So is everyone born of the Spirit
St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for Whitsunday
June 9, 2019
“Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”
WHAT DOES A CHRISTIAN look like? How can you distinguish Christian people walking around in the world? Is there a mark on their foreheads? Is wearing a cross around someone’s neck a sure sign? What color is a Christian? What height, weight, age, or gender? Something must have changed in them that we can see in order to tell what is going on inside. Do they all smile? Smile at weird times? Do Christians all use the same language, say the exact same things?
When you were a child and your parents got some major appliance, did you seek out that huge cardboard box and hide in it like a cat? When you were hiding, what did you look like? You looked like the box you were in. That’s how we all look when we’re hiding. We look like the package we’re pretending to be.
I was in contracting, in a field where tough men act tough and talk tough. I talked tougher than most because I was also marked as a Christian, and furthermore a college graduate. I could therefore be seen as weak. So I got in my box and hid my faith and its fruits. I looked like the contractor box.
If I say Hindu, you have an image, because Hinduism is largely one ethnicity, right? Buddhist tends to mean east Asian. So it goes with the largely ethnic religions, for they are part of human cultures, underneath human cultures. But Christianity is the only religion that was founded on the principle of reaching the entire world and all families of humankind with the love and joy of good news. Islam claims to be universal, but then it makes everyone an Arab, and little wonder. The Koran is written only in Arabic, and real Moslems will reject any translation out of its original tongue. Resist it if you want, but becoming Moslem means you will be Arabicized.
What marks the Christian, though? And what background do we all tend to come from? A recent story out of war-torn Syria illustrates this well, and gives us hope as we pray each week for the terrorists in our world to turn away from terror and seek Christ.
A man described as a Prince of ISIS tells us, through means that protect him from attack by his former ISIS associates, a story of how he met Jesus. One day this man we will call Mohammed was asked why he believed in Islam. He searched all the writings he had and after great study he found no evidence whatsoever that any of it was true. It disquieted him terribly, so much so that he called a man we’ll call Peter who was a follow-up coordinator with Leading the Way in Syria on the phone and asked for a meeting. Peter was led by the Spirit to be bold, so he spoke, face to face with Mohammed, about how the two of them did not worship the same God, and that Jesus was the only way. Mohammed felt for his knife and seriously considered how to kill Peter. Peter touched his shoulder and prayed for him, but he turned away and fled.
Later, Mohammed called Peter again. At another meeting, the ISIS prince told how he’d seen Peter in a dream handing him an envelope, but it was dripping with blood. The envelope, however, smelled like sweet perfume. He demanded an explanation. Peter said that it was Jesus’ blood, and that without blood there is no forgiveness or redemption for sin. Jesus’ blood, truly shed and given in love, brings sweetness to our lives when we turn it all over to Him. Peter showed the ISIS leader how the Bible lives in true words and that its claims can be proven. The contrast with Islam appeared clearly to Mohammed and he gave his heart, his life, to Christ, asking to be baptized. He now secretly leads others to Jesus in Syria and has escaped ISIS.
Which of these men look like a Christian? In the end, neither of them was hiding in a box, but the ISIS man escaped his box of hiding in radical Islam. He shaved off his radical beard, and now only Peter is bearded. Is a beard something a Christian must have?
Today is Pentecost, what Anglicans call Whitsunday, or White Sunday for the kids dressed in white in cathedrals coming to the altar to receive confirmation, the full impartation of the Holy Spirit. Obviously, we don’t appear in white today, and we dress the altar and ministers in red for the fire that appeared above the disciples’ heads with the arrival of the Spirit. The color you wear doesn’t matter. But the inner spiritual life you lead is what marks you as a Christian. What might that look like?
If we can’t color code believers, identify them with tags or age or other identification, what can we look for that distinguishes a real Christian? One writer suggests seven things we might look for.
A Christian clearly sees the difference between right and wrong and will usually want to do right, and if wrong, will not feel good about it. A Christian will not easily be swayed by false teaching, but grounded in biblical truth will recognize clever lies. She will be rooted in love, for all people, but especially for other Christians. He will serve the church in such ways that are needed and that he is called to. She lives her life in the perspective of eternity, knowing this world and this life are temporary, but heaven is before her. He controls what he says, not to injure another with the power of the tongue. And a Christian, indwelt by the Spirit of God, reflects God’s character toward the world, being Jesus in the moment when others need Jesus, as Peter was Jesus toward Mohammed.
Like Mohammed, Nicodemus was part of a larger and more powerful group fully set against Jesus and His followers, so he too sought out answers in secret, at night, so not to be seen by others. He silently entered the room where a man he suspected to be Messiah sat. John stood by, watching the ruler, warry that this also could be a dangerous meeting. Nicodemus, in typical Middle Eastern fashion, began by lavishing compliments on Jesus. Not to enter that long process, Jesus cut him off. “Truly, none may see the kingdom of God unless that one is born again, from above.”
Nicodemus was stunned. This wasn’t what he’d come for. He wanted a nice give and take chat that would enrich him and, in some ways, confirm that he was a great Jew and in right standing with God. This was absurd. “How does anyone, when he is grown up, become born once more? Get back inside his mother?” he scoffed.
“Truly,” Jesus replied without taking offence, “no one enters the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. I’m not talking about flesh and blood, but the Spirit giving birth to spiritual life. You must be born from above. Just like the wind. You know it’s blowing. You can feel it and you see what it does to trees and grasses. And yet invisibly it comes, from who knows where, and goes the same way invisibly. Everyone born of the Spirit has the Spirit in just that way.”
Poor Nicodemus was more baffled than before, and yet Christ’s words and His gentleness drew out his hunger to learn more. The following class in why God sent His Son into the world form the basis for much that we call the Christian faith. The Son of man will be lifted up, and everyone that puts their trust in Him receives eternal life. This is how God’s love is sent to us, not to condemn the world, but to save it. Without faith in Him, this world is lost. But those receiving His light become light for the rest of humankind.
The indwelling Spirit of God is the mark of the Christian. It doesn’t change your complexion, the length of your nose, the color of your hair, if you have hair. The curious thing, however, is that the image and likeness of God that He worked into the original model is in some ways restored. Things that would divide us, like language, race, and culture are no longer a problem, often being superseded by the work of the Holy Spirit.
On Pentecost, 2000 years ago, about a hundred of Christ’s disciples poured out into the street and sang out the truth of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. Their message was heard by Jewish people in Jerusalem for the holy day, and who spoke only Persian, Arabic, Syriac, Greek, Punic, Coptic, Cappadocian, or Latin. But these Galilean fishermen and others gathered out of the tribes of Judaica, seemed to be speaking to these foreigners like natives of their own lands, unifying mankind through language. Out of the box, the Spirit undid the curse of Babel, and signified the truth of their message. 3,000 were convinced and received baptism that day.
What should we look like as Christians? I’m afraid that some Christians hold a value that we need to take offence at just about everything and everyone we see. Along with our political culture, as Glenn Beck recently noted, we are addicted to offence. That scornful visage can get frozen on our faces after we hold it for a while. It doesn’t become you. Lose the offence.
There are two kinds of people in the world, you know. Those that separate everyone into two kinds of people, and those who don’t. Those who don’t are not faithless toward God and His righteousness. Look at Jesus. Was He always going around judging which people were worthy of Him? He chose badly, if that were so. His friendship with harlots, tax collectors, shepherds and fishermen did not bode well if He was judgmental and wanted his friends to reflect well on Him. He looked on people with all knowledge, and knowing their frailty and their faults, could lovingly discern what God was seeking when He created each person, and what could yet be made of him or her. Could this one be saved? Then He began by loving the person. You don’t see any pictures of Jesus wrinkling up His nose at anybody. “Neither do I condemn thee,” He said to the adulteress. “Go sin no more.”
What should we look like? Are we trying on boxes: refrigerator boxes, clothes dryer boxes, dishwasher boxes? Smarter than you man-boxes? Prettier than you girl-boxes? Richer than you person-boxes? More FoxNews savvy than you boxes? Don’t go there.
We look just like all the people of the world for we are from all the world’s people. That’s not a disguise. It’s part of the message. We are all things to all people, adapting our message not for deceit but for ease of communicating the truth for the truth’s sake. In some situations, we use biblical language because that underscores the truth. In other instances, we use plain street English because that’s what is called for.
Are we wise enough to know what to say to people? We’ve never been wise enough before now. In truth, you and I don’t have the wisdom to convince anyone of the truth unless the Spirit of God works that message into our minds and hearts and utters just the right words needed to penetrate the world’s defenses. But at the center of it all, we are looking to free captives of a world polluted with lies and that has them trapped. Don’t attack the world. They will only retreat back in their boxes. Love them. Be reasonable. Move slowly. Give them reasons to come back to you after digesting just one little bite. Don’t force-feed them. Hint. Catch their false statements with soft hands, knowing you can’t be hurt by any of it. Let the Spirit of God come through you like the wind, invisible, seemingly without a source, but having all wisdom and all grace, speaking the words of God after Him.
So is everyone that is born of the Spirit. So are you.