Sermon by Karen Fong at St George's Church 12 March 2017, Lent 2
Sermon – John 3:1-17, Genesis 12: 1-4 Tearing Down the Walls (12 March 2017)
When I was about 10, a friend gave us a dog – a Lhasa Apso or Tibetan terrier named Nicodemus. I grew up in Singapore and we were not a Christian family so the name Nicodemus or NICODEMUS as they would say in Singapore was completely unknown to us and actually unknown to everyone who ever met Nicodemus. A few months after we got Nicodemus, my mother sent me to a Baptist church camp run by an American family (how that came about is a whole other story). The first bible passage I ever heard read was John Chapter 3. Imagine my surprise when I heard that the Pharisee (whatever that was) was named after my dog, Nicodemus. I immediately sat up and paid attention!
I didn’t understand a word of the passage (and it was the King James version as well). The only verse that I sort of got was John 3:16
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten so that whosoever believeth in him will not perish but will have everlasting life”.
Anyway, the pastor spoke about Jesus and how we needed to be saved from our sins otherwise we would go to hell. Now if you are planning a visit to Singapore and are considering seeing the Tiger Balm Gardens with your children – (it’s a Chinese mythological theme park), a word of advice, avoid taking them to see the 10 Courts of Hell. It is absolutely gruesome. You have to walk through figurines suffering the most hideous tortures - people being sawn in half; their flesh being sliced off in strips etc. I had nightmares for years. So when the moment arrived, like at all good Baptist services, when we were told to close our eyes and raise our right hand if we want to be born again and want Jesus to be our personal saviour – my hand shot up immediately as I didn’t want to go to hell.
So that is my story of being born again. In the years that followed, I eventually got baptised and confirmed in the Anglican Church. I was a Christian. I was born again as said in the bible in the Nicodemus story. I had the certificates. I attended Church as and when I could. I prayed, usually when I wanted something or when I was in trouble. I read the bible sometimes, usually in the beginning of the year after I’ve made a resolution and bought a new guide of some sort. God was in a neat little box to be opened as when it suited me. The Holy Spirit were just words to me that I said after “father and son”. Christianity was a religion, a private thing between God and me that was separate from my “real life”. I erected a neat little wall between the two.
But just as the wind blows wherever it pleases, God finds his moment whenever he pleases. And he always finds his moment. Often it is when we are at our lowest ebb because it is then that we pause for a moment to stop behaving like we are God.
What Jesus is telling Nicodemus is that there is a Kingdom of God which we can be part of when we are born again of water and spirit. We will only be able to see this Kingdom of God if we are born again in water and spirit. This is the double baptism, the baptism of water, the practice which John the Baptist started, and then the baptism in the spirit which is the new life that Jesus offers us through the Holy Spirit. The wondrous new life includes the divine but it also includes the mundane. Water means life and spirit means eternal life. Eternal life does not start when we get to heaven after we die but begins right here on earth with our baptism. I was baptized in a beautiful cathedral in Singapore but I did not allow the spirit to be let loose in my life so I was unable to really see the Kingdom of God.
In the gospels, we see Jesus teaching and showing through his ministry that his birth was an earth-shattering event because he inaugurated a new reign where God becomes King of the world. The New Kingdom was being set up. God is in charge. The promise made to Abraham we heard in the Old Testament reading that all people on earth will be blessed through him was fulfilled in Jesus. Through him was the real exodus and real return from exile. God was setting the whole world free with this New Kingdom which has a whole new set of rules. The world as we’ve known it was gone forever.
Notwithstanding my baptism, I had remained blind to the Kingdom of God for years although little cracks of light would shine through the wall I built. It’s like buying an iphone 7 and being able to only use the phone to call, send text messages and maybe take photos but all the other snazzy functions are just icons that are untouched on your home screen.
Thankfully the spirit is always on the move and we are open to that movement especially when we worship. That was when it happened for me, when I walked into a service in a church in Notting Hill. God showed up and this time it was not the fear of hell that got me to embrace God but being filled with his overwhelming love. A love that doesn’t make sense, it is so deep and powerful and abundant. A love that saw God give up his only son to die for us. A love that breaks down walls. A love that allows us to be lifted up the way Jesus was lifted up. He was lifted up on the cross and we are lifted into it. Us being lifted up come at a price, but that pain and trauma, which is the price of transformation is borne for us by Jesus. That pain of childbirth is a pale imitation of the pain on the cross where we are pushed out into a new reality as we are born again. Being born again is not is single event marked by hand raising, sprinkling or emersion in water but it is allowing the spirit to fill us continuously to transform and shape our lives which in turn shapes the live of others. And that can only happen through soaking ourselves in scripture and prayer and worship with the community of believers.
The spirit has no limitation and always remains a mystery. The spirit turned Nicodemus from being a secret disciple who only sought Jesus in the night to one who, shaped by this encounter with Jesus, had the courage to speak up a little at the trial of Jesus and then to come out of the closet completely and risk his position and reputation to accompany Joseph of Arimathea to take the body of the crucified Jesus to be buried after anointing the body with an extraordinary amount of expensive spices. The spirit gave those Christian crucified by the IS the courage to cry out loud that Jesus is Lord even as they die. The spirit changed me from that girl who feared hell to someone who stands here before you to speak about Jesus.
But there is more to Christianity than being born again. It’s not just a personal self- improvement scheme to make us better people to live more contented lives. We are part of God’s plan for radical cosmic renewal. The good news is that through him, the Kingdom of God broke through into the world. Christians have a responsibility to change the way the world is being run. Israel was not the only nation through which God blessed the world. The middleman or agent was removed from the equation. There is direct access for every single person in the world because of what Jesus did on the cross. There are no walls. All are welcome. There are no bans to entry because of where you are born, the race and family you belong to, your sexual orientation, whether you are rich or poor, abled or disabled. Through Jesus, God started a new family which we all can be part of through being born all over again. For God didn’t just love Israel, he SO loved the WORLD that he gave us Jesus. So just as through Jesus we have been lifted up, our purpose is to help lift others up.
The way that our world is run is broken and this past year we see that brokenness even more acutely. In the Kingdom of God, the poor and the marginalized are the priority. As we study the life of Jesus, we see the limitless potential of living a life in the spirit. We see how he lifted others up daily in his ministry, breaking down the walls that separate us from each other. The poor and the marginalized were not just given money to alleviate the pressures of life a little but Jesus gave them true friendship, by living with them as equals so that there is no “them”. His style of kingship was to serve. He didn’t bring in the tanks to conquer to bring about change. He did it by bringing love.
So this Lent, let us not live in a smaller world than what God has given us. Let us ask each day for a new injection of the spirit so that we can live a life filled with the freedom of the spirit who moves the way the wind blows, lift us up and help us lift others up as we live as equals with all those who are marginalized in today’s broken world and work together to systematically tear down those walls which are there and are being built each day.