Water and the Spirit
Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The pastors and teachers of the Church do not have an infallible and unlimited knowledge of God. It is true that pastors spend a great deal of their time in the study of Holy Scripture, both in formal educational settings and in prayerful reading and reflection throughout their time in the parish. Seminary professors earn additional post-graduate degrees to prepare themselves to be the teachers of teachers. Even so, what pastors know about God is limited by the bounds of human understanding and by divine revelation. In other words, pastors can only truly know what God has revealed to them in His holy Word.
With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that Nicodemus, a man Jesus calls “a teacher of Israel”, approaches the Lord with questions. After all, we have the whole of the written eye-witness testimony of the Apostles concerning Jesus and His teaching and work, and we do not truly understand Jesus—or the rest of the Holy Trinity, for that matter; how, then, can we expect Nicodemus, who approached Jesus before His work was complete, to understand Jesus and who He is and what He came to do? Jesus told Nicodemus, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus, being a good Lutheran boy, asked, in essence, “What does this mean?” Jesus answered him, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
Like all Pharisees, Nicodemus believed that, through obedience to the Law, he could make himself righteous. A Pharisee sees in himself no need for a Savior, for a man who is perfectly obedient to the Law of God has no one to testify against him. How ridiculous this statement of Jesus must have seemed to a man of reason, though Nicodemus apparently remained respectful in his discussion with Jesus. Despite his education in the spiritual matters of the people of God, despite his apparent lifelong devotion to obedience to God’s will, he could not understand that nothing he did could earn him favor in the eyes of God.
Though we know the truth, though we know that we are saved by grace through faith as a gift from God, we, too, seek to work ourselves into God’s good graces. We do seek to earn His favor. Though we may try to deny it, even in our own thoughts, we would probably make very good Pharisees. But everything we touch—every good work, every kind word, every gracious thought, every breath—is tainted with sin. Jesus told Nicodemus, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Every work we do as sinners is marked with that sin. Our obedience is tainted with pride. Our charity is stained by our condescension. Our faith is tainted with doubt. Our sinful nature cannot possibly enter the Kingdom of God. Only that which is righteous and pure—in other words, only that which is born from the Holy Spirit—can see and enter into the Kingdom of God.
“How can these things be?” The despair of Nicodemus is ours, as well. We are born of the flesh. Left to our own devices, it would be easier for us to re-enter our mother’s womb and be reborn than it would be to for us to do anything to earn merit in the sight of God. Let me be entirely clear: there is nothing you can do to merit your own salvation.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, that is precisely the point. There is nothing we can do. When Jesus is talking about being born from above in water and the spirit, He is talking about Baptism. He is talking about water, combined with the Word through the work of the Holy Spirit, poured over you in the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This water marks you as a child of God, as one who has been redeemed by the Christ who has been lifted up on the tree of the cross. This water, combined with the Word, drowns the sinful Old Adam in each of us, and we are reborn from that water as new people, saints who have been washed clean from our sin. This is nothing we do ourselves; this rebirth is a gift from God.
And this gift of God is a powerful gift. Though you still remain a sinner, though you continue to sin, the Holy Spirit which you receive in Holy Baptism works in you to bring you to repentance. As Jesus told Nicodemus, He did not come into the world to condemn the world. Jesus did not come into the world to make sure you get what you deserve because of your sins. No; Jesus came into this world to be lifted up on the tree of the cross. So that you receive the fruit of this tree, the forgiveness of sins and eternal life, the Holy Spirit leads you to feel sorrow for your sin; and then He leads you to faith. He brings you to faith so that you believe that Jesus died for you, for your forgiveness, for your life with the Triune God in heaven for all eternity.
If you truly want to know and understand God and what He has in mind for you, look to the cross, where the Father sent his Son to bear your sins on your behalf, dying the death our sins deserved. Then look to the Baptismal font, where you received the Holy Spirit, where the forgiveness Jesus won on the cross by the will of the Father becomes yours. The Latin word for “sacrament” is where we get our word “mystery”. We don’t understand how the Sacraments do what they’re supposed to do, except to say that what happens in Baptism and what happens in the Lord’s Supper, happens precisely the way God intends for it to work; for when God says for something to happen, it happens. It does not depend on our reason or strength; all depends on the power of the Word of God, which does not return to Him void, but does exactly what God intends for it to do. In this case, it means that we are washed clean in the water of Holy Baptism. It means we can return daily to our Baptism for the drowning of our sins and the cleansing of our souls.
This morning, in the Athanasian Creed, we said, “This is the catholic faith; whoever does not believe it faithfully and firmly cannot be saved.” Remember that it uses the word “believe”, not the word “understand”. The difference is a gift from God; for while we do not understand the whole counsel of God, the Holy Spirit grants us faith to believe even what we don’t fully understand. Thanks be to God for all the gifts He bestows on us in and through our Baptism into His holy name: in the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.