In our text from John, Nicodemus comes to Jesus to ask him a question. Nicodemus himself is a religious teacher. I like to think of him as a seminary professor. Dr. Nicodemus has heard the teaching of Jesus. He heard how Jesus taught that salvation did not come from works of the Law, but only through belief in the Son of Man. This puzzles Nicodemus. This contradicts what he has taught for his entire life. But after seeing the mighty works of Jesus, he has no choice but to confess, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” (John 3:2) So Nicodemus comes to Jesus in humility. He recognizes this contradiction between his own teaching and the teaching of Jesus, who obviously has come from God, and seeks to have his error corrected by Jesus.
Jesus, knowing what is on Nicodemus’ mind explains the problem to him. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:5-6) This is a major problem for us also. How can you, one of sinful flesh, be begotten of the Spirit of God? Jesus says this twice. Unless you are begotten from above, that is, begotten from water and the Spirit, you cannot be saved. (John 3:3, 5). It does not matter how great your deeds are, or how much better you imperfectly follow the law compared to the next guy, or how great you can convince yourself you are. You are NOT ABLE to enter the kingdom of God. You are sinful flesh. But, because of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus, all of this is changed. JESUS WAS LIFTED UP UPON THE CROSS SO THAT YOU COULD BE BEGOTTEN FROM ABOVE THROUGH WATER AND THE SPIRIT. In your baptism you are born from above, born from water and the spirit. As one born of water and the Spirit, you WILL enter into the kingdom of God.
We will speak the Athanasian Creed today after the sermon. There is a section at the end of that creed that states, “Those who have done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire.” (verse 39) Now wait a minute. Is this section of the creed undoing all of John 3? Absolutely not! What is the truly good work that is worked in us as sinful human beings? It is faith in Jesus Christ! And remember what Paul says, this faith is a gift! It is given to us by grace so that no one may boast. All other good works we do flow from our faith in Christ.
Jesus goes on to tell Nicodemus how this will come to pass. The Son of Man descended from heaven. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15) Jesus uses this Old Testament story to explain the crucifixion to Nicodemus. The reference to the bronze serpent is a mini salvation event pointing to the ultimate salvation event; Jesus Christ upon the cross.
By Jesus’ death and resurrection, the vast distance between you and the Father is closed. God, who is spirit, assumed flesh. As the Athanasian Creed says, “[Jesus] is God, begotten from the substance of the Father before all ages; and He is man, born of the substance of His mother in this age.” (verse 29) What a wonderful thing to celebrate today, on Fathers’ Day. God, your Father, creator of heaven and earth, loved the world in this way, that he sent his only begotten Son. Jesus Christ became flesh and was lifted up upon the cross so that whoever believes in him will have eternal life. This is the mystery of the Christian faith that we confess! As Paul writes in 1 Timothy, “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up into glory.” (1 Timothy 3:16) It is through faith in Jesus Christ alone, his death and resurrection, that Nicodemus, you, me, and all people have access to the Kingdom of God.
In the Athanasian Creed we confess, “It is necessary for everlasting salvation that one faithfully believe the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (verse 27) This statement is clearly backed up by the words of Jesus in our reading from John 3. Flesh begets flesh. And flesh cannot enter the Kingdom of God. But, because the spirit of God assumed human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, you are born from above by the Spirit of Christ. Because you are born from above (because you are Baptized in the Triune Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), heaven is no longer closed to you.
This is your catholic faith! This isn’t referring to “Roman Catholic”. This word “catholic” is the word used in the Athanasian Creed. The last section reads, “This is the catholic faith; whoever does not believe it faithfully and firmly cannot be saved.” (verse 40). The word “catholic” with a small “c” means “universal”. This creed is a confession of the catholic (or universal) Christian faith. And the catholic faith is this, that you are a child of God, born of the Spirit of Christ, who was lifted up upon the cross for the forgiveness of all of your sins. All Christians confess this one catholic, universal faith.
This catholic faith is your identity. Through Jesus Christ, you are begotten from above through water and the spirit. In your Baptism, your sinful flesh is drowned and dies so that a new man, born of water and the Spirit, can rise again. You are begotten sons and daughters of the Father. You have been sanctified. You have been made holy by the Word of God who became flesh and was exulted upon the cross. You will soon approach this altar and receive Jesus’ true Body and Blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of all of your sins. This is holy food for holy people. This is God, who is spirit, made flesh and blood for you! It is for you, who were of the flesh, but have been born from above, of water and the spirit. With all of the constant change swirling around you, your identity remains the same forever. This is now who you are in Christ: a Baptized, believing child of God.
Dear saints, this is your catholic faith: You have been Baptized into the triune name of God, and been born from above of water and the spirit. Because, by God’s grace, you believe this faithfully and firmly, YOU WILL BE SAVED.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.