Religious Pecking Orders Are Useless, You Need To Be Born Again

Text: John 3:1-17

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Nicodemus was no worthless bum. He was no slacker by any means. After all, he was a member of what was called the Sanhedrin. 

Now, to fully understand the prestige and importance of the Jewish Sanhedrin, we must understand that it was a great council of the nation, consisting of 71 men. And to be a part of this elite group, one had to have judicial experience, as well as an extensive knowledge of many languages, science, law, and history. Not only did they have to be well educated and wise, but they also had to be modest and popular with all the people. And so, it was no small task to be on the high Jewish Sanhedrin. 

Perhaps we could think of this great Sanhedrin as on the same level as our United States Supreme Court. Yes, they were much like our Supreme Court but actually had a bit more power. For example, besides making laws for the whole Jewish nation, the Sanhedrin could crown a king, authorize war, and appoint lesser court judges. So, the point being, Nicodemus was a big dog; he was a heavyweight. Or, loosely stated, he was a big cheese. You get the picture. 

Now, the reason why we must take the time to understand that Nicodemus was no common slacker is that it is essential for the context of our reading from the Gospel of John. 

In the reading from the Gospel of John, it would appear that both Jesus and Nicodemus were two people that were close to the Kingdom of God. Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, as we have already established. And Jesus was called “Rabbi” by Nicodemus, which is like calling him a “Doctor” of the church. And so, it would appear that this was a mutual conversation among two established religious leaders who were in the Kingdom of God.

However, things are often not as they appear. In other words, you would think that Nicodemus would’ve been one of the few who could have seen the Kingdom of God. You would think that out of all the religious people in Jerusalem that Nicodemus would have been one of the few who could have experienced the Kingdom of God. Unfortunately, though, things are not as they appear. 

Dear friends, we have this problem with how we perceive the Kingdom of God. For example, we have this tendency to place nuns, monks, bishops, deacons, elders, District Presidents, Circuit Visitors, pastors, and so forth, at the top – closest to God. Whereas plumbers, retail workers, moms, farmers, lawyers, and obnoxious children, well… they are not as close to God. They are further down. We even do this with good works. Keep in mind, all good works are good when they are done by faith and for one’s neighbor. However, we have unfortunately made some works better than others. Tragically, we have made changing a diaper for a child, shoveling the snow for a neighbor, and taking out the trash lesser good works than going on a mission trip or doing a religious deed for the church. Mark this; God is equally pleased with the nun running an orphanage as He is with a dad changing a dirty diaper.  Good works happen inside and outside of the church walls.

Dear friends, the point being, the idea that some Christians are closer to God than others is a foolish idea that needs to be eradicated from our minds. This is how the world thinks. This is how the world operates, not the Kingdom of God. 

This is why Jesus tells Nicodemus that he needed to be ‘born again.’  In other words, to see the Kingdom of God, all the scrambling up the religious pecking order is useless. Sure the world insists on ranking, grouping, and positioning, but not the Kingdom of God. 

And so, with one swift assertion, Jesus basically tells Nicodemus that if he wants the Kingdom of God that he has to do it all over. All that Nicodemus had accomplished means nothing and contributes nothing to the Kingdom of God. Nicodemus needed to be born anew and born from above; he needed to be reborn and made entirely into a new creature. 

You see, this is why the church really only cares about things such as Baptism, Absolution, and the Holy Supper. In Christ’s church, there is no such thing as ranking, grouping, and positioning for power. Paul says it best,

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

In other words, status, sex, and ability do nothing to get you and me closer to the Kingdom of God. You and I cannot climb to the Kingdom of God, for if we climb, we will never find the Kingdom of God. Bluntly stated, we do not find the Kingdom of God in the heights of our accomplishments, the clouds of our glory, or the peaks of our popularity, for the Kingdom of God is not above us but below us. 

Dear friends, Jesus flips everything upside down for Nicodemus, and He does the same for you and me.

Listen up! The greatest in the kingdom of God are not the religious elites but little children – babies. The greatest in the kingdom of God, well… it is not those who are first but those who are last. If you want the kingdom of God, you are not to take up a list of goals and accomplishments but take up a cross and die. 

But there is a problem, our sinful nature does not like to hear this, though. Your sinful nature, and mine as well, likes to climb. Our sinful nature is so easily seduced into trying to go up the pecking order to obtain the Kingdom of God. And once our sinful nature has climbed a little bit, the sinful nature demands that God and His church applaud for the heights it has achieved.

Lord, have mercy on you and me! 

Dear friends, listen up! We must be born again - not once and not twice - but every single week and every single day. And to be born again or born from above is not something that we must accomplish again and again. But instead, like Nicodemus, to be born again is for us to be brought out of the heights of our glory, all the way down to the reality that we are poor miserable sinners. And there, right there, with empty beggarly hands, we are shoved back into the reality of our baptisms. Right there at the end of the line and at the bottom of the pecking order, we are forgiven in Absolution. And then, we are invited to the Lord’s Table for the strengthening of faith and love. 

Baptized Saints, quite simply, you do not do something for Christ to earn the Kingdom of God, but instead, Christ does something for you to give you the Kingdom of God. That is why you need to be born again – born from above every single day. And this happens as you are returned to the reality of your baptisms in repentance and faith. This happens as the Lord forgives you through His Word of Absolution. This happens as you are invited to receive at the Lord’s altar. You are constantly being born again when the Lord snatches you out of your lofty sinful nature and drags you back down to the waters of your baptism, and makes you anew again and again and again. 

And so, because there is only one baptism, one Absolution, and one Holy Supper, you are one with Nicodemus. Yes, that is the reason why there is no boasting in the church; why there is no comparing in the church. This is why there is no pecking order in the church. The ranks we have in life, the jobs we maintain, and the skills that we have been given are to bless those around us. They are not for power but for service, for they cannot contribute to our eternal salvation. How can they earn the Kingdom of God when we have already been born again in Christ and Christ alone? 

Baptized Saints, you have been born again – born from above – through Christ, by Christ, and for Christ.   You are brought into the Kingdom of God through the Word and Sacraments; therefore, you cannot get any closer to the kingdom than you are right now, for Christ is your way, your truth, and your life.  He is the kingdom that is brought to you.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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