I heard a story.(1) A young man came to the door of a
monastery with a large duck in his arms. His uncle, who happened
to be one of the monks, answered the knock. "Here, Uncle, this
is a gift for you and the others. Eat it in good health." The
uncle was very grateful, and that night, with the duck dressed
and stuffed, he and the others enjoyed a generous repast.
A few days later, another knock came on the monastery door.
"I am a friend of the nephew who brought you the duck. I have
been a bit down on my luck lately, and I wonder if I might impose
on you for a bite to eat and a place to sleep for the night?"
"Of course, my son, you are most welcome." And that night,
he joined the monks for some warm duck soup.
A few days later, another knock on the door. "Hi, l am a
friend of the friend of the nephew who brought the duck. Could I
impose on you for a bit of hospitality?" He too was welcomed...
more duck soup.
A few days more went by. Another knock. "Hello, I am a
friend of the friend of the friend of the nephew who brought the
duck." That night at dinner he was presented with a steaming hot
bowl of water. He tasted it, looked up, and asked, "What's
"Well, this is the soup of the soup of the soup of the duck
that my nephew brought."
As I heard the story I was struck by the similarity of that
experience and the way so many come to Christianity. It is often
second, third, or fourth hand, and ends up exceedingly watered
I wonder if that might not have been Nicodemus' problem.
For a good Jew, he seems very mainline Protestant to me. He was
financially secure (as are most mainline Protestants). He was a leader
in his community (as are many of you). He understood matters of
religion as doing, not just feeling, that what we believe
determines how we behave (the same as we do). He was
intellectually curious, not content to blindly accept things"Fop
without investigation...a thinker (just like most mainliners).
Nicodemus was an admirable fellow, but there was something
lacking in his life, so one night he came to talk to Jesus. We
read the account in the 3rd chapter of John's gospel, a portion
of scripture that, within just a few verses, includes one of the
most beloved promises of the Bible - in the language of the King
James Version that nurtured so many of us, "For God so loved the
world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth
in him should not perish but have everlasting life" (what Martin
Luther called "the gospel in a nutshell") just a few verses after
one of the most confusing statements of the Bible as Jesus says,
"I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless
he is born again." More about that in a minute.
In a way, Nicodemus' visit itself was remarkable. Of
course, word had spread everywhere of the incredible impact of
this Nazarene. But some of Nicodemus' good friends and fellow
"Methodists/Presbyterians/Lutherans/Episcopalians/etc." had been terribly disturbed at some of the
goings-on - the crowds that were attracted to Jesus, this
preacher's obvious dislike of what was then the mainstream
religious practice, and all this talk about miraculous signs and
wonders. One part of Nicodemus told him to avoid this Jesus like
a bad sheckel, but another part could not be content with that -
the stories of crippled legs made strong, of withered arms made
straight, of blind eyes restored to sight came too frequently to
ignore. So Nicodemus came and, as the two sat quietly together,
he shared his sense of unease with Jesus. "Rabbi, we know you
are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform
the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him."
Reading between the lines of the Gospel account, there must
have been further conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus, words
or gestures from this Jewish "Methodist" that fairly shouted
out his sense of the inadequacy of his own religious experience.
Clever teacher that he was, Jesus made that confusing statement
that would be certain to provoke further thought. He said, "I
tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he
is born again" (or depending on the translation you use, "born
anew," or "born from above" - all are legitimate).
"Now wait a minute, Teacher. You have done a lot of
miracles, but this is one even YOU cannot manage. People cannot
be born again when they are old!"
Jesus replied, "Oh yes, they
can. Just as they once began life physically, they can begin
spiritually...and if they do not, they will never really
experience the presence of God in their lives."
The look on Nicodemus' face must have been quizzical. It
was obvious that he was still trying to sort out what he had just
heard. The example of birth was plain enough - every life has to
start somewhere, even the spiritual life. But good analytical,
"Methodist" Nicodemus wanted to know more. "How does it
Jesus explained. "There are some things that we know but we
do not know ABOUT. The wind, for example. It blows whenever and
wherever it wants. It came from somewhere, it goes somewhere.
We see and feel what it does. It defies explanation. It is the
same with the new birth. It simply happens."
Now, take a giant mental leap...ahead twenty centuries, out
of that Judean courtyard and into a living room in coastal South
Carolina warmed by a cozy fireplace (after all, it is still too
chilly at this time of year for the courtyard). Imagine a
conversation with a 2014 Nicodemus. Imagine you are he. You
have come to church for years. You went through the confirmation
class just like the other twelve-year-olds. You stood up before
the congregation and answered "I do" when the pastor asked if you
acknowledged yourself to be a sinner and if you accepted Jesus
Christ as your Lord and Savior. You had to say "I do" or you
would have looked like a fool and your parents would have
grounded you for months. But the words were just that...words.
That was many years ago. Now you have grown up and even though
you have always thought of yourself as a Christian, a feeling
inside says that you have been missing something. You have been
living on the faith of the faith of the faith that someone once
told you you ought to have. So one evening you come to a
respected friend for some answers. "You are a Methodist just
like me. But your religion is different from mine. You seem to
have a sense of peace and joy that I have never experienced. I
don't understand. Help me. How do I become a Christian like
Your friend replies. "Nick, the place to begin is at the
beginning, and the best way to explain is with an analogy. Once
upon a time you were going on your merry way, muddling through
without help from anyone. But then you met...a lady. She
treated you well...kind, gentle, caring, and so on. You
continued to spend time with her. You got to know her. Then one
day you realized that, to you, life without her would not really
be living. This woman was different from any you had ever known,
and something was born in you that made you feel that from that
moment you wanted to spend your life with her.
Can you explain all that? Can anyone explain love? Of
course not. It just happens. And frankly, if you had waited for
an explanation you would never have taken the next step. One day
you took a leap of faith - you declared your love for her and
asked her to become your wife. She accepted, and since then it
has been happily ever after. Oh, ups and downs, of course, but
the love you felt in your salad days has grown and matured into
something that is very real but equally inexplicable.
"Now, Nick, move that thought up a notch. You have met
Jesus and, like most everyone else, agree that this is a
remarkable man, regarded by all with respect and admiration.
After all, the Bible says he was God in the flesh. But something
about him is vaguely disquieting. His perfect example, his way
of gracefully meeting even the worst that life has to offer, sets
a standard for humanity that you do not meet. But you would like
to. Something is born in you that makes you realize that you
want to know him more. That is what Jesus meant so long ago when
he told another Nicodemus, 'You must be born again.'
"You spend more time with him, get to know him even better.
Finally, you take another leap of faith. You make a commitment.
You say, `Lord. I know I am not all I should be, but I believe
you can help me. Starting now, I want you in my life.' It is
You still look quizzical. "I am still not sure I understand
it all," you say.
"Don't worry," your friend says, "this is
something better experienced than understood...just like falling
in love and getting married."
"But this seems TOO simple. Really being a Christian means
upholding certain standards, acting in an ethical way, being a
decent citizen, trying to correct the abuses and injustices of
society. Doesn't it?"
"Well, yes and no," your friend answers. "Think again about
your relationship with your wife. You have been married a long
time now. The love the two of you have for one another is as
strong, if not stronger than ever, but it is different from those
early days. As you have grown together you have both matured.
You probably treat each other differently now than back then -
you think more alike now so the questions you might have asked in
the beginning are no longer necessary; you have more common
interests and concerns now (your children, for example), so you
are more inclined to want to do the same things; you know what
makes each other angry or uncomfortable, so you automatically
avoid those things. All that is NOW. But to get to NOW, you had
to have a then - you had to BEGIN somewhere...(Bridal Chorus)...
and then came the growing and learning together. Had you skipped
the beginning, there would have been no growing and learning.
Sure, certain behavior is appropriate for a Christian, just as it
is for a husband, but it all has to begin somewhere."
Your friend continues. "Perhaps that is why Jesus used the
words `born again.' There had to be a beginning of the
relationship between you and your wife, just as there has to be a
beginning to your relationship with the Lord...it happens...just
as when you first came into this world. That was not your doing,
and neither is this. Your spiritual beginning is the wonderful
gift of a gracious God."
"I don't know," you say. "I am still kind of stuck on all
this `born again' talk. So-called `Born-again Christians' have
always turned me off."
"No problem," responds your friend. "If all that is keeping
you from making this leap of faith is words, CHANGE the words.
Instead of calling yourself a `born-again' Christian, substitute
something like a `BEGUN Christian.' It says the same thing. In
fact, in this day and age it might even be more helpful. After
all, birth is not an end, it is a beginning, the first halting
movements on the road to maturity. If you and I simply call
ourselves `BEGUN Christians' then we might take more seriously
the fact that we have a long way to go.
"Nick, you HAVE begun. That is why you would have your
questions in the first place. Now, if you are not content to be
a perpetual spiritual infant and you want to grow, good. You can
start with a simple prayer. `Lord Jesus, I know I am not what I
ought to be, and I hardly imagine what I CAN be. But I want to
get on with it.' That is how you begin to become the Christian
you would like to be.
Now, take one more mental leap, out of that living room and
back to the pew. You have already taken steps to spiritually
grow simply by getting out of bed and getting yourself to church
on a Sunday morning - you could just as easily have slept
in. But, no. You are here. But like old Nicodemus, you want
even more, not content to live on the faith of the faith of the
faith that someone once had. You want something vibrant and
Perhaps you DID make such a prayer once long ago, but in all
the hurry and scurry of modern life, you let the once joyous
relationship you had with your Lord slip to the side. Just like
husbands and wives who grow apart through the years through lack
of communication. Perhaps you need a new beginning.
Here we are in Lent, that special period of the church year
during which we examine ourselves and our faith. If that process
of examination is leading you to say with Nicodemus that you want
more, fine. You have come to the right place. If you would like
to become a BEGUN Christian or even a Begun-AGAIN Christian, I
invite you to pray silently along with me.
"Lord Jesus, I know I
am not what I ought to be, and I hardly imagine what I CAN be.
But I want to get on with it."
1. This is a somewhat revised sermon by Dr. David Leininger included in Best Sermons, IV,
(San Francisco, HarperCollins, 1991). Reprinted by permission.
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