Sermon at the closing service of Delaware-Maryland Synod Assembly in Ocean City, May 30, 2015
The Holy Gospel according to John, chapter 3.
Now there was a man named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 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.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Let us pray in the words of St Bridget: “Show me the way and make me ready to follow it. It is dangerous to delay, yet perilous to go forward. Answer my petition and show me the way.”
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ Jesus. This has been my very first time in Ocean City. I don’t see the Atlantic too often. Maybe it is not everyday life for many of you, either. During the last days I have been able to watch the sea, look at the rolling waves and breathe the salty wind.
I went walking on the sand one morning together with my daughter. We wanted to feel the water and wind. But the water was so cold that we did not want to try swimming and the wind was blowing so hard that I had to hold on to my hat. Luckily I was not wearing my mitre – which a bishop probably should do, even on a beach holiday…
I realized that it takes courage to set sail on an ocean. You don’t know about the winds. You don’t know where the wind comes from and you can’t tell where it will take you. You only can trust that there is land on the other shore, and you have to go and search it up. You have to set sail and start exploring the sea in the power of the wind.
Our two churches have shared a companionship for some 25 years. It is most appropriate, since the very first Finns in America settled by the banks of Delaware River in the early 17th century, in the Swedish colony named Nova Suecia, New Sweden. Not much remains of those early settlements today.
I have been thinking about the courage it takes to start crossing an ocean. There is no security. You don’t know about the future, and you only have a vague idea of the dangers of the voyage. There will be storms and rough weathers, and yes, there might even be icebergs on the way. But one nevertheless must trust the wind and start sailing.
Nicodemus, the man high in the hierarchy of the Jews, wanted to know more. He was insecure about the future. He had been listening to Jesus and his call. He knew that this man has been sent by God, and he wanted to follow him. But he did not know where it would take him and whether it would be safe to follow Jesus there. So he decided to meet him privately in the dark of the night. Like us, he too wanted to walk and talk with Jesus, albeit only for a short and secret while.
The Gospel tells that Nicodemus opened the discussion by confessing that Jesus was sent by God. And that was enough. Then Jesus took the lead in the discussion and started guiding Nicodemus. Nicodemus did not need to say more, he did not need to know more. It was enough for him to confess Jesus having been sent by God. From then on the wind of God, the Holy Spirit, started teaching him and showing him the way. Jesus spoke him about being born again and from above.
There is an interesting Greek word here (greetings to my seminary professor!): anothen means to be born “again” and “from above”. Our English and Finnish translations are not apt to express both dimensions in only one phrase, so we have had to choose either one of them. But even Nicodemus gets confused for the words Jesus says. In the first place he thinks of being born another time, getting back to mother’s womb and being born a second time, which of course is impossible.
But Jesus patiently explains: You have to be born from above, from the Spirit of God. You have to become a new creature, a new human being. That is to be born from above, to become a disciple of Jesus, living to the glory of God, leaving your self-centredness behind and becoming a messenger of Christ’s love, for the sake of the world.
What is needed most in our communities? What are the biggest and deepest needs in our cities and our villages? There are financial needs, there are needs of food and shelter and there are needs of a secure life. There is a need of peace and trust and respect. But there are also needs of relationships, there are needs of being welcomed, being included, being made a partaker in a common life. All in all, there is a need of finding a meaningful life. There is a need of being loved by God.
And so is the answer by Jesus to Nicodemus: God loves the world. God has loved the world so much that he has sent is only Son into it. God sent the eternal Word, the Logos, to become human and to renew all humanity. Logos means not only “the word” but also the intelligent principle embedded in the world according to which the whole cosmos was created. Human beings can find a meaningful life in God, because they were already created according to God’s will and according to God’s meaning. In Christ, they will now start becoming a new humanity.
Did Nicodemus want to know something a human being can not know? Did he want to know how can all this be possible, because his mind was captive to an all too human way of thinking? Couldn’t he think of being born of the Holy Spirit? No wonder he could not imagine what it means. The Spirit is like the wind: you can hear its sound but you cannot tell where it comes from nor where it goes to. The Greek word Pneuma (mark my words, Professor!) means both Spirit and wind. To be guided by the Spirit means to surrender to insecurity and to live without knowing where the wind will blow and take you.
The Synod Assembly has discussed various matters. But I have been particularly moved by the constant spirit of prayer, by the will to take a while and to pray; “pray us to the debate”, “pray us to the vote”, even “pray us to the coffee hour”. That shows at least two things of the decision making in the Assembly. First, you can’t know what lies ahead of you. Second, you nevertheless can go into it trusting in God’s love, trusting that the Spirit will guide you. Not knowing but trusting. You can’t tell the outcome or the final result of each decision. But you can trust that the Spirit guides you when you walk with Jesus.
The Spirit takes us on a journey, on a difficult and sometimes even on a dangerous voyage. The Spirit makes us witnesses to God’s love in Jesus Christ. Christ sends us into the world. God has a mission, and the Church is God’s tool for mission. She is a sign of God’s reign and an instrument of its coming in its fullness. God’s kingdom is characterized by love, compassion, equality, mercy, forgiveness, justice, peace and hope.
Yes, it takes courage to set sail on an ocean. It takes courage to be sent by Christ and to be led by the Spirit, wherever it might take us. But it is the only meaningful way of life: to become part of the new humanity in Christ.
“Show me the way and make me ready to follow it. It is dangerous to delay, yet perilous to go forward.” Amen.