The New Birth
John 3:1-17, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
There is a story shared by Rev. Steven Dow that goes like this:
At a comparative religions conference, the wise and the scholarly were in a spirited debate about what is unique about Christianity. Someone suggested what set Christianity apart from other religions was the concept of incarnation, the idea that God took human form in Jesus. But someone quickly said, “Well, actually, other faiths believe that God appears in human form.” Another suggestion was offered: what about resurrection? The belief that death is not the final word. That the tomb was found empty. Someone slowly shook his head. Other religions have accounts of people returning from the dead.
Then, as the story is told, C.S. Lewis walked into the room, tweed jacket, pipe, arm full of papers, a little early for his presentation. He sat down and took in the conversation, which had by now evolved into a fierce debate. Finally during a lull, he spoke saying, “what’s all this rumpus about?” Everyone turned in his direction. Trying to explain themselves they said, “We’re debating what’s unique about Christianity.” “Oh, that’s easy,” answered Lewis. “It’s grace.” The room fell silent. Lewis continued that Christianity uniquely claims God’s love comes free of charge, no strings attached. No other religion makes that claim.
After a moment someone commented that Lewis had a point. Buddhists, for example, follow an eight-fold path to enlightenment. It’s not a free ride. Hindus believe in karma, that your actions continually affect the way the world will treat you; that there is nothing that comes to you not set in motion by your actions. Someone else observed the Jewish code of the law implies God has requirements for people to be acceptable to him and in Islam God is a God of judgment not a God of love. You live to appease [God.]
At the end of the discussion everyone concluded Lewis had a point. Only Christianity dares to proclaim God’s love is unconditional – an unconditional love that we call grace. [source: Sermoncentral.com]
We’ve been talking a lot about God’s grace throughout this sermon series. Wesley’s understanding of grace has helped to lead us through our path toward renewing our spiritual health. We talked about God’s prevenient grace that is in action even before we recognize the need for God’s grace in our lives. We talked about justifying grace last week when we discussed our acceptance of God’s grace and a realization that Christ died even for us. Later we will explore sanctifying grace, this partnership with God walking with us as we travel our spiritual road toward Christian perfection.
We sing about grace. We talk about grace. We recite what is known as ‘grace’ around the family table. But to better understand grace, we have to wrap our heads around this idea of God’s unconditional love. Unconditional – no strings attached, no batteries needed, no assembly required. It’s hard to even begin to understand this depth of love. When we take a look at the gospel lesson we are once again introduced to the most familiar passage of scripture which begins with, “For God so loved the world….” When we think about God’s care during creation, we can imagine a perfect world with pristine gardens, flowing streams, bountiful vegetation, complete with all representatives of the animal kingdom. That world, complete with the sinless humans of Adam and Eve, is one to which we can picture God extending this amazing unconditional love. But let’s face it, our world today isn’t so loveable. We are living in a broken world where all of creation is literally groaning under the weight of sin and destruction. Our natural tendency to pull away from God has been in full force since the beginning of time. Yet God so loved the world.
The sinful nature of humankind is so pronounced that we did not even recognize Jesus as God-incarnate, come into this world to teach us the way of peace, wholeness, and genuine love and care for God and others. Jesus used parables to describe the kingdom of God. One popular parable is the one about the sower, who goes out into the field to sow seeds. But this sower is a bit unusual in that he sows so many seeds that they fall all over the place – on rocky soil, among, thorns, on hard paths, and some on good soil. The fact that 75% of the seeds he sows falls on bad ground does not matter – he continues to sow, and sow, and sow. Unconditional love – God so loved the world.
Wesley’s sermon on the new birth brings to heart the notion of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. New birth indicates a change from the inside out. We are no longer subject to the sinfulness of our broken world. We can live as Christ would have us to live, as children of God sharing our love of God with others through our words and actions.
When we consider God’s unconditional love for each of us, we realize that there are no works we could ever do that would be good enough to warrant the gift of God’s love. It is truly a gift, offered freely and without price. We do not have to clean up our act first because God already so loved the world. We do not have to pay a penance or make amends for all our countless mistakes to earn God’s love – it’s already given freely without price.
Yet when we receive and accept God’s love for ourselves, we are filled with a joy that is truly unspeakable and full of glory! There is a level of joy and rest and peace that had been missing up until we stepped forward and accepted God’s grace for ourselves. We are changed beings who have turned around and aligned ourselves with God. God so loved the world.
There is an element of celebration we have as Christians. God’s unconditional love is truly something to celebrate. Imagine if you would a group of people coming together and actually enjoying themselves at church!! Where is your joy today? Have you claimed acceptance of God’s grace for yourself? Can you truly celebrate the change?
I purposefully left this video for the end for a couple of reasons. First, I know the style is a bit different than what you typically hear but I do love this group called Mercy Me and their latest song called ‘Shake.’ The second reason I waited was to warn you that sitting still during this song is tough – so if you need to get up and move about, I’m all for it! Finally, we are celebrating Holy Communion today. We do not often think of Communion as a celebration but perhaps we should. We are celebrating Christ’s sacrifice for us, our welcome at the table, and our fellowship together as this body of Christ. So if you come to the table with a smile on your face and this song in your heart, I will be celebrating right there with you!
Celebrate the change in your heart. Celebrate the communion of those gathered here and around the table of fellowship. Celebrate the gift of God’s grace – God’s unconditional love poured out for all of us this day and always. Amen.