2nd Sunday of Lent
“Are you ‘born again?'” I have never been asked this question so baldly as this. but I have friends who have, who have been at a loss for words when confronted with this question. Especially for those of us for whom faith in Jesus has been a part of our lives since we were young children, it can be hard to answer. We don’t want to say ‘yes’ but saying ‘no’ doesn’t seem right either. The asker usually means, ‘have you had a dramatic conversion experience in which you have perceptibly changed from being a non-believer into being a saved, Jesus-believing, heaven-bound Christian?’
If so, then the answer for me is no. Coming to place of mature faith and belief in Jesus is more like a journey, on which there may have been moments of understanding, insight, epiphany, but nothing that stood out as the moment that I was born again. Even for people who have come to Christianity, or a newness of faith after non- or different belief, would shy away from being described as ‘born again’ because of the baggage of evangelicalism or fundamentalism associated with that terminology. But according to the Gospel of John, the ‘born again’ believers have had it right all along.
Nicodemus, a Pharisee in the temple, possibly in the powerful Sanhedrin, the religious ruling body, came to Jesus at night – not, I think, to hide (although many believe that to be the case) – but as an indication by John, the author, that Nicodemus is ‘in the dark.’ Light/dark are recurring images in the Gospel of John and people who walk in darkness are often meant to be seen as unknowledgeable, ignorant characters, who are alienated from God. He also speaks first on behalf of himself and perhaps his peers, saying to Jesus: ” 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.”
So he comes in the dark of night, not knowing much but clearly with an inkling, and representing some persons beyond himself. He and others recognize that something powerful is at work in Jesus: he addresses him as Rabbi, or master, and acknowledges God’s presence with Jesus’. Something about the ministry of Jesus has caught the attention and interest of the establishment – and not necessarily in a bad way – Nicodemus is intrigued. Yet Jesus’ response to him pushes him further. Pushes him toward the kingdom of God , something entirely new – a totally re-wired way of experiencing the world. And in order to realize the kingdom of God , Nicodemus needs to be born again.
When I read the passage fron the New Revised Standard Version translation of the Greek Bible, what I read was ‘Born from above’ . You were probably wondering – where was I getting all thing born again nonsense. Yet that word ‘above’ – a;nwqen (a’-no-then) – has a multitude of meanings. It can mean anew, again, from the beginning, and from above. Maybe ‘from the top’ would be an accurate, if flippant way to translate.
In some senses Jesus meant all of these, but Nicodemus only hears ‘again’ because he responds to Jesus, maybe a little mocking, now, in a you-may-be-a-teacher-from-God-but-what-the-heck-are-you-talking-about kind of tone, “How can anyone be born after growing old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and born?” A rhetorical question, by which, of course he means, ‘No one is about to be able to crawl back up in there and come out again, and what the heck would that prove anyway?’
Jesus answers seriously:
No one can enter the kingdom of God with being born of water and Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh, what is born of spirit is spirit.
So now being born again/from above/from the beginning is being equated with being born in the Spirit – having water baptism as the physical sign of that rebirth. I found the way Eugene Peterson renders this text in The Message helpful:
Unless a person submits to this original creation—the ‘wind-hovering-over-the-water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. When you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can’t see and touch—the Spirit—and becomes a living spirit.
In Peterson’s Message he makes the connection to creation explicit. The Spirit or breath that the writers of the first chapter of Genesis told us was present in creation is the same spirit that animates the kingdom of God . That same is the Spirit that in us, causes us to realize and ‘get’ the kingdom of God . Being born again means birthing our own Spirits – that in us which is in relationship with the Spirit of God.
The illustration that Jesus uses is to the wind.
“So don’t be so surprised when I tell you that you have to be ‘born from above’—out of this world, so to speak. You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by the wind of God, the Spirit of God.”
It is especially poetic in Greek because spirit and wind are the same word: pneuma . So here, too, there are double meanings; Jesus uses words with more than one meaning to deepen understanding of theological ideas.
When the wind blows, we can feel it on our skin, hear the leaves move as it rustles through the trees, see the grass flattened in it’s path. The wind is everywhere and yet we cannot see the wind itself. Likewise the Spirit of God is everywhere in the world, and to those who are born again will see not only where the signs that the Spirit has been there but will be able to fully see and be a part of the Kingdom of God. Nicodemus recognizes God’s presence but he does not see that Jesus has turned the world on its head – that all the signs that he has been doing have been pointing to the understanding that everything that everyone has understood about power has been wrong.
So Nicodemus asks – “How can these things be?” And no wonder. I can hardly understand myself. Like so much of John’s Gospel, this is heady and theoretical stuff. And yet wrestling with it on the way first to the cross and then the new life of Easter seems appropriate to me. I am trying hard to understand what Jesus’ being on earth really means to me.
The Gospel of John does not make it easy or practical. If only it could be as easy as hearing the voice of God as Abram did and following the instructions: Go to the land that I will show you. Yes that takes faith, but it’s pretty straightforward. Love your neighbour – not easy, maybe, but something practical to work on. Jesus, in John’s Gospel is asking his followers to understand some very nuanced material.
When someone asks, ‘Are you born again?’ it’s usually interchangeable with the question of salvation: ie. ‘Are you saved?’ Which basically means, are you going to heaven, will you live forever with Jesus. I, at least, tend to shy away from questions of salvation and focus more on the reality of today, but that link between the Kingdom of God in all it’s practical embodiment and the saving work of Jesus does not come out of nowhere. Right here in John 3, John makes the link. In the first verse I ever learned – and maybe the only verse I can still quote word for word: ‘for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life’: John 3:16.
In this short span of verses, through the device of Nicodemus’ questions, John and Jesus have led us from being born again (from above) to being born of the spirit (wind) to seeing the Kingdom of God to believing in the Son of Man who will be ‘lifted up’ and therefore be given eternal life (be saved).
I had dinner with a friend recently who is very new to Christianity and who is taking a class on the basic tenets of Christianity at a local church. She could not understand the idea that ‘Jesus died for us.’ The idea of salvation – that Jesus died (or in John’s words is ‘lifted up’) so that humanity could live forever – makes no sense to her. Absolutely. “How can this be?” It makes no sense to me either. Yet the first question of many Christians, ‘are you born again?’ or ‘are you saved?’ is the first question because they want to know if you are in or out, based, it seems to be, only on the ‘believing in Jesus’ part but not connecting it to the ‘seeing the Kingdom’ part of what Jesus was teaching.
This story about Nicodemus is also making some assumption about who is in and out – but based on who can make those connections between the kingdom of God and new life in God. Nicodemus might not quite get it yet, but Jesus (and John) is using Nicodemus’ questions as a way of helping the people who have already begun a journey with Jesus get deeper into the core question of what it means to ‘believe in Jesus.’
Being born again means entering into a new way into life – a way characterized not by the power of the world but by the power of heaven, a way that through Jesus, God embodied. This power of Love for humanity that was so new and Spirit filled and non-condemning, that Jesus he was killed because the powers of the world who could not realize or accept the realm of God had to suppress him. In this season we are examining transformations – a journey through the depths and into new life. There is no reason that new birth needs to happen in an instant or be a specific moment, but in the end, we are each invited by Jesus to be born again. Encouraged to seek the kind of new birth that will put us in a position to see the Kingdom of God .