January 28, 2018
Born Anew, from Above
Introduction to the text
For the last few weeks we’ve been reading from the Gospel of John. One of the things that makes John’s Gospel complicated is that conversations take place on several levels at the same time. This isn’t an accident – John is showing us that Jesus is living in two worlds at once, and we don’t get the half of it with our limited understanding. You’ll hear that in our next reading – someone asks Jesus a question, and he answers as if in a Zen koan – almost like a paradox or a puzzle.
Even the words Jesus uses can mean different things. For example, the Greek word “pneuma” can mean wind or breath or spirit. The phrase “gennethe anothen” can mean born again or born anew or born from above. The same word that means lifted up means exalted. If you’re reading along in the bulletin, you’ll find the multiple meanings in parenthesis to help you see when this happens.
Let’s listen for the Word of God.
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”
Jesus answered, “I assure you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born anew [from above].”
Nicodemus asked, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can someone enter into a mother’s womb for a second time and be born?”
Jesus answered, “I assure you, no one can enter God’s kingdom without being born of water and the Spirit. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit [wind, breath]. Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You [pl.] must be born anew [from above].’ The wind [Spirit, breath] blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus said, “How can this be possible?”
“Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t understand these things? I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you [pl.] don’t receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?
No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up [exalted] so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him isn’t judged; whoever doesn’t believe in him is already judged, because they have not believed in the name of God’s only Son.
“This is the basis for judgment: The light came into the world, and people loved darkness more than the light, because their actions are evil. All who do evil things hate the light and don’t come to the light for fear that their actions will be exposed. Whoever does what is true comes to the light so that it can be clearly seen that their actions were done in God.”
* * * * *
It is so interesting to me that Nicodemus came to see Jesus in the night. It’s such a curious detail in the text – that he came to him in the darkness.
Nicodemus knows there’s something powerful about Jesus – no one could do the miraculous signs Jesus was doing without being deeply connected to God. But Nicodemus isn’t ready to drop everything and follow him. There’s too much at stake. After all, Nicodemus has status. He has responsibility. He’s a religious leader, and it’s dangerous getting too close to a renegade rabbi like Jesus. No wonder he comes in the night.
If he’s looking for simple answers, Nicodemus is out of luck. The conversation doesn’t go anything like he expects. Immediately Jesus begins to talk in riddles: ‘No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit.’ Nicodemus doesn’t know what Jesus is talking about.
Honestly, I’m sympathetic. I’m not sure we understand, either. This is hard.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Presbyterians don’t talk much about being “born again.” That’s for Evangelicals and Baptists, right? Not us “decently and in order” Presbyterians; what some people call the “frozen-chosen.” We don’t have altar calls. We don’t ask people when they were “saved.” We don’t talk about “giving your life to Christ.” If I would hazard a guess, I suspect that kind of language makes a lot of people in Presbyterian pews uncomfortable.
And if you’re not uncomfortable, bear with the rest of us!
So what do we do with a passage like this one?
The part about “God so loved the world” is fine – we love that God loves the world. God is love. But being “born again”? Not so much. We’re especially uncomfortable with the part about judgment. “Whoever believes in him isn’t judged; whoever doesn’t believe in him is already judged, because they have not believed in the name of God’s only Son.” Some translations use the word “condemned”; that’s even worse. It’s the kind of language of damnation that some Christians use as a bludgeon, and we want none of it.
So what do we do with a passage like this one? Can this passage be saved?
This week someone came into my office to talk about a passage from a novel she was reading. In the novel, a woman has been betrayed, badly hurt by someone she loves. It has been devastating. She is trying to figure out what to do with her overwhelming anger and rage and desire for revenge. One night, she calls a priest she has met. She wants his help. But the priest’s words are not what she expects.
He talks about forgiveness – that part you might expect – and how forgiveness frees up the one who’s doing the forgiving. But he also invites her to surrender her life to Christ. He invites her to pray this prayer:
"Thank you, God, for loving me, and for sending your Son to die for my sins. I sincerely repent of my sins and receive Christ as my personal Savior. Now as your child, I turn my entire life over to you."
But she’s having none of it. It has nothing to do with what she is looking for. In fact, it sounds like nonsense to her, magical thinking. How will saying these words make her life whole again. How could it really change anything?
You know, I heard that story and I thought, it sounds like Nicodemus. Maybe it’s because this passage was rattling around in my head, but she sounds a lot like Nicodemus to me.
One night Nicodemus calls on a rabbi he has met. He wants his help. But Jesus’ words are not what he expects. Jesus talks about being born again, born from above. But Nicodemus is having none of it. It has nothing to do with what he is looking for. In fact, it sounds like utter nonsense to him.
But what if it isn’t? What if this isn’t nonsense at all?
What Jesus is saying is both obtuse and filled with meaning and it is meant to be so. From an earthly point of view it makes no sense, because Jesus is talking about “heavenly things.” That is precisely the point. The Son of Man - God’s Son – is completely a part of heaven and this world. John’s Gospel reveals this over and over again. The signs Jesus does – they are heaven breaking into this world.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ life cracks open the barrier between this world and the next, this time to eternity, this life to eternal life. These different planes exist at the very same time, only we don’t see them. We go around living in our skin, in this flesh, without ever realizing that we are also spiritual, Spirit-breathing beings filled with the light of God. We live with our feet planted on this earth thinking that heaven is out of reach, when Jesus is inviting us to live on earth and in heaven, at the very same time, with him, now.
So why are we so resistant? Why do we fight this? We, who are already Christians?
See, I think we’re confused about something important, and it’s created a barrier that doesn’t need to be there. To give ourselves body and mind, heart and soul to Jesus doesn’t have to mean we’re condemning people who don’t - any more than falling in love with one particular person means that other people aren’t loveable. To choose this life doesn’t condemn people who don’t.
I think there’s something else that gets in the way, too. Somehow we’ve conflated “surrendering” our lives to Christ with “surrendering” ourselves to a religion, to what the church says, to what pastors or priests say. But we’re not giving our lives to an institution, we’re opening them to a God who loves us completely, who wants to fill us with life, who wants us to taste heaven even while we live on this earth, who offers light that the darkness of this world can’t ever overcome. I don’t know about you, but I want that!
I’m desperate to live in that light.
Recently someone asked me when I became a Christian. I don’t have an answer to that. I was baptized into this faith when I was an infant, and I’ve never left. Over the years my faith has changed, but I have always been Christian. There wasn’t one ‘born again’ time I look back on. After all, I’m a good Presbyterian.
But I’ve given my life to Jesus so many times I can’t count them. I forget that heaven is open to me, then remember. I get caught up in the things of this world, then stop and breathe again. I turn my will and my life over to God – and then take it back – over and over again. Sometimes I’m so open-hearted, and sometimes my heart freezes up. Sometimes I’m full of God’s light, and sometimes just full of myself. Sometimes I’m angry at God; and God patiently waits until I can love God again.
That is my life of faith. Living in darkness, then light, over and over and over again, sometimes at the very same time.
And Jesus keeps offering light… and it makes all the difference in the world. If you don’t believe the light’s there – well, how on earth do you live?
I was talking with Bill Syndram this week. He was telling me about some of the people he’s known, people he’s worked with over the years, or gotten to know when they stopped by the store. Bill’s known a lot of good people, a lot from rough places, people whose lives have been complicated and hard. He knows people who’ve had to muster more courage in a year than most of us have to in a lifetime.
One of the people he told me about was Seth. Not long ago, Seth stopped by to see Bill to say thank you.
“I just came back to say thank you,” Seth told him. “Because when you saw me, I was in the dark. It was dark. But you saw light. You saw light in me. I want to thank you for seeing light in me.”
If you don’t believe in the light – well, all that’s left is the darkness. But Jesus keeps offering light.
Rev. Karen Chakoian
First Presbyterian Church