Trinity Sunday| May 26, 2013| St. John 3:1-15
There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus answered and said to Him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Nicodemus was right. Jesus was a teacher who came from God. Teachers teach. A disciple is taught. A Christian is a disciple of Jesus. This means that a Christian is taught by Jesus. If you will not be taught by Jesus you are not a Christian.
There is a difference between being a Christian and not being a Christian. This should be obvious, but it’s not. The word “Christian” is used to refer to people who would like to be regarded as decent and kind. According to this definition, a Christian is a nice person. Nice people do not judge another person’s religion. Thus, by a strange but pervasive logic, a Christian would never say that someone else is not a Christian, unless of course, that someone didn’t want to be considered a Christian, but then all nice people want to be called Christians because being nice is being Christian and being Christian is being nice.
To which the Lord Jesus, the teacher of all Christians everywhere, says no. No, you are not a Christian just because you are nice. You are not a Christian just because you think you’re a Christian or because you want to be a Christian or because you want others to think you’re a Christian. Jesus, the teacher of all Christians everywhere, says that in order to be a Christian you must be born again.
Born again or born from above – you must undergo a new birth. It is not a physical birth. It’s a spiritual birth. Everyone born in the natural manner is born spiritually dead. As Jesus says, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh.” Flesh gives birth to flesh. This means that we do not by nature think spiritually. We think carnally, that is, according to the flesh. By nature we think as fallen and sinful people. Before we can be taught by God, by the Teacher sent by God, that is, before we can be Christians, we must be born again.
Among Christians commonly identified as “born again Christians” there is a peculiar opinion that you are born again by an act of your own will. You are born again when you invite the Lord Jesus into your heart to become your personal Savior and the Lord of your life. You become a Christian by making a decision. But Jesus says, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh.” You cannot bring about the new spiritual birth. Only the Holy Spirit can. And Jesus explains how he does so. Jesus says: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” The Holy Spirit brings about the spiritual birth. He does so by means of Holy Baptism. This is what Jesus is referring to when he says you must be born “of water and the Spirit.”
There is a technical term for this teaching of our Lord Jesus that the Holy Spirit gives us the new birth to spiritual and eternal life through the washing of Holy Baptism. It is called the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. Most Protestant churches in America deny baptismal regeneration. We who confess it should be aware of the arguments they raise against it. Jesus, our Teacher from God, teaches it. It is a precious truth that we should hold onto with fervent faith.
The chief objection to the doctrine of baptismal regeneration is really nothing more than a religious prejudice that permeates American Protestantism. It is a prejudice against the spiritual benefit of material things. How can water do such great things? It is the same argument raised against the biblical teaching that the sacramental bread and wine are Christ’s body and blood. It’s the argument against the authority of the pastor to forgive you your sins. It’s the argument against sacraments as means of grace.
It is true that water is just water and has no power to save. But when Christ joins water to his command and promise that water becomes a washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul writes to Titus. The prejudice against baptismal regeneration comes from subjecting the clear Scriptures to the judgment of fallen human reason. But it must be the other way around if we are to be taught by the Teacher who has come from God. Our reason must be subject to the clear Scriptures.
But what about those who are baptized and grow up to live godless lives? What about all the baptized unbelievers out there? If baptism is a means by which the Holy Spirit gives us the new spiritual birth that ushers us into the kingdom of God, how are we to explain all of those baptized deniers of Christ? Are they born again? What does their unbelief say about the doctrine of baptismal regeneration?
Not a thing. The Holy Spirit doesn’t force anyone anywhere. He makes the unwilling willing. He comes in and reveals God. He doesn’t coerce. He doesn’t bully. He enlightens. By enlightening us with his gifts he leads us to the true faith. Why do some respond to the Holy Spirit’s calling in faith while others reject him or believe him for a while and then fall away? Who knows? God knows. We can see what the wind does but with all our meteorological expertise we really cannot say where the wind will be coming from or going. Just so, we take Jesus at his word when he joins the promise of the Holy Spirit to the water of Holy Baptism. We don’t try to figure out the Holy Spirit as if he’s some sort of riddle, asking God why he converts this one and not that one. Rather, we look to what God gave us in our baptism. There we find our new birth, our new identity, our new life, and an entirely new way of thinking.
And why is that? Why is it that our baptism is the means by which the Holy Spirit gives us the new birth and the new life? It’s because Holy Baptism unites us with the death of Jesus. See how Jesus, the Teacher who came from God, leads his student Nicodemus from baptism to the crucifixion. No one has ascended to heaven but he who came down from heaven and who is yet in heaven. Well, how can that be? How can the Son of Man come down from heaven and yet be in heaven? Only God can be in more than one place at the same time. This you must understand. This teacher who came from God is himself God. The Spirit who gives us the new birth to everlasting life in Holy Baptism is God. The Father who sent the Son into the world is God. We are baptized in the name of the one and only God, the Holy Trinity, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
And if you want to see this God, if you want to enter into his kingdom, to have him embrace you with his love, forgive you all your sins, claim you as his own dear child, and give you eternal life you must look to where the Son of man is lifted up for you. This is where your baptism directs your vision. It directs you to the cross.
The children of Israel complained about life in the wilderness. It was hard, tiresome, tedious, and boring. They relied on God for manna as their daily bread and they resented it. They were sick and tired of it. They complained against God. They put God on trial. So God sent poisonous snakes into the camp to bite them. When they were dying from the poison they realized their sin and they cried out for deliverance. God told Moses to put a bronze serpent up on a pole. All those who looked up to the snake on the pole would be delivered from the poison.
Putting God on trial is not of recent origin. It’s the way of fallen sinful humanity. We are the judge and God is the defendant. Christians acquiesce to this reversal of roles by turning the Christian religion into a commodity to be marketed. They ask what the public is looking for and then they try to figure out how to present the gospel to them in such a way that they will accept it. They call it being seeker-sensitive. This has been an industry in the church for decades, as church growth entrepreneurs sell ways of making God just a bit more palatable to market demands.
Jesus, our Teacher come from God, won’t go along with this. He won’t have anything to do with marketing the gospel by shaving off this and refashioning that and wrapping it all up in a package that won’t offend the sensibilities of men and women who presume to put God on trial. God’s not on trial! You are. And if you think that you, resenting your dependence on your Creator, can whine and complain against him and it will simply go in one ear and out the other, think again! God is no kind of distracted father. He is your judge. He judges you. You don’t judge him. And when you do, the snakes come to bite you and they will bite you. Their fangs will inject their deadly poison deep into your bloodstream and you will die in pain and hopelessness.
You must be born again! You need new life, spiritual life, eternal life. Look up and see him on the cross. He is lifted up for you. Look to him and live. Don’t look away. Don’t ever look away. Look up to the cross and see your God. Your God put him there. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.” Look to the cross. Your God was hanging there. Jesus said, “I lay down my life that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again.” Look to the cross. Your God regenerates you and gives you eternal life by the washing of water that is joined to the holy precious blood shed for you on the cross.
God is Triune. There is no other God than the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is why baptism is necessary for salvation. Only the Holy Trinity is God. Only the Holy Trinity can rescue us from our sins and give us eternal life. No one has seen God. He who is at the bosom of the Father has shown him to us. Where? Where the Son of man is lifted up, that’s where. In our baptism, that’s where. For our baptism is where God washes us in the blood that Jesus shed on the cross.
Holy Baptism is the means by which the Holy Spirit effects the new birth. But it is not the new birth. It effects or brings it about. The new birth, the spiritual birth, is dying and rising from the dead. We die to sin and rise to righteousness. But the sin from which we have been delivered and forgiven rises up to claim us. The flesh in which we were born smothers us with its feelings and the devil who is a liar and the father of lies deceives us by the feelings of the flesh to convince our hearts that it can’t be wrong when it feels so right. So we sin. Living in the new birth we experience the old fallen sinful flesh. We rebel against God. We complain. We judge him. We put him on trial. That’s sin. That’s sin that calls for the poisonous serpents to bite us and kill us dead. But we are baptized! So when we see the serpents attack us and we feel the pain of the poison oozing through our body, making us afraid, we look up. We see Jesus on the cross suffering for us. We claim our baptism. The name of the Holy Trinity protects us from the poison that would destroy our souls. God forgives us and sets us free.
Confessing the Holy Trinity is believing in him who was lifted up on the cross to suffer and die for our sins. This faith is not our own achievement. God himself works this faith in us by Holy Baptism, by the gospel we hear, by the Holy Supper that we eat and drink, by the absolution he pronounces upon us, and by the mutual conversation and comfort we receive from fellow Christians who remind us of what God gives us in Christ.
To be born again does not require a religious experience that we can remember, as if you must be able to recall when you were born again or you weren’t born again. No, to be born again is to believe and be baptized. Born again Christians do not rely on their good works or on their good intentions or on their devotion to God to gain entrance into eternal life. They trust Jesus who died for them. They trust in the forgiveness of sins that flows from Christ’s blood shed on the cross to the waters of Holy Baptism with which they are washed. They are disciples of Jesus. Jesus teaches them throughout their lives, but they never progress beyond their baptism. For that is where God put his name on them, where they were born from above, and where they entered into the kingdom of God. Amen