There is a song I learned as a child, and then loved getting children to sing when I was a Beach Mission leader. It went like this:
Father Abraham had many sons
And many sons had Father Abraham
And I am one of them
And so are you
So let’s just praise the Lord
We would then do strange things progressively in between singing the song again – like put our arms in the air, lifting our feet, turning around and finally sitting down.
The song was a lot of silly fun really, but it was passing on to our children a very important truth – that we are descendants of Abraham in the family of faith.
Paul uses the example of Abraham to illustrate what righteousness is really like. In his day, and perhaps even in our day, many people thought righteousness had to do with meticulously keeping all the requirements of the Law. But he said how clear it was that Abraham was accepted as Righteous long before the law was given, so righteousness has to do with something else.
Maybe it was in not understanding this that poor old Nicodemus gets a bit confused, too, in his little chat with Jesus.
Someone I read this week suggested that in many ways Nicodemus was like Abraham, except before Abraham was about to leave Ur, and that unlike Abraham, Nicodemus is not that enthusiastic about setting out on the adventure. Just as YHWH had earlier invited Abraham to embark on an adventure of trust, Jesus invites Nicodemus to open to the rush of God’s Spirit in such a way that his very being would be renewed – being born anew or again.
And this same invitation has been echoed down through the years as generation after generation of people have been invited to consider the faith and a life committed to trusting Jesus.
This story of Nicodemus is a very good one for us as we have a group of people embark on the Catechumenate in preparation for the Baptism and/or Confirmation.
Jesus has told Nicodemus – and us – several very important things about what it means for us to be born again, or born anew, or born from above (all of which are adequate translations of the term Jesus used).
Firstly we cannot be born again by our own efforts. There is no DIY kit for salvation. If nothing else, the Good News of Jesus is that our salvation is totally a gift from God. It is only by God’s love and grace that we transformed into God’s children. It is a gift. And the Grace God shows towards us in giving this gift is completely unmerited. There is nothing we can do to earn it.
Poor old Nicodemus took Jesus’ words “You must be born again” literally and it got him into a real pickle. He was only thinking in earthly terms. So Jesus rephrases it to make it clear that he was talking about God’s work. And it is God’s work to bring to birth in us such a new creation as will bring glory to God – that is being born of the Spirit.
But there is an earthly dimension. Jesus says we must be born of water and the Spirit.
There are two dimensions to this idea of being born of water – there is our physical birth which is preceded the gushing of waters from the mother as she prepares to give birth, but there is also a hint here of our baptism.
This earthly dimension in our baptism is the only pre-requisite for God’s Gift – this is the physical demonstration of our CHOICE to follow Jesus, to turn our live totally towards God.
This week, some of our young people, and some of the older ones, have embarked on a journey that is their response to the same question God asked Abraham. God has said “Will you turn to me and trust me” and these people have said “Yes, that is what we want”. By turning their lives towards God they are opening the doorway for God’s grace to enter into their lives – for them to be born from above, to be born of the Spirit.
Their Baptism is the water-sign of that choice, and the hands of the Bishop on their heads while he says “Receive the Holy Spirit” is a visible way for us to say that this re-birth has begun.
It is a journey. The transformation has just begun. We will need each other every day, all along the way, to encourage us al and always to trust in God.