THE GRACE QUESTION

ARE YOU A TEACHER...AND YET DO NOT UNDERSTAND?

JOHN 3:1-21

 

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            There are two actors in this scene of John's gospel: Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus appears only a couple of other times in John's record.  The last picture of him is in John 19 when after the crucifixion, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea ask for the body of Jesus in order that He might have a decent burial.

            One of Rembrandt's most famous etchings portrays that scene.  As the limp, dead body of Jesus was slowly taken down from the cross, Joseph of Arimathea, stands close by dressed in all his finery.  In the darkness further away with his face lined in sorrow, is Nicodemus.  He is holding in his hands the linen cloth in which Jesus' body would be buried.  John says that Nicodemus also brought with him a large quantity of spices, myrrh and aloes.  One wonders what Nicodemus must have been thinking as he stood there, waiting for the body of Christ to be taken down from the cross.  Obviously, much was going on in his life - this wealthy man, bringing fine linen and a bountiful amount of expensive spices to anoint the body of one who had died as a common criminal.   Was he still mystified as he had been when Jesus told him that he must be born again?  Was he still puzzled by the response of Jesus when he pressed his question about how one could be born again?  Jesus' answer had been totally unsatisfying for his rational mind: 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.

            Did he yet not understand?  “It's nothing you do, Nicodemus,” Jesus said.  “The Spirit does it.  It's all grace.  Position, honor, success, responsibility, who you know, what you have, it counts for nothing.”

            That's the issue Jesus questions Nicodemus about in our scripture lesson today. Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?  It's also a question relevant to us because it's the question of grace.

            Let's look at Nicodemus for a moment.  John doesn't dwell on him, doesn't tell us much about him, yet it’s difficult to find a more intriguing person in the gospels.  He was an important man, a well-thought-of member of the Pharisees.  John tells us that he came to see Jesus at night letting us know Nicodemus had a reputation to maintain. His visiting Jesus was a questionable pursuit, because Jesus was a questionable personality, so he didn't want to go public with his interests.

            That Nicodemus was a Pharisee is an important fact, especially when we are talking about how a person is saved.  In many ways the Pharisees were the best people in the whole country.  There were never more than 6,000 of them. They were what was known as chaburah, or brotherhood.  They entered into this brotherhood by taking a pledge in front of three witnesses, that they would spend all of their lives observing every detail of the scribal law.   To the Jews, the Law was the most sacred thing in the world.  They believed the Law, the first five books of the Old Testament, to be the perfect word of God.  To add one word to it, or to take one word away from it, was a deadly sin.

            It was this good man then, committed to the Law, committed to doing what God would have him do, who came to Jesus inquiring about salvation.  To no other person could Jesus' word been more shocking: You must be born again.  We'll come back to that phrase in a moment, because it deserves our attention.  What I want us to get clearly in our mind now is the fact that Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus raises the grace question: “How can one be saved? What is at the heart of Christianity?"

            Rodney Wilmouth, former Methodist pastor of St Paul’s in Benson, tells the story about a man who died and went to Heaven. When he showed up at the pearly gates, St. Peter was waiting. "I want to enter Heaven," said the man. "You may enter," replied Peter, "if you have accumulated 100 points on earth."

            "Well," said the man, "I was baptized in the church and scarcely missed a Sunday in my entire life."

            "That's good," said Peter. "That's one point!"

            "One point? -- only one point? Well, I did serve on the Administrative Board for 20 years, and I taught Sunday School for 25 years."

            "That's good. Another point."

            "What!? only one more point!? Well, I tried to live a good life. I tried to be a good father and husband."

            "That's good," said Peter again. "That's worth one more point.""Oh, my," said the man. "The only way I will get into Heaven is by the Grace of God!"

            "That's right!," said St. Peter with a smile on his face. "And that's worth 97 points. Come on in."

            Nicodemus didn't understand that. Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?   The question still remains.  Despite the witness of scripture and our experience, we continue to question grace. Maybe it has something to do with our pride and perverted self-sufficiency.  So, let's think about it.

            Let’s begin by focusing first on that phrase that shocked Nicodemus.  You must be born again.

            A man recently referred to a mutual acquaintance in a kind of derogatory way. This was his sentence.  "He says he's a born-again Christian.”  Well, the sound of his voice, the slight hint of a sneer when he said "born-again Christian", revealed the slight. You see, is there any other kind of Christian than a born-again one?n By that I mean, the idea of rebirth, or being born again, runs throughout the New Testament. 

            Listen to Peter (I Peter 1:3): Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!  By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope ...

            Listen to him once again (I Peter 1: 23): You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.

            Or take the Apostle Paul.  Some of his most famous words read (II Cor 5:17), If any person is in Christ, he is a new creation, the old has passed away; behold, the new is come.

            So, all through the New Testament, the notion of rebirth, being born again, re-creation occurs.

            Now, I know how that term is normally used, sometimes even by Presbyterians, and that is a little bit unfortunate.  We use it to distinguish between people who have had some sort of dramatic experience that confirmed for them their Christian faith.  We use it to separate people who may have come into the Christian life in what some would call a "normal" kind of way, those who may have grown into the Christian life from those who may have had a more dramatic, explicit kind of conversion experience.  But the distinction is unfortunate, and three times Jesus hammered home the point: You must be born again.

            But Nicodemus did not understand.  It did not compute.  The truth is Nicodemus would have been pleased if Jesus had given him a list of things to do, ways to act, laws to keep.  That's what he was about.  That's the way the Pharisees understood a proper relationship with God.  Nicodemus didn't understand grace.  So he asked, "How can it happen?"  And Jesus responded, 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.

            In other words, the new birth is not something that we orchestrate.  It has nothing to do with rules or commandments, or worthiness, or works.  It's grace and that's what we all have a problem with.

            It’s weird that we do.  After all, the most important things are ours because of grace?  Life itself is grace.  It is a gift.  Our parents didn’t consult us.  They didn’t get our approval before we were born.  We were just born, and every day of life is a gift.  It’s grace.

            We need to be honest about that.  I think of a little girl who was angry with her younger brother.  She pushed him down, called him a few names and then spit on him. Her mother walked into the room just as all of this took place.  The mother said, "Honey, that was surely not very nice . I think the devil made you do that."

            The girl replied, "The devil may have made me push him down, and the devil may have made me call him names; but I thought of the spittin' all by myself."

            I like her honesty, and we need to be honest.  We live as though we deserved life, that we had something to do with getting it and keeping it.  But, think about it. What did you do to receive life?  What are you doing to deserve life?  Life is grace. It's gift.

            Even love is grace.  I love the story of a small boy in a large family in the post-depression era.  The family was preparing themselves on Saturday night for getting to church the next morning.  The mother was particularly harried, and asked her 7-year-old son, Richard, to polish her shoes.  He agreed, and went to work.

            Sometime later, he brought the shoes to his mother for inspection. She complimented him on his work, reached into her purse, and gave him a quarter. He looked at her, rather puzzled, but said nothing.

            The next morning, the mother felt a lump in the toe of her shoe as she was getting dressed.  Removing the shoe, she found a wad of paper inside.  Slowly, she unfolded the paper and a quarter fell out.  Spreading the paper out in front of her, she found a note written on it in Richard's 7-year-old scrawl.  "I done it for love."

            Love is a matter of grace.  Life is a matter of grace.  And we could go on and on: The most important things that are ours are ours because of grace.

            Do we understand these things?  Do we understand grace?  Do we understand that we can do little to add or to improve upon God's acceptance of us in Christ, except to say “yes” to it and enjoy it?

            As we close, let me offer a picture of it.  A fifteen-year-old girl went to a youth conference in Oklahoma. She was short and a bit overweight.  She was not too attractive, and she had been crippled from birth.  When a dance was held one night at the conference, she simply put her crutches by a chair nearby, sat down in another chair and spent the evening watching the others dance.  All the time smiling, but who knows the pain that was going on inside.

            The music was the kind that peals the skin off your face and overloads the auditory nerve, and the floor was full of teenagers moving with the rhythm.  Then a very special thing happened. In the middle of the dance program that evening, a slow number was played by the band, and a tall 16-year-old boy went over to this girl, held out his hand and said to her, "Please, would you dance with me?"  She looked up with unbelieving surprise, and with a smile quivering on her face, she said, "Yes."  Together they began dancing. The young man held her tightly, and she held on to him tightly, lest she stumble and fall.  It was a beautiful sight to behold.

            Later that evening, one of the leaders went to the young man and told him how special he thought it was for him to do this, and how much he admired him.  And he said, "As the two of you were dancing, I noticed that she whispered something in your ear.  Do you mind if I ask what it was?"

            The teenage boy said, "You're not going to believe this, but she said that this was the first time that anyone had ever asked her to dance in her whole life."

            That's a picture of it.  Grace.  All grace.

            Can you imagine how that young woman felt?  Unattractive, crippled, never having been asked to dance.  And then came Prince Charming and it happened.  Can you imagine how she felt?  If so, you are beginning to understand grace, and what happened when Jesus asked you to dance.