Pr. Eric Swensson
I want to say a few words about “heavenly things,” to use the words on Jesus in the third chapter of the Gospel of John, and do so in the context of the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus.
This is a familiar story for us church goers, perhaps even overly familiar, so I want to ask you to imagine that you are Nicodemus and you have come to speak with Jesus. You do what seems best to help you imagine, you can put on a robe and walk down a dusty, dark street if that helps, you can close your eyes or not, whatever helps. And here are three important things about the mental state of Nicodemus that night.
First, you are a person of learning, you come from a strong tradition of learning, of reverence, you are a son of Abraham so you know all about faith, all about God, you know a lot, but one thing is bothering you, you do not understand it, it doesn’t make sense and this one thing not making sense is turning your world sideways. Who is this Jesus? There is something about Jesus that goes against what you have been taught, at least what you think you are supposed to believe.
So, the second thing you need to imagine in order to be Nicodemus is you like Jesus. Yes, you like him. You have come tonight not to argue with him, but to learn who he is and if truth be known you have found yourself becoming nearly obsessed with him since you heard him speak.
Third, you have come at night. There is something about what you want to know that, well, you do not want your friends, peers, or family to know about it. There is something dangerous about him, but you are not sure why.
So, imagining yourself face to face with Jesus, you ask him your question (“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”). And what does he say to you? “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” What? “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” What? Good grief. That’s not what I asked.
Maybe you are thinking you know all about religion, but in reality there is a lot we don’t have figured out. So, Nicodemus, how does it feel? How does it feel to be so close and yet so far away?
When it comes to Christianity, especially those with training in doctrine, those who are supposed to be religious, what we think we are supposed to believe, and what Jesus says, sometimes can be unsettling. Both those who are raised in church and those who have just begun to be interested in learning who is Jesus, when it comes to whatever Jesus was talking about when he said “heavenly things,” we can be stumped, can’t we? Born from above. What does that mean? The wind blows where it wills. What does it mean? Different traditions, different denominations explain these things differently.
I remember when I really was Nicodemus. I had been taught doctrine in seminary, I had been given all the answers to all the questions I could imagine, and believe me, given answers to questions that had never occurred to me, and I graduated and was given a parish to pastor and found out that people were asking a lot of things that apparently my professors had never imagined. They told me about heavenly things but they really hadn’t. Of course, part of that is that one cannot teach it in total. Heavenly things are gifts that lay dormant as it were and you must experience them before you begin to have an approximation of knowledge.
One thing for sure is that Jesus connects spiritual birth, that is what he means by being born from above, Jesus connects spiritual birth with the Holy Spirit when he says, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Spiritual birth, being born again, is the work of the Holy Spirit. His words should be of great comfort for those who don’t understand it and troubling for those who think they have it pinned down. No one can truly understand God, or the Holy Spirit of God. But we do know some things. And one is right before us if we look at this lesson. What comes next? The cross.
Getting the gift of the Holy Spirit, or receiving the gifts the Spirit bestows, is not to elevate us, but so that we might elevate Jesus.
If you still have some questions about heavenly things after completing a spiritual retreat, good. If you don’t have questions, that is when you should worry.
For know, we have the grace of God, we have the gift of faith, we have the new identity we received in Baptism, we have the contemplation of what Jesus did on the cross, we have before us His Holy Supper and the gifts it bestows, the forgiveness of sin and resurrection to new life, all of these are heavenly things, all unintelligible otherwise. You must be born again.
And we have prayer. You do know, the whole liturgy is a prayer, right? We pray many prayers but all in all it is one prayer that begins with a hymn of praise and its “Go in peace. Serve the Lord” is its amen.
We have this Word today and we will share His Meal, and we have another chance and another where God will invite us to encounter Him. He will be there listening to our questions, giving answers we may not understand, but always there. And Jesus will be there listening until that time we take our last breath, and then we will finally know everything.