May 30th 2021 homily on Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-8 by Pastor Galen Zook
You Can Do Both
The 2006 film Amazing Grace tells the story of the 18th century British politician William Wilberforce, who was responsible for steering anti-slave trade legislation through the British parliament. The film recounts the events that led up to Wilberforce becoming a force for social and political change.
As a young, ambitious, and popular Member of Parliament, Wilborfoce had a transformative conversion experience and aligned himself with the evangelical wing of the Church of England. Wilborfoce wrestled with his role in government, however, and the strength of his religious conviction caused him to wonder whether he should leave politics in order to study theology. He was eventually persuaded by some friends, however, that he would be more effective doing the work of God by taking on the unpopular and dangerous issue of the abolition of the British slave trade.
In the film, Wilbofroce’s friends staged a sort of intervention, where a former slave showed Wilborforce the scars that he still carried from where he was branded in the slave market. Thomas Clarkson, founder of the Committee for Abolition of the African Slave Trade, then tells Wilberforce, “We understand you’re having problems choosing whether to do the work of God or the work of a political activist.” Hannah More, an activist for various humanitarian efforts, finishes Clarkson’s thought: “We humbly suggest that you can do both.”
Wilberforce does indeed proceed to do both, working not only for the end of slavery, but also advocating legislation to improve the working conditions for chimney-sweeps and textile workers, he advocates for prison reform, and campaigns to restrict capital punishment. With others, Wilberforce even founded the world’s first animal welfare organization. And he provided financial and moral support for those establishing schools for the poor in order to help alleviate poverty and he gave generously to world missions from his own personal funds
I’m grateful that Wilberforce’s friends were able to convince him that he could “do the work of God and the work of a political activist,” for it would have been a shame if Wilberforce had left the strategic position where God had placed him. But it would have also been a shame if Wilberforce had remained in politics, but had abandoned his religious convictions or pushed them off to the wayside. It was a good thing for Britain and indeed for the world that Wilberforce allowed his faith to influence his political activity, and that he devoted himself to serving God through his work and through the generous giving of his time, talents, and resources.
Born of the Spirit
Nicodemus, who we meet in the third chapter of John’s Gospel, seems to have a similar quandary. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a member of an elite Jewish religious order that was concerned with correct doctrine and with individual expressions of purity and piety. And yet he seems to feel that he is missing something, and he is drawn to what Jesus is saying and doing. He comes to Jesus at night, probably for fear of what the others in his religious order might think if they saw him talking in earnest with Jesus. Nicodeums refers to Jesus as “Rabbi,” or “teacher,” saying “‘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.’”
Nicodemus recognizes that Jesus’s outward actions indicate an internal reality that he himself is missing. There’s something different about the actions that Jesus is doing. Jesus has a power and authority that he himself and the other religious leaders are lacking. I’m sure that there are a lot of questions lurking behind Nicodemus’s statement, but he can’t quite bring himself to voice them. But Jesus seems to respond to the questions on Nicodemus’s heart, saying, “‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’”
This taps into something that Nicodemus is longing for – to see the Kingdom of God. But Nicodemus is thrown off by Jesus’s statement that he must be born “from above,” thinking that Jesus is saying he must be physically reborn. But Jesus clarifies that he is talking about a spiritual birth, saying “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
Jesus goes on to say, “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.”
Now there’s a lot more to this interaction between Jesus and Nicodemus, and most of us are familiar with the latter part of their interaction where Jesus tells him that “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” (John 3:16). But for this morning, I want us to focus in on this idea of being born “of the Spirit.”
Led by the Spirit
The Apostle Paul talks about this as being “led by the Spirit” in Romans chapter 8, saying “For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (Rom. 8:12-14).
“Putting to death the deeds of the body” and yet living is a death and resurrection, it’s being born from above, becoming a child of God. As Paul says, ”For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” and he goes on to say, “and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ–if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”
Being led by the Spirit, being born of the Spirit. It’s an inward change that has outward implications. Inward transformation bearing tangible outward fruit.
Now it’s no doubt that upon hearing Jesus say all of this, Nicodemus probably wondered whether he should leave his role and position of influence behind in order to walk along with Jesus and the rest of his disciples. But it’s interesting that Jesus doesn’t invite Nicodemus to do this, as he does for many others throughout the Gospels. He doesn’t tell Nicodemus to sell all of his positions and give them to the poor, as he does for the Rich young ruler. He doesn’t tell him to leave his friends and family behind to follow him, as he does for some of the other would-be followers of Jesus, or to leave his career in order to follow him as he does Matthew the tax collector or Peter and John the fishermen.
Instead, Jesus engages Nicodemus on his terms, as a philosopher and religious scholar, modeling for Nicodemus some of the ways Nicodemus might be able to do the same for his peers and fellow religious teachers of the law.
And sure enough, it seems that Nicodemus did in fact go back and seek to influence his fellow Pharisees. Several chapters later, in John 7, the Pharisees were meeting with the chief priests of the temple, looking for a way to arrest and get rid of Jesus. And John tells us that Nicodemus stands up in the middle of this council meeting and says, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” for which he is vehemently accused of being a follower of Jesus. Later on Nicodemus takes an even greater step of boldness in publicly identifying as a follower of Jesus, when after Jesus is crucified Nicodemus helps Joseph of Arimathea bury Christ’s body and brings spices to accompany his burial (John 19:39).
For Nicodemus, as for William Wilberfoce, the answer to the question of whether he should serve God or work for change right where God had placed him seemed to be to do both – that he could serve God through his position of political and religious influence.
We don’t know why God calls some to leave their houses and jobs and careers to move halfway around the world, while God calls others to minister right where they are. We don’t know why God leads some to become doctors or lawyers, teachers, or firefighters, and others to become preachers and missionaries. As Jesus says, “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” (John 3:8).
But the key is that we are led by the Spirit. That, like the prophet Isaiah, we open ourselves up to be used by God, wherever God sees fit. That, like Isaiah, we say “Here am I; Send me!”
Peace with Justice Sunday
Today is Peace with Justice Sunday, when we celebrate the peace and justice efforts that are being done across the United Methodist connection.
And some of us may say, “well which is it? Should we pursue peace or justice?” Should the church be concerned with working to end violence in our city or world, or should we work for systemic change? Should we be about the saving of souls, or working to end systemic racism? Should we be about evangelism, or discipleship? Which is it?
But notice that our wise denominational leaders have used the word “with,” not “and” or “or.” Following the Biblical concept of shalom, which is usually translated “peace” but more accurately involves both the absence of violence and the presence of wholeness, righteousness, and justice on a societal level, they seem to be humbly suggesting that we can and should pursue both.
In fact, in the Bible there is not a clear separation between peace and justice. As it has often been said, without justice, there is no peace. If everyone does not have enough food, or clean water, or access to education or opportunities, then all is not truly just in the world. The violence that we so often see on our streets and in our world is so often tied to a lack of access to resources. And the sin and corruption that we see on a societal level is so often tied to the internal greed and deceit that is present in everyone’s heart, apart from Christ.
And so we cannot have one without the other. We must pursue peace with justice, personal individual and societal holiness. We must seek to reconcile people with God, and with one another. We must work for internal and external change, the saving of souls and the redemption of bodies.
Peace and justice go hand in hand. Just as we are so often called to do God’s work in and through our careers and vocations, and in and through our roles as parents, and neighbors and friends, so too we work for peace with justice.
As people who are called to pursue both personal and societal holiness, there are a few quick points I want to draw out from our Scripture lessons for today:
1. As people who want to see change in the world, we must be born of the Spirit. No amount of outward works of religiosity or political activism can save us. It’s not about making sure that our good deeds outweigh our bad deeds. Our worth, our identity is not in what we do for God, but in the fact that we are children of God, who have been born of God’s spirit. And so we cannot and should not place pride in our outward actions or in how much we do for God, but rather find our identity in Christ, as children of God.
2. We must recognize and remember that God’s spirit leads different people to work in different places and in different ways. We should not judge one another because the calling that God has placed on someone else might be different than the calling God has given you or me.
I see this particularly among those who are passionate about a particular aspect of the Christian calling. Evangelists, for example, are often frustrated that not everyone seems to be as passionate about doing evangelism as they are, and they think that others just don’t care about the saving of souls. Others perhaps are concerned about alleviating world hunger, or working to end climate change, and they wonder why everyone else does not seem to be as passionate or concerned about these same topics as they are.
We must extend grace to one another, remembering that, as Jesus told Nicodemus, “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.” We don’t always know why and how the Spirit of God is moving in and through the lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to get others to care about the issues and topics and concerns that are deeply on our hearts, but it does mean that we should extend grace to others, especially to our brothers and sisters in Christ.
3. And lastly, as Paul says, “if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” We need to make sure that our words and actions are led by God’s spirit, and that we’re not being motivated by selfish ambition. It’s possible to do even good things for the wrong reasons, and so we need to continually come before God, submitting ourselves to the Lordship of Christ, asking God to remove any selfish ambitions or desires that we may have for our own praise and glory, making sure that the changes we are seeking to effect in the world are for God’s glory, not our own.