TEXTS: Genesis 12:1-4a; John 3:1-17
Somewhere back in my history, I believe that it might have been during my seminary days, I have the distinct memory of someone making a statement about the church. I don’t remember who made the statement; I don’t even remember the exact context. This person said, “One of the great mistakes that mainline Protestant denominations have made over the years is that we let the Baptists take all the good hymns.” And to a great extent the statement is true. Baptists and other vocal Christian groups, most of whom are rather conservative in their theology and centered upon evangelism in form saving the souls of others for Christ, were able some fifty or sixty years ago to seemingly “lay claim” to certain hymns and brand those hymns as “Baptist”. Instead of trying to claim those hymn back for ourselves, main-line Protestant denominations like the Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopals, and even my own United Church of Christ shied away from singing those hymns, lest we be seen as “too Baptist”.
I believe that the same thing happened to a great extent with certain Biblical themes and catch phrases such as the one found at the center of our Gospel text today, the concept of being “born again”. Our New Revised Standard Version of the Bible doesn’t even translate the text as “born again”, but rather as “born from above”. And it’s not so bad that the Baptists and other Evangelical groups took ownership of this particular phrase. What is really bad is that we let them then define the phrase, and then we allowed those definitions to be accepted by the greater population and by society as a whole.
Now, back to the passage. Gerard Sloyan notes in his commentary on the Gospel of John that throughout the Gospel, and to a great extent in the other gospels as well, people came to Jesus because they were experiencing some sort of need. In specific cases people came to Jesus because they needed healing and wholeness, usually because they had a specific disease or handicap. In more general terms people came to Jesus because they were in need of hope or comfort or guidance on how to live their lives, how to interpret their scriptures or how to interact with their neighbors. When Jesus fulfilled the needs of individuals or groups, John termed the occasions in his gospel “signs”. The miraculous works and wisdom of Jesus were signs that pointed to Jesus as the holy one, the Son of God.
So the question that lies before us today is this: What is it that Nicodemus needed? He didn’t voice a specific need when he came to Jesus in the dead of night; in fact rather than offering a plea or even a question, his first words to Jesus are a statement; and the response that Jesus made was such a curve ball that Nicodemus’ successive questions became questions of clarification and finally bewilderment. In my own mind, Nicodemus’ need was a need for verification. He was looking for answers, and not just any answers but definitive answers.
Nicodemus was probably wondering whether this amazing man was indeed the messiah of God, sent to save the Jewish people and to set them once more in the midst of a promised land or possibly even a new Garden of Eden. Based upon his opening statement, Nicodemus had probably witnessed personally some of the signs that Jesus performed, as had his colleagues from the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of the Jewish elite in Jerusalem, for he couched his opening statement in the plural, “We know.” “We know what the signs indicate, Rabbi, said Nicodemus to Jesus, they show that you are from God. But the signs are not crystal clear to us; they are somewhat hazy. We need absolute verification.” (And as an aside at this point, it my own belief that the signs were not clear to Nicodemus and his colleagues because the Pharisees would not, and indeed could not allow them to be clear because that would have been just too much for them to take. The Pharisees in this matter were like a two year old who closes his eyes and fervently believes that others cannot see him.)
Rather than expressing a need, rather than offering questions, Nicodemus opened with the words “We know.”; as dangerous an opening as can be had, for as we find out over time, the Pharisees specifically “Did not know.” who Jesus was or what he was about. If they had known, they would have become his fervent followers!
And then Jesus came out of left field with a statement that probably seemed completely off the wall to poor Nicodemus. “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.” (Or born anew or born from above.) And this is where I propose that we good Lutherans take back from Baptists and the Evangelicals a good Biblical phrase and define it in our own terms. This is where we can’t let the definitions of others push us away from claiming to be “born again”. It has been my experience that for those who have the concept of personal salvation at the core of their theology there is but one definition of the term “born again”. That definition centers on a specific, momentary, radical shift in persona when a man or woman goes from unbelief to belief and gives his or her life completely to Christ.
My Southern Baptist, St. Louis cousins could quote the year, the /month, the day and even the hour when they were “born again”, when they accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. And I rejoice with them that they could do that, for there is absolutely nothing wrong with believing in that conversion experience and celebrating such a moment. The problems always arose when they claimed that I was not a real Christian because I couldn’t quote the year, the month or the day, let alone the hour when I was born again. If we allow ourselves to redefine the phenomenon of being born again and broaden it from being a cataclysmic momentary event to simply being a shift of understanding of self and world which is now centered upon God as God is revealed to us in Jesus Christ, then we can still celebrate with those who have had a radical moment of transformation, but can also embrace those who, like me, saw that shift take place over a longer period of time, and those who have come to be born again in a myriad of different ways. Being born again, being born from above, being born anew is to see the world around us, to see our relationships with others, to see our own existence in a way that is centered upon God as God has been presented to us through the man Jesus Christ.
And a big part of being born again is to come to the understanding that we are entirely dependent upon God for our lives and everything that fills our lives. And there’s the rub, isn’t it? For in this day and age we are taught from cradle to grave, whether the teaching is well based or totally fictitious, that we are rugged individuals who have no need to be dependent upon anyone. We are taught that we can do anything that we put our minds to; and if we can’t do something, all we have to do is pull up an instructional “YouTube” video on the topic! Society has even had the tendency to give dependence a bad name and reputation, so that dependency is seen as a weakness in our human character. And while that is sometimes true, as in the case of an addict’s dependence upon alcohol or heroin or some other substance, dependency upon others is usually a healthy sign and dependency upon God always so.
If you lack any dependency whatsoever; if you are complete self-sufficient you can also easily be led to forms of spiritual emptiness as noted in William Nicholson’s play Shadowlands where the following statement is made, “Self-sufficiency is the enemy of salvation. If you are self-sufficient, you have no need of God. If you have no need of God, you do not seek God. If you do not seek God, you will not find God.”
So my friends, I suggest that we all examine our own lives and ask ourselves, “Have I been born again? born from above? born anew? Was there a moment in my life when I experienced a radical transformation and embraced Jesus as Lord and Savior? Or was there a greater time span over which I experienced a more gradual transformation? Was there a period in my life that I can now look back upon and say, ‘I am different now from what I was then.’?” Are we able to admit our total dependency upon God? Do we live our lives celebrating that dependency or struggling against it, or both? Let’s not let the Baptists claim all the good hymns or all the good theology of the Bible by laying narrow definitions upon those great terms. And let us constantly celebrate our continuing rebirth and renewal in Christ Jesus our Savior.