notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
Romans 4, John 3
Being born again - it's a gift
Good Shepherd Morning Communion 17/02/2008
Romans 4.1-5, 13-17, John 3.1-17
Being born again - it's a gift.
How can I achieve "eternal life"? Nicodemus seemed to be asking Jesus.
You don't achieve eternal life, Jesus seemed to reply. You don't achieve eternal life, you receive it as a gift through faith. It's all your grasping after life, thinking you achieve it, that leads to death.
Being born again - it's a gift.
It's amazing how we can so easily turn a gift into an achievement. Think about the story of Abraham and Sarah, for example. We might be tempted to think of their life story as an achievement. We notice how willing they were to move away from family and friends so they could receive the promise of descendants that would make a great nation. Their great achievement, we wrongly think, was giving up everything in order to receive something else.
But it wasn't an achievement - it was a gift.
St. Paul, in the book of Romans, tries to help us out. He tries to help us understand that the life-giving promise which Abraham received was not something he earned but was given to him as a free gift through faith. We're not justified by the works we do, Paul tells us. We're justified by faith.
John's Gospel helps us out too, when he talks about true life, "eternal life". Jesus tells Nicodemus that we must virtually be born again, from above, of the Spirit this time.
Eternal life isn't something we achieve - it's something we're given, from above, of the Spirit.
All we have to do is to believe in the giver - and take the gift he offers us.
Why is this argument important? Because Jesus sees that time and time again we get drawn into this trap of thinking we can save ourselves by doing certain things; we can achieve eternal life in our own way. That gets us into all sorts of trouble - especially when we very quickly clash with people who don't do things our way and the result is always confrontation.
Jesus wants us to know that the only way we can be saved is by taking the gift. All we have to do is to believe in the giver - and take the gift he offers us. The gift of eternal life.
We should notice too that the gift of eternal life is for everyone.
'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.'
That is many people's favourite bible verse. And rightly so for it is at the very heart of the good news of Jesus. It's a favourite because it tells us about the free gift which God gives us. The free gift of eternal life to all who believe. But notice, too, what it says about the world.
God loved the world ... God did not ... condemn the world, but [through Jesus] wanted to save the world ...
God loves the world - that means all of it - not just the people of Abraham.
God loves the world - that means all of it - not just the followers of Paul.
God loves the world - that means all of it - not just the people who today claim Jesus as their own.
When we open our hands to take hold of the gift of eternal life we might let go of a few other things we've been carrying around with us - our addiction to achievement, our justification by works, our belief in ourselves and only ourselves.
When we've dropped all these other things only then can we grasp that God's free gift of eternal life is for anyone who opens their hands to him. We share it joyfully with them all.
We might understand better what this means if we think about our different attitudes towards baptism.
Some people say that you shouldn't get baptised until you're old enough to understand what you're doing - which is like saying that you have to do something to achieve eternal life;
Some people say that you shouldn't get baptised until you're good enough to go through with it - which is again all about achieving eternal life;
But others understand baptism as a gift of God - and that all you have to do is come (or if you are a child, be brought), and you will receive that gift of water and the Spirit.
It doesn't matter how old you are - just come. It doesn't matter who you are - just come; take the gift. It's all you need to do.
It's why churches should never charge for baptism services - they are after all just the wrapping-paper on the gift God hands over;
It's why churches should never deny anyone the opportunity to have a baptism - it's God's gift, after all, not ours.
God loves the whole world, unconditionally, and he offers all of us a great gift. It's so simple when we look at it like that.