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Jn 3: 1–17

Wesley, Doncaster East

June 18, 2000

What makes a Christian different? There are people who believe in God with their own forms of spirituality and prayer life, as well as their own religious ceremonies and rituals. There are people who lead good and virtuous lives. There are people who speak in tongues, prophesy and work miracles. Yet, they are not Christian. What is the Christian difference?

The obvious difference we would say is the quality of our lives. Essentially Christians are people who believe in change.

Mark’s is probably the earliest of the written gospels – from about 60 to 65 AD. Almost the opening words – verse 4, in fact -are: “John the Baptist ..  lived in the wilderness and was preaching that people should be baptized to show that they had turned from their sins and turned to God to be forgiven.”[1] And the first words Mark records of Jesus are: “At last the time has come! The Kingdom of God is near! Turn from your sins and believe this Good News!”[2]

In any well-written story first words are important words. They set the scene. They set up the rest of the story. Mark was a good storyteller. His story of Jesus is racy, tight and to-the-point. His repeated reference to turning from your sins made it clear that following Jesus made a dramatic difference. From the beginning Christians have been in the change game.

Changed lives. Changed orientations to life and the world. Changed ways we see the fundamental values of life and react to the world. Changed world views.

But, if we’re honest, there are all too many Christians who should and do know better and succumb to the prevailing ways of the world. Televangelists, who get caught with their pants down. Mission leaders, who get caught with their salaries up. Cricket captains who get caught out – off the cricket field.

“There,” say the skeptics and critics of Christianity, “you’re just the same old people with nothing more than a veneer of piety – and a gloss of hypocrisy!”

Are they right? Are we no more than ordinary people claiming we’ve had a spiritual experience – no more than ordinary people putting a religious label on our experience?

Couldn’t we be described just as well, if not better, in psychological and sociological terms without all the theological cover-up and fog?

Will Campbell was a salty, radical, provocative Baptist preacher. He attends the trial of a Ku Klux Klansman accused of murdering an Afro-American black man.

A reporter covering the trial noticed that, during recesses, Campbell seemed to be on close personal terms with the accused Klansman and the family of the murdered man. He spent a great deal of time with both parties.

“How’s this possible,” the reporter asked Campbell, “for you to be on positive terms with both the man accused of a hateful, racist murder, and the victim’s family?”

Campbell muttered something about every person being a human being. The reporter wasn’t satisfied and returned to the attack. “This just is not logical. You can’t care for both the Klansman and the victim! Why do you think you can?”

“Because I’m a bloody Christian,” Campbell exploded.

The reporter was using the framework of how the world is supposed to operate. He couldn’t work out that such reconciliation comes from another way of thinking, the possibility of living in an entirely different way “born of the Spirit.”

That, of course, wasn’t the first time that people had found themselves speaking from entirely different perspectives on life and the world.

The story of Nicodemus is fascinating. It’s the story of the pilgrimage of his spirit. John’s gospel was probably written close to the turn of the first century, about 90 AD, at a time when there was tension between the emerging church and the synagogue out of which many of the early Christians had been forced. John seemed not to have viewed the Jewish religious leaders at all kindly. And Nicodemus was “a Jewish religious leader”: “a Pharisee.”[3]

Next we hear of Nicodemus speaking in defense of Jesus: “’Is it legal to convict a man before he’s given a hearing?’”[4]

Finally we hear of him joining with another new disciple, Joseph of Arimathea, to prepare Jesus for decent burial and to provide a tomb for his body.[5]

A pilgrimage from skeptical enquiry to profound faith!

But when he came to Jesus for the first time he came as a representative of the religious authorities with his own perspective on the world.

When Jesus talks of “Spirit,” Nicodemus hears only “flesh.” What do you mean? “How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?”[6]

He can’t, the world can’t understand what has happened - and happens – to the followers of Jesus. People want to know: parents, friends, religious authorities constantly badger them: “What’s happened to you? How can you live the way you do? Why do you insist on believing the things you do? Why do you have to be different?”

In many ways the ultimate answer is Jesus’ statement: “I assure you, I am telling you what we know and have seen.”[7]

That’s the way John’s fellow Christians expressed the Christian difference: “We speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen.” That was their only defense. That was all they could say about their claim that they were changed people with a new perspective on the world and life.

In the arguments Christians had with others in the first centuries of the Church’s existence, they developed philosophical theories and theological doctrines. But in the beginning they simply spoke of what they knew and testified to what they had seen.

That’s what the Samaritan woman said: “Come and meet a man who told me everything I ever did!”[8]. That’s what the man born blind said: “I know this: I was blind, and now I can see!”9

What’s the Christian difference?

The Spirit has come into our lives, and our lives witness to the different way we view life and the world, the different way we live our lives in the world.

Does the world understand this? No. Will it ever understand this? Yes, but only when person after person experiences the Spirit coming into one life after another.

“How can this be?”

“I can only speak of what I know. The wind blows wherever it pleases, the Spirit moves wherever it pleases. That’s just how it is with people born of the Spirit.”


[1] Mark 1:4.

[2] 1:15.

[3] John 3:1.

[4] 7:50.

[5] 19:39-41.

[6] 3:4.

[7] 3:11.

[8] 4:39.

9 9:25.

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