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26th March 2023

Birth and Death: the Great Mysteries

Passage: John 3;1-8


It occurs to me that at Baptisms, Weddings, and Funerals, we always use a person’s full name. In the marriage service it is a legal obligation. No matter how much a bride or groom hate their middle name, I am bound to use it. At baptisms and funerals, it just seems like the right thing to do.

Our names, after all, tell us something of who we are. They are the names our parents chose for us; they may be names of other family members; our “surname” links us to ancestors going back hundreds of years. My name helps me to understand why I have blue eyes (both parents); why I am musical (my father); why I have two left feet (my mother). Our names suggest who we are but of course, they do not tell you everything. I remember doing this exercise with a youth group:

Write your full name at the top of a piece of paper.

Write your date of birth underneath.

Write yesterday ‘s date under that.

Draw an arch over all of this. And the young people would go AAARGH. Because what they were looking at was their own tombstone (hence, yesterday’s date). But the question to think about, then, is what would you want written there? How would you hope to be defined in one sentence?

That is a difficult question because we define ourselves in different ways at different points in our lives: in terms of our relationships, profession, personality, achievements- take your pick. Right now, I am going through all the usual confusion connected with retirement: “who will I be when no longer a Minister?” Will I be “fussy old woman” who cannot sleep if she thinks one window curtain is drawn back half an inch further than the other? Watch this space…. We have a deep desire to define who we are, but it is not easy working it out.


Birth and death themselves have always been mysteries to us. Quite apart from the fact that if birth and death are natural, no-one can predict exactly when they will occur, nothing equips us emotionally for a new life or for the end of a life. New parents, despite being thoroughly prepared for their child, find it difficult to get their heads round the experience of going into a

hospital as two people and coming out as three. There is a person now in the world who has never been there before. And in the same way, no matter how far you have anticipated someone’s death, the impossibility that someone who was living, breathing, speaking, moving is now simply not there, “does your head in.”

This is possibly why there is so much controversy over laws relating to abortion and euthanasia, regardless of religious belief. We still find such things hard to handle.

I guess that what I am trying to say is that each of us comes into a world, into a life and even into a personality which is never quite under our control. St Paul wrote of a world filled with inexplicable pain and uncertainty; of how his own life had been turned upside down- without his planning or permission; of his struggles with himself- why do I end up doing bad things I don’t want to do and fail in the good I would like to do? We would all like to know the answer that…

There has always been an element of mystery about who we are, how we came to be and where we end up. Which is why some people turn to religion in the hope of finding answers and which brings us now to Nicodemus. &&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

Nicodemus’ sense of personal identity is very much defined by his religion. He is a Jew, conscious of having descended from innumerable people who have had a special relationship with God. Religion is bred right into him, and he has been highly educated in the religious laws of his nation.

Nicodemus’ people were quite aware that they lived in an unpredictable world, quite prepared to admit that they were unpredictable and imperfect people. They did not live in cloud cuckoo land. But they looked to the keeping of their religious laws as means of keeping life under control. If we just do everything right, then we shall be OK.

This makes Nicodemus cautious about Jesus because Jesus has no official training or higher education in religious law. So, where is this powerful teaching and ability coming from? Nicodemus is nervous about an unorthodox teacher: that things might get out of control, which is why he visits Jesus under cover of night.

Jesus has a deep respect for Nicodemus and for the Jewish law. He never tears it to pieces or says that they are wasting their time. But he suggests that it is not enough. You must be born again…. Unless you are born of water and the Spirit, you cannot enter the kingdom of God.

Nicodemus does not get it. How can you be born a second time? But Jesus is not talking to him about physical birth. It is not about your genetic inheritance. Nor is “being born again’ about the religious rules and actions you perform. “All of this is “you,” Nicodemus, “but it is not the whole of “you.”” You will reach the point of knowing who you really are, when you become a child of God; when you know that there is more to you than what your parents made; more to you than what life has done; more to you even than your religious heritage. You must be born again, and this will be an act of God.”


How do we work this out? I have 4 suggestions to make:

First, a child of God has an identity never fully defined in terms of time and space. A child of God is a child of the universe and beyond; and of eternity itself. This means that birth is not the beginning of us and nor is death the end. We are more than our genetic inheritance, which might explain why so many of us are restless to know more.

Second, any definition of what we are, whether affirming or destructive, placed on us by ourselves or by others, is never going to be the last word about us. It is God who tells us who we are and God who can make us what we are.

Third, a child of God, Jesus says, is born of water and the Spirit. Water is about baptism, the people who came to John the Baptist, wanting to turn their lives around and face God.. The Spirit is given in order to make this happen.

The Holy Spirit is the power and presence of God himself in the lives of those who receive him, and is a gift, not a medal for personal achievement. “It is like the wind, you cannot control it, you cannot even fully understand where it comes from or where it is going. Just feel and accept its power. ” We do, don’t we, come into a world, a life and a personality which is never quite under our control and nothing we can do will ever give us total control because life is life. But the gift of God’s spirit enables us to live life and to make it work.

And fourth, our children should surely enter Christianity expecting to receive. I am not saying that a life of faith never involves high challenges, hard choices, strong commitment – it does. But the promises made at baptism are made in the expectation that children, parents, godparents, congregation will be given the power of the Holy Spirit to keep those promises and to fan into flame that faith. Being born again is about accepting a gift offered in love and trusting both the gift and the love because we are children of God.

So, to go back to the beginning, at baptism, we pronounce the names given in love to that child as we acknowledge their true identity as “Child of God” and commend them to God’s love.

And, in the same way, at a Christian funeral, we pronounce the names by which we have known and loved that person as we, acknowledging their identity as a “Child of God,” commend them to the life and love of God’s eternity.

Birth and death, life and identity will always hold an element of mystery for us, not because we are in some way, inadequate, but because we are so much more than we can ever grasp. Amen