The Second Sunday in Lent – March 16, 2014
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church
“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Well, that’s the way the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates this loaded statement from Jesus. If your frame of reference is anything like mine, however, you are much more likely to hear in your head an alternative reading: you must be born again. This term, born again, is laden with cultural baggage for me. I grew up in the sixties and seventies in Texas, a place teeming with Southern Baptists and other evangelicals, all who understood being “born again” as shorthand for having a distinct conversion experience.
The Encyclopedia of Protestantism (yes, there is such a volume) says, “born again is a phrase used by many Protestants to describe the phenomenon of gaining faith in Jesus Christ. It is an experience when everything they have been taught as Christians becomes real, and they develop a direct and personal relationship with God.”[i] For me, it was a clear sign to an understanding of Christianity that was more conservative and more controlling than my own liberal, social justice-loving, Methodist upbringing.
If someone talked to me about being born again, I was fairly certain that they had a very different understanding of God’s relationship with us than I did. I could be pretty sure that their understanding of Christ, and what it means to be Christian, just didn’t work for me.
And because of all that baggage, I gave this term, and this idea of being born again over to my evangelical brothers and sisters. I let them have it, and rarely gave it a second thought. If you had asked me in those days if I was born again, I certainly would have said no. To be born again, in my mind, meant to embrace entirely their view of God and the kingdom of God.
But studying today’s Gospel has made me reconsider my own relationship to this idea. What could it mean for me to understand myself as born again?
To dig in this gospel lesson, I think we need to start by trying to understand just who this man Nicodemus is. The text tells us he is a Pharisee, a man of great standing in the Jewish religious community. He comes to Jesus and speaks with clear respect for the rabbi, acknowledging the legitimacy of his teaching. But the who of Nicodemus is not the only clue we are given; the circumstance of his appearance in this story on the scene may tell us as much as his position: Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night.
Now, remember that one of the primary metaphors at work in John’s Gospel is that of light and darkness. The poetic opening of the Gospel refers to Christ and the way of Christ as light, a light that, “shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5) This opening deliberately echoes Genesis, which also begins with a contrast of light and darkness.
So we should not presume that it is an accident, or a mere passing detail that we are told Nicodemus comes at night. He can be understood to represent that place of being apart from the message that Christ brings, of being out of the light. While it seems clear that Nicodemus, unlike many other Pharisees represented in the scriptures, is not against Jesus, he is clearly separated from the true light that enlightens everyone.
Theologian Deborah Kapp notes that Nicodemus is sympathetic; successful and self-confident; a leader in his community; spiritually open and curious, yet rational. “He is committed and curious enough that he makes an appointment to talk with Jesus face to face. However, Nicodemus is not ready to go public with his interest in Jesus, so he makes the appointment in the middle of the night, when he can keep his faith secret, separated from the rest of his life. His imagination is caught by Jesus, but he wants to compartmentalize whatever faith he has. Nicodemus is not yet ready to declare his faith in the light of day, not prepared to let it change his life.”[ii]
Kapp also notes that, “If any character from the Bible can be regarded as representative of twenty-first-century church members, it might be Nicodemus.”[iii]
What do you think—is that who we are? Are we folks who, even though we believe in the worth of the way of life to which Christ points, are not ready to really become true disciples? Have we become so moderate, so muffled, so afraid of offending others that we are incapable of embracing the way of Christ—incapable of being born again?
So, Nicodemus shows his respect for Jesus, and the great teacher responds to a question Nicodemus never asked. It is almost as though Jesus can see into the heart of Nicodemus, can see that he is not ready to embrace the path to the kingdom of God. He says to Nicodemus that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
I think that I would probably have responded to this statement from Jesus in the same way that Nicodemus does—with confusion and disbelief. What Jesus is suggesting is, at least on its surface, absurd. One cannot reenter the womb. Nicodemus is thinking literally, and Jesus is speaking on a different plane.
Perhaps this is my problem too—the metaphor of birth is so distinct, and in biological terms it refers to an occurrence that, for the one being born, is truly a once-in-a-lifetime event. As so often happens in the gospels, Jesus’ words need to be unpacked—we need to delve deeper to look beyond the surface.
The Greek word we have translated here as “above” is anothen. This word has several different translations. One Greek dictionary defines the term as, “from above, from a higher place; of things which come from heaven or God; from the first, from the beginning, from the very first; anew, over again.”[iv]
I suppose it’s no wonder that Nicodemus is confused. So Jesus responds with a clarifying statement: “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” (John 3:5)
Jesus invites us to become new beings through a new identity as children of Christ. We can be recreated in the water of baptism by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Being born of water and Spirit is to fully embrace the claim we made, or that was made on our behalf, in baptism: that each of us is a beloved child of God. At every baptism we are reminded that in the water we are buried with Christ in his death, by it we share in his resurrection, and through it we reborn by the Holy Spirit.[v]
To be reborn in Christ is to understand that our identity is changed by relationship to God. Sadly, that identity is lost or forgotten over and over again through the course of our lives. We know that the planet continually tugs us toward the darkness; as one of the collects for Compline reminds us, we are “wearied by the changes and chances of this life.”[vi] It can be so easy to lose our way.
Perhaps this is the place I separate my understanding of rebirth in Christ from that of many evangelicals I have known: I do not believe that our being born again is one-time occurrence. We are all, by our very nature as humans, flawed beings. We find it hard, or maybe even impossible, to stay on course. But the good news of Jesus Christ is that we are continually offered the opportunity to be reborn into God, to find our identity again God’s eternal changelessness.
And while there are many paths to this rebirth, I believe that one of the simplest, and most fruitful ways to claim and reclaim this new identity is through Christian community. We exist as a church to be a sort of spiritual GPS: To work with one another and for one another to point the way to the light that is new life in Christ.
We do that work as a community not only through receiving the Word and Sacrament, but also through service to one another and to the world around us. In the church we have developed a pattern of moving back and forth between serving and being served. This sort of ping-pong-pattern helps us to see ourselves as both recipients of Christ’s saving grace, and also as people empowered—perhaps I should say re-birthed—to be the instruments of that grace.
If you are coming to church and only receiving, perhaps you aren’t really getting everything that Christ has to offer. We grow and become reflections of Christ’s light only as we see ourselves in both of these capacities. Now if you aren’t sure how you can serve in this community, don’t worry – Mother Liz and I, as well as many of the wonderful lay people actively involved in the life of St. Michael’s will be glad to explore how you might jump into service here.
We must continually be reborn in Christ. We must dare to move out of the cover of darkness and claim the light that is the promised kingdom of God. This metaphor of being born again is surprising, but it is also provocative. “It invites us to open our imaginations and reconsider our relationship with God, which is the central focus of this text, and, indeed, of this Gospel. Jesus invites Nicodemus, as he invites each of us, to come into the light of day and become mature believers, full participants in the abundant life he offers.”[vii] Every day, may we respond enthusiastically to Christ’s invitation of new birth, confident in the truth of God’s love illuminated in the gift of his only Son, that we might have eternal life. (John 3:16) Amen.
[i] Melton, JG., Encyclopedia Of Protestantism (Encyclopedia of World Religions), as quoted at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Born_again_(Christianity), accessed 03/14/2014.
[ii] Kapp, Deborah J., Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 68
[iv] http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/nas/anothen.html, accessed 03/14/2014.
[v] “Thanksgiving over the Water,” The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 306.
[vi] Compline, The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 133.
[vii] Blue, Debbie, quoted by Deborah Kapp, Feasting on the Word, op cit.