tell Nicodemus. So analytical Nicodemus takes Jesus words to
their logical conclusion and ends up stuck in the birth canal trying to begin life all
But is this what Jesus wants? To just throw everything out the window and get back in
line again? To sum our entire life up with some experience, that negates everything we've
ever experienced? That's the way I understood this passage for most of my life. Getting
born again was like just getting the cement poured in my basement and letting it dry. Then
another experience comes along and Id have to get the jackhammer out and break it
all up so that I could pour a new layer of cement down. Do you know how long it takes to
build a house that way? Never get it built.
Jesus moves quickly to correct Nicodemus. He uses the word in quite another sense. Anothen
can also be translated above. "Nicodemus," Jesus says, "you must be
born from above. It takes baptism and the Spirit to bring you into the city limits.
Nicodemus, don't be astonished with my statement, just watch the wind causing the trees to
clatter and clack." Jesus moves to a discussion about the Spirit. "Nicodemus,
what I mean is, that the Spirits unpredictable; comes and goes as it pleases."
But one thing for sure-we are never quite the same once the breeze of the Spirit
blows through our life.
The Nicene Creed says that the Holy Spirit is "the Lord and Giver of Life."
That means that anytime the Spirit is around life and renewal happens. When the earth was
still wohu tabohu-shapeless and dead-the Spirit as a mother hen, brooded over it
and creation happened. As the prophet looked out over a valley of bleached bones, the
Spirit came upon them and they began to stand to their feet-a vast army. To the 120
persons gathered on the Day of Pentecost, the mighty wind of the Spirit swept through the
room and empowered 120 persons to change the world. When the Spirit begins to breath upon
us-renewal and spiritual rebirth happens. Without the Spirit saturating our lives-- even
the born-again experience becomes hardened and sun-baked. A dead issue. But with the
Spirit coming from beyond our abilities and talents, coming to us from outside of
ourselves, every day becomes an opportunity to be saturated by the Breath of God.
What is the Spirit's wind like in your life right now? Still as a summer night? A few
little gusts? Howling? Full sail? Dead calm? Look up and wait for the mighty wind of the
Spirit. Are you like our friend, Nicodemus? Life together, well ordered? Yet, deep down
inside youre looking for something more? Invite the Lord and Giver of Life to your
Pope Paul began Vatican II with a simple prayer. He prayed, "Come, Holy Spirit and
renew us as by a new Pentecost." Let that prayer be our prayer to God. "Come,
Holy Spirit and saturate our lives with the mighty wind of your Spirit." Not once,
twice, or three times, but a thousand times in our life. Amen.