From the Top

Sermon for Trinity Sunday
May 26, 2024

Do you remember last year when I preached on this passage? My point was to highlight the New Living Translation’s rendering of John 3:16. Most translations start off, “For God so loved the world…” or “God loved the world so much…” And this is fine. That word so is there in the Greek. But what I love about our pew Bibles is that this translation goes out of its way to capture the original Greek. Jesus doesn’t really mean so in John 3:16 to mean so much. No, he’s explaining the way God showed his love. Just so. That’s why the New Living Translation says, “This is how God loved the world…”

That’s what stood out to me the last time I meditated on this passage. And (too bad for you) when something stands out to me, you almost always have to hear about it.

There are a million themes that are worthy of a sermon here, but this time, when I read this wonderful passage, I was struck by something new—something I think is really worth talking about. We open with an important religious leader visiting Jesus under cover of darkness. The man’s name is Nicodemus, so I always think of John 3 as the story of Nick and Night.

We don’t know why Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. It might be because he doesn’t want everybody and their mother to know about it. Or it might be because that’s the only time he was able to catch Jesus alone so that they could have a conversation.

But let’s think about it. We cannot literally appear at the door of where Jesus is staying in order to discuss theology with him. But we can approach Jesus. We can go to him. And when we do, we call it prayer. We can pray any time of day, but the two best times are in the morning after we awaken and in the evening before bed—in the morning to ask for strength for the day, and in the evening to give thanks and ask how things might’ve been better.

I don’t know what Nicodemus’s practice of prayer was like, but in reading the opening of the third chapter of John this week, I imagined him going to Jesus before he retired for the night to review his day. But I think he recognized this as a unique opportunity: He had come to Jesus to review his life.

He opened his evening conversation the same way we might open a prayer: he opened it in praise. “We all know that you’re sent by God,” he said, “because your miracles prove that God is with you.” I’m sure he had a whole list of things he wanted to ask Jesus… and maybe even a longer list of things he wanted to tell Jesus.

But something happened that I hope you might be able to relate to. In his nighttime conversation with the Lord, he got lost—not in his own list of wants and needs and questions, but in the will of Jesus. Prayer, at its best, at its most glorious, does this. We enter into prayer with our own agenda. But somehow, as we pray, we become “lost in wonder, love, and praise.” [1]

The talk Jesus and Nicodemus had that night is something that Christians have remembered ever since. We have remembered these words for two thousand years, and they have shaped who we are and what we proclaim. And the first thing Jesus said to Nicodemus is one of the most important things in our religion. He said to Nicodemus, “Unless you’re born ανωθεν, you can’t see God’s Kingdom.”

That word ανωθεν has two very different meanings, and there’s no way an English translation can possibly capture what’s going on here and still make sense. But in the back-and-forth between Jesus and Nicodemus, we get a hint of what’s going on. Nicodemus answers Jesus: “How can a full-grown person enter their mother’s womb a second time in order to be born?”

And Jesus tells him a person has to be born both physically (or “of water”) and spiritually. So Nicodemus shouldn’t be surprised if Jesus tells him that we must be born ανωθεν.

The wordplay here is dependent on the two meanings of ανωθεν—it means both again and from above. And this conversation only makes sense if we understand that Nicodemus is assuming the first meaning (again), but Jesus means the second (from above). And so we have Nicodemus asking, “How is it possible to be born a second time?” and Jesus answering, “You must be born from above.”

Think of how a choir director might tell her choir to practice a song again: “From the top,” she might say. “From the top” refers to the physical top of the first page, but we understand it to be another way of saying “do it again.”

But whether we understand born ανωθεν to mean “born again” or “born from above,” Jesus wants us to understand that we have both a physical nature and a spiritual nature, and to be born ανωθεν is to embrace our spiritual nature and acknowledge God in our lives. He never said how this was to happen, at what point in our lives it might happen, or how long it would take. And so if somebody asks you, “Are you born again?” feel free to either answer Yes, or to say, “I’m born from above,” or even, “I’m being born from above.”

Let’s compare this question to physical birth. When I moved to Ohio back in 2019 and needed a new driver’s license, I had to make sure it had a star on it—that is, that it was an enhanced driver’s license that showed that I’d proven beyond the previous standards that I was who I was and that I lived where I said I did. And so just transferring my old Alabama license into Ohio wasn’t enough. I would need my social security card and my birth certificate and mail that was sent to me at my new address. But I had no idea where my birth certificate was. I had to order a new one from Frankfort, Kentucky.

Most of the time, I don’t need to prove the day and hour and place of my birth. It’s enough that I exist. I wouldn’t, say, frame my birth certificate, hang it on my wall, and brag about the details of my physical birth to all and sundry. That’s probably because there was nothing about my birth that was out of the ordinary.

Granted, some people have really interesting stories about the way they were born. Some babies are premature and have to be put in incubators. I once knew a person who was born in the car on the way to the hospital. Or maybe there are three generations in the same family who were born on the same day on the year. But for most of us, what’s miraculous is simply that we were born, not how it happened.

And that’s the way it is with the spiritual birth as well. For some people, it happened suddenly and dramatically. They can remember the day and time and place when their lives were turned around. But for many (probably most) others, it was more gradual, and is still happening. For example, I was baptized as an infant and brought up in the church. I know that I have been born both physically and spiritually, but I also know the spiritual birth is ongoing. Every day (or at least every week) I feel the spirit at work, making me a new person.

The God I believe in isn’t going to base a person’s eternal fate on their understanding of an ambiguous word in a language they don’t even speak. It’s enough to know that God’s Spirit moves within us and around us in unseen and uncontrollable ways.

Bilbo Baggins said that “it's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.” And it’s the same with opening your lips (or your mind) to pray. You might intend one thing, but God’s Spirit might take you to places you haven’t been, to thoughts you’ve never thought, and to a life you’re yet to live.

Nicodemus, a respected leader, went to Jesus at night and gained a new understanding of how the Holy Spirit works. May we, too, let go of who we think we are, and open our hearts to the One whose Spirit can embrace us and send us out into the world as new creatures.
—©2024 Sam L. Greening, Jr.

  1. Charles Wesley, Love Divine, All Loves Excelling (1747). 
  2.  I adapted this illustration from Tom Wright, John for Everyone, Part One (Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), p. 28. 
  3.  J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings (Houghton Mifflin, 1965), p. 83.