May 16, 2021
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Nicodemus, cloaked in the darkness of his own uncertainty, came to Jesus in the night seeking the light of understanding.
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God,” he said, hoping to open a conversation with Jesus about spiritual matters but Jesus didn’t even wait for Nicodemus’ question. He went right to the heart of what he knew Nicodemus was wondering and said, “No one can enter the realm of God without being born again.” And with that statement, Jesus plunged Nicodemus into confusion and started an argument among Christians that continues to this day.
How many times have we heard the declaration that Christians must be born again in order to claim true faith? We see it in flyers distributed by street corner evangelists, and hear it in the aisles of the grocery store when someone approaches us to ask, “Brother, sister, have you been born again?” I hear it every time I attend a Rochester Red Wings baseball game because there is a man who considers it his Christian duty to stand just outside the ballpark gates at every game and preach repentance to those coming in.
“Only those who are born again can know salvation!” he proclaims with a loud voice to the bemused crowd.
In the gospel of John, when Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be born again, initially Nicodemus takes Jesus’ words literally and tries to imagine a full grown man climbing into his mother’s womb again, but even when he finally understands that Jesus is talking about a spiritual rebirth, his distress is not much relieved, nor is ours. To be born again suggests a radical reboot; a transformation of personality and lifestyle which changes us into someone completely unrecognizable from who we were before. We’ve all heard the testimonies: “I was a teenage drug dealer but then I was born again. That man who sold drugs to children in the playground is now dead,” the reformed person declares, “and I, with the help of Christ, became a new person. You, too, must be born again if you are to experience the salvation he promises.”
And, admittedly, there are people who do need a radical transformation of their lives, maybe some of us sitting right here today. We would be arrogant to think that we are immune to the horrendous mistakes, addictions, or behaviors that are capable of squeezing the life out of ourselves and others, and you may be a person who needs a complete makeover, the kind of change that is only possible with divine help. Alcohol, drugs, abuse, uncontrolled anger, unrelenting hatred or spite, these are the failings that squeeze our hearts to bleed and cripple our spirits. Jesus often extended such transformative grace to those whose lives had become so enslaved by their sin and the brokenness of the world that their only hope was a complete rebirth, and Jesus gave them this good news, “You need to be freed from who you were so that you can become someone new, and I will lead you to become that person.” So if you are one whose life has gone astray, if you know that you have failed again and again to fix yourself on your own, then hear the words of Christ who promises rebirth is possible with his divine help. Have the courage to grasp his hand and say, “Today I will seek the help of God to cast aside my old self and be born into a new life.” The promise that a person can be born again — that a person can be freed from their past sins and failures — is a powerful radical message in a society that often cynically declares that nothing ever changes. Jesus promises that change is always possible with the help and forgiveness of God. You can be born again.
And so the third chapter of John with its promise of rebirth stands firmly within the rest of the preaching of Jesus that we have been talking about over these past weeks with its emphasis on grace and forgiveness, and yet this passage remains a disquieting one for many of us because, like Nicodemus, we don’t feel like we require a complete re-boot. What does this passage have to say to those of us who have done a fairly good job with the life God has given us? I don’t think it is false humility to say that many of us have lived basically kind lives. Sure, we have faults and have made lots of mistakes but the sins of our lives are primarily an accumulation of shortsightedness, thickheadedness, and times of selfishness that others have probably already forgotten, and we wonder, if we started life all over again — if we had a complete makeover even with the help of Christ — would we really do that much better the second time around?
The beauty of this passage is that Jesus’ words can be read in two different ways. The gospel of John deliberately uses a Greek word that can be translated both as “born again,” and “born from above.” To enter the realm where God rules our hearts, some of us will not need a complete makeover but instead constant encouragement to consciously choose to live by God’s values and assumptions instead of by the values and assumptions of the world. As human beings, we are all born into the physical sphere and from the moment of your birth, society pushes you to accept its designs and goals. You are encouraged to climb the corporate ladder, to accumulate wealth, and to seek prestige. You will be taught to look out first for number one, second for your family, third for your own ethnic group, fourth for your nation, and only lastly to look out for others unlike yourself. The pressures to conform to society’s values are incredible and Jesus warns us that we will have to constantly choose whether we will live by the world’s rules or by God’s rules.
“To enter the realm of God, you must be born from above.” There is nothing in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus that says being born from above is a one time thing; in my experience is is something that has to happen over and over again as we face the challenges of living in the world.
To get up in the morning and say, “Today, even when I am feeling resentful of others, I will choose to treat my neighbor with kindness,” is to be born that day from above. To get up in the morning and say, “Today, even when I am feeling like lashing out, I will choose to practice patience” is to be born that day from above. To get up in the morning and say, “Today, even when I am feel like stuffing my money under a mattress to protect my future, I will give it to the Hart House to help care for those who are suffering because I believe that is what living in God’s realm looks like,” is to be born that day from above. I once heard a minister disparage his congregation saying, “They think as long as they’re good people, they are practicing the gospel, but the gospel message is more radical than that,” and I wanted to retort, “What is more radical in our world today than being a good person?” Is there anything more challenging, more noble, and more Christ-like than living every day from above, practicing kindness, practicing generosity, showing love and bestowing grace on all you meet?
Some of you today may need the jolting command to be born again. You may need to hear that you can never mess up your life so badly that there is no hope; in Christ, you can be transformed. With God’s help, you can sweep away the old and be born again to start over in mercy and grace. For others of you today, you need the reminder that you all called to be born from above, to live every day in service, compassion, justice, and grace toward others. Like my dog Dexter, who has to decide every day whether to follow the impulses of the wolf within or to conform to the commands of the one he loves, we too are called to be born from above, to choose not to act of our own accord but to follow the commands of the one we love, the one who gave up his life for us so that we might live.