Born again…or born from above?
March 12, 2017
Scripture: John 3:1-21
Sometimes it is good to listen to the words of stories writ long ago and to re-imagine them as though they were happening now in real time…to use one’s own prophetic imagination to hear again the age-old tales of wonder and intrigue as though for the first time. Such is the way I wish to share with you the story of Nicodemus…the Jewish ruler who came by night…
It seems that it is not all that uncommon for someone to support an idea or an individual, but not to be able to do so publicly as the idea or individual in question stands in opposition to one’s own public stance on the matter or to the party of which they are a member. And as a result that individual is forced to hold their support in check, to keep their straying loyalties in control, to refrain from coming out openly or perhaps even switching sides in support of their newfound understanding.
This was surely the case with Nicodemus as he made his way through the darkness of night over to the house where he had learned Jesus was staying. As a leader of the party of the Pharisees, Nicodemus had to be very careful not to be seen or associated at all with the young preacher who had been stirring up so much unrest in the populace and such resentment among the Jewish ruling authorities.
However, Nicodemus was no ordinary Pharisee. I imagine he was intellectually curious by nature and not willing to accept someone’s word on the merits of a particular individual but rather preferred to make up his own mind on matters as important as what to do with this radical preacher who had caused such a ruckus.
Drawing near to the little house he saw that the lights were still burning within and knocked softly on the wooden door. After a moment the door was slowly opened revealing a circle of men seated on the floor appearing to be in some sort of discussion. The one who opened the door recognized Nicodemus as one of the rulers of the Pharisees and stifled a gasp as he turned and looked at Jesus, unsure of what to do next. Hearing his consternation Jesus looked over and seeing past his disciple to the one standing in the doorway he motioned for Nicodemus to enter. “Come in my friend, what is it you have come out to see me about at this hour of the night”, Jesus gently chided him. For he knew who Nicodemus was and knew that he was visiting under the cloak of darkness in order that his visit would not be detected. But he also knew that Nicodemus came in good faith, responding to the unrest within his own soul as he wrestled with who it was he felt Jesus was and the very different picture he was asked to accept that was held by his fellow Pharisees.
“Thank you for receiving me Rabbi”, Nicodemus began. “I have been wanting to come and see you for some time. You see, there are a number of us that believe that you are surely a teacher who has come from God for no one could do the things you have been doing unless that were so. Truly you are acting on behalf of our God…”. And with that last remark, Nicodemus just sort of trailed off, not sure what to say next or exactly how to begin the conversation regarding why it was that there was such a gulf between the teachings of Jesus and those of the Temple proper. Sensing his discomfort and the awkwardness of the moment for Nicodemus, Jesus spoke saying, “Truly I tell you Nicodemus, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above”.
Surprised that Jesus knew his name but even more puzzled by what he had just said to him, Nicodemus replied, “But Jesus, how can anyone be born again after being born and growing old? Surely it is not possible for one to re-enter a mother’s womb in order to be born a second time.” Unfazed by Nicodemus’ lack of understanding and simplistic response Jesus continued saying, “I tell you truly Nicodemus, no one…no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born both of the water and of the Spirit. For what is born naturally of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be so surprised when I tell you that you must also be born from above in order to be fit to enter the Kingdom”.
Still puzzled but beginning to grasp that Jesus was inferring that there was a difference between being alive physically and being alive spiritually Nicodemus was brought back to the conversation as Jesus continued saying, “The wind blows wherever it chooses, you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it is coming from or where it is going.”
“This is how it is with all who are truly born of the Spirit from above. Where they are coming from or where they are being led to you do not know, for they are under the guidance of the wind of the Spirit itself. It is the Spirit that guides those who have been born into fullness of service to the will of the Father.”
His mind reeling with what he had heard and how much it seemed to be in conflict with all that he had previously thought and understood, Nicodemus could only murmur, “How can this be so, how can these things be?” Now having spoken plainly to Nicodemus, Jesus pressed his case asking, “Are you truly a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand what I have told you?” Lowering his head Nicodemus waited as Jesus continued, “Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen. We only share what we know to be the truth through our experience of God and yet you, seeing the same refuse to receive our testimony. If I have told you this about earthly things and you do not believe, how will you ever believe me if I tell you about heavenly things?” Looking up Nicodemus seemed to be at a complete loss for words, not knowing how to reply to Jesus whatsoever.
Jesus continued on saying, “No one has ascended up into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent on a staff in the wilderness that all who looked upon it might be healed, so too must the Son of Man be lifted up, in order that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
For God so deeply and completely loved the whole world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. For in truth God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but rather that the world might be saved through him.”
At that last remark Nicodemus felt a pang of guilt for he knew that he and his party often stood in a place of judgement regarding others they considered less worthy of God’s favor. For Jesus seemed to be saying that everyone who let the Spirit direct their thoughts and actions was holy and forgiven in the eyes of God. Nicodemus was not sure what to do with Jesus’ apparently flippant attitude towards judgement, unsure of how a God who always stood ready to forgive anyone might conflict with his own understanding of power and worldly authority. But still very unsteady in terms of how to engage what Jesus was saying, Nicodemus kept silent as Jesus continued on.
“Those who believe in the Son of Man are not condemned, but those who do not have condemned themselves through their unbelief. For you see, the light has come into the world, but many have chosen the darkness instead, knowing that their sinfulness will be revealed in the light of God’s love. Those who seek the truth seek the light, and all who see their works know that what they have done has been done in God.”
Now fully convicted in so many ways for his own as well as his party’s beliefs and understandings Nicodemus could only sit and look longingly at Jesus, wanting so much to give it all up and to follow after him. Jesus looked back at him gently, filling the young ruler’s soul with both conviction and a certain sense that this was a relationship that would somehow find a way to continue on after this night was over.
Slowly Nicodemus made his way back over to the doorway to the house. The room was silent, for all knew that the words Jesus had spoken were both profound as well as dangerous…and here he had spoken so clearly to a member of Jesus’ sworn opposition. Looking back one last time, Nicodemus made his way out into the dark and chill of the night, convinced now more than ever that this young Rabbi held a sense of God’s truth that needed more investigation.
And little also did Nicodemus know that in a scant few days he would actually find the courage to speak out in defense of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, reminding his colleagues there that the Law actually called for one accused to be granted a hearing before being judged as guilty. His plea however was cast aside as the others ridiculed him accusing him of taking Jesus’ side and asking if he too was from Galilee, reminding Nicodemus that nowhere in the scriptures did it ever speak of a prophet coming from the lowly region of Galilee.
Unbowed and now more than ever convinced of Jesus’ closeness to God, Nicodemus kept quiet, secretly siding with this one who had opened his eyes to the real truth of the scriptures.
And then once more Nicodemus had a chance to show his support for the teacher he had come to respect so deeply. Unfortunately it was far too late to make any difference however. And yet, though he probably had a very heavy heart that Friday evening as he assisted Joseph of Arimathea in preparing the body of Jesus for burial, just recently removed from the cross, the story of this one who stole out into the night to meet Jesus still remains. And his love for his newfound Savior still speaks deeply of the effect that the wind of the Spirit can have on one born again from above. This is the word of our Lord for today…thanks be to God…amen
“Unless one is born again…” That can be a challenging word for many Christians, or for many considering becoming a part of our faith. And I think that is because for so long it has been a part of many debates and discussions around what it means to be a follower of Jesus. And also because, in our very human way we often tend to make scripture into rigid laws rather than receiving them as instructions meant to allow room for any who are seeking, to come to know our Lord. Throughout the course of my life I have had several understandings of what Jesus meant when he said we ‘must be born again in order to see the kingdom of God’. In the beginning I was curious and in my early forays into charismatic prayer groups and the like I tried to understand what it all meant…even willing myself into believing that I was in fact ‘born again’ as all my Christian companions had assured me it was mine for the asking. However that scenario also came with a feeling that you had to be able to demonstrate or prove this ‘born-again-ness’ for it to somehow be real or authentic. And on that account I always came up short, because like Nicodemus I think I wanted to hear it directly from the One who surely knew the answer.
And so for a time I was, or at least I thought I was a ‘born-again believer’, trying to act just like the rest of my born-again friends acted…but it still felt somehow shallow or made-up…do you see here how what is supposed to be a beautiful part of one’s relationship with God can get so tied up in legal knots? Anyway as I grew older and went off to college I left my prayer fellowship behind, leaving behind as well my confidence that I actually qualified as one who really was ‘born again’.
And then, by grace the Holy Spirit went to work and over the course of a number of years I came to suspect that ‘born again’ was not in fact some magical condition but rather simply a description of one who had truly decided to walk as closely in the Lord’s ways as possible. I realized that it did not have to be a legal thing at all nor even something to worry or fret about but rather was the state of being of one who had entered into a dependent and loving relationship with the Lord. And while I am not sure if it was this scripture that threw me originally or the affinity I felt for Nicodemus’ questioning heart, it was still quite some time before I let go of my previous ‘understanding’ and gave in, looking anew for the Kingdom of God with the eyes of one who was in a deeply personal relationship with God.
And so, when the scripture turned up again in this week’s readings I was not all that overjoyed at first as it seemed like I had walked on this ground many times before. But as I thought about it more deeply I began to wonder how many people are still in the company of poor Nicodemus? How many either have no idea or perhaps even no interest in what it means to be ‘born again’, and how much of that might still be residual effects of past church teachings that tended to confuse the issue or at the very least give it an aura of either unattainability or radical craziness?
In other words, perhaps it is a good time to look again at just what Jesus was trying to share that evening with Nicodemus and his disciples. What was he saying that so challenged them and ended up sending Nicodemus back out in the night even less sure of what Jesus was all about?
As our reading pointed out, all of us are originally born of the water…that is, born by natural means, each of us a child of our mother and father. And that birth sets us on a path towards increasing maturity and growth eventually unto adulthood. That is life in the world, as functioning parts of the created order, as members of the body of humanity.
However that is not all that our God intended for us. I firmly believe that God created humanity as an object of his love, and intended that we participate in that love by returning love unto God. I also firmly believe that God loves all of humanity totally and completely, setting no one higher than another and charging all who profess to follow after him to do the same. Remember John 3:17, the forgotten verse in my opinion, tells us that God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn the world but rather that through him the whole of humanity might be saved…might be brought into the kingdom of everlasting peace and overflowing joy…that place where ‘justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’ (Amos 5:24).
And so when I look at our scripture for today and the call to be ‘born again’; I see it as an invitation to love, not as a badge of membership or honor. I see it as a call from our Lord to allow the Spirit to birth within you a newness of purpose and a renewing of your ability to see and to hear all that God asks of us in being a part of the ongoing salvation of all humanity.
I see it as a willing surrender unto the Lord of the control over one’s own life…allowing the Spirit of God to take up residence within the inner workings and understandings of your mind, actively teaching, guiding, and directing one’s thoughts and behavior in ways that are pleasing to God and which further the cause of bringing the kingdom of God into present reality.
Being born again of the Spirit means simply that one has chosen to put the Lord in place as the Lord over one’s life…a decision which will lead us to seek first the kingdom of God in all deliberations and to resist anything that would set that same cause back or hinder it in any way. Which may sound daunting and seem like something that might be hard to discern or to determine but I do not think that has to be the case. For we all worship the same God, and there is one Spirit of love that seeks to guide and direct each one of us. So any and all who truly have surrendered unto the Lord and have given up all efforts to guide and direct their own lives…any who have given up trying to be their own ‘lords’ at least for a time…any who seek after a oneness of relationship with the Lord as their Lord shall walk in peace, as well as side by side.
Born again…or born from above? I prefer the latter, ‘born from above, for I think it is more accessible…easier to relate to and easier to seek after. Jesus is simply telling us that though we have much in the way of intelligence and reason as a result of being born by natural means…it is only in truly surrendering, seeking, and following after the guidance of the Spirit invited to dwell within us that we can begin to see as our Lord sees, hear as our Lord hears, and respond to our brothers and sisters in need as our Lord would have us do so. Being born of the Spirit is a first step in the building of a relationship with the One who loves us most deeply and who cherishes each of his children so profoundly. Allowing one’s self to come under the guidance and lordship of the Holy Spirit by the intentional surrender of control over their life is the path to true freedom, the way of deepest joy, and the only way to be ‘born from above’.
And so as we leave this place and go back to our work-a-day lives…as we go back to our ‘non-Sunday-selves’, let us look deeply for those ways in which our behavior, our attitudes, our interaction with others…with any and all ‘others’…might be more loving, more compassionate and understanding, and more reflective of the fact that the Holy Spirit is in control of and over our lives…
…let us love more profoundly and care more deeply each and every day…
…And may it ever be so for each and every one of us…