What happens when we've been baptized as a child and yet we still feel like we're going through a "born again" experience? It means living out your baptism. We can grow and make changes in our lives well beyond our baptism.
This sermon is quite a bit different from how it was written, therefore, please listen to the sermon rather than read it. The sermon notes which are included for convenience.
Sermon delivered at Lutheran Church of the Cross in Berkeley.
March 12 - 2nd Sunday in Lent
"Born Again, Again?". Text is from John 3:1-17
Good morning to you my sisters and brothers in Christ, saints and sinners, children of God.
We move into a different part of the gospels with today's text and the next several Sundays, going from Matthew to John's gospel, where we have some very interesting revelations play out in the text.
In today's reading we have a visit from a Pharisee named Nicodemus. It's no mistake that this important encounter is with one from the generally reviled group of people known as Pharisees, but Nicodemus is special. He appears to either be genuinely trying to understand the words that Jesus is telling him or at the very least investigating Jesus for other purposes, but having a worthwhile dialogue with him.
And in the midst of this dialogue, Nicodemus is bringing all of his own preconceptions to this encounter with Christ and has basically closed is mind to all possibility that Jesus has to offer. Jesus says that nobody is going to see God's kingdom without having been born from above. Nicodemus is perplexed. Birth happens once, right? What do you expect to crawl back into your mother's womb and go through it all over again? Jesus clarifies with a lengthier explanation, that things of the flesh are of the flesh and things of the Spirit are of the Spirit, and that one must be born of water and spirit, that is, "From above" in order to enter the kingdom. Now Nicodemus is astonished. What in the world is Jesus telling him? Jesus castigates Nicodemus, he is a teacher of Israel one who is supposed to understand Godly things and he doesn't get it?
The dialogue becomes a monologue and Jesus differentiates between earthly and heavenly things, and that the kingdom of God will only be seen by those who believe that the Son of God came into the world. But at the end, Jesus clinches it with a statement, that because God loves his creation, the people of the world, that he sent his Son into the world not to condemn it but to save it.
Now, to the uninitiated, Jesus's text can seem weird. You and I may have some idea what Jesus is talking about when he says being born from above, but for Nicodemus, the idea of being born, of emerging from a womb a second time, this is an incredibly bizarre concept.
There are some very interesting words to be uplifted in the text here. Nicodemus comes at night, and in John's gospel that usually means things are hidden, such that Nicodemus is a secret disciple, or it can mean a lack of belief. But, Nicodemus refers to Jesus as "rabbi" and affirms his work, leading us to conclude that it may be a combination of these two things. Indeed, the last time we see Nicodemus in John's gospel, it is by the light of day, and he has come to full belief. And belief is such a very important idea, but one that even a Pharisee such as Nicodemus can ascribe to.
Now, when we recite the words of the Nicene Creed, we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. For our church and many other churches this means that we are baptized once and all other times are, no matter how meaningful or gracious, they are just simply a sprinkling of or dunking in water. Some churches, though, have this concept of believer's baptism that says that if you weren't old enough to make the choice to become baptized then the baptism is invalid. I'm inclined to think that God is more powerful than that. That the idea of bringing an infant to a font soon after its birth is not so much about making a decision for the infant but ensuring that the child has the community's protection around it and that the parents are committed to raising that child in a life of fellowship and loving one another through Christ Jesus.
Having said that, the child still gets to affirm their own decision to follow Christ later on in either confirmation or affirmation before God, and their community. That moving into a life of discipleship is a decision one makes on their own, or as we would have, the decision that is the logical conclusion of our living out God's love for us to the rest of the world.
But even so, making a choice to renew one's life in Christ is significant in and of itself. That to be born again in the spirit happens in the name of Father Son and Holy Spirit, we may also experience rebirth by other means at different significant stages in our lives, places where God calls us to once again reaffirm our commitment made by our baptismal promises.
I recently heard someone in then rooms of one of the twelve step programs refer to his life of sobriety as being born again. I can certainly attest to the fact that putting a stop to my addictions gave me a new life, one that I would not have experienced on my own. That time spent in the midst of addictions was done without God actively in our lives, or at the very least done without the honest connection to our loving God that he calls us to, and so entering into a life of recovery can easily be said to be a way of being born again, even if not the classic born again of the spirit. Although some may certainly find their own initial rebirth in the spirit, their baptism, after having made a decision to stop using.
Any kind of rebirth can be the basis for a decision to follow Christ as he commands. I remember back in South Carolina we referred to a specific type of Christian as "born agains"; what we sometimes call evangelicals, although I hate the use of that term for them, simply because I think that bringing the message of good news is literally being evangelical, and by that basis we are all of us evangelical those that are carrying the good news of God in the world. But using the phrase "born again" does not have to carry with it the connotations that we like to associate with "born again Christians"; because just like with the word evangelical, we are all of us who are baptized, "born again" as well as those of us who have decided to follow the way of God without having yet made that decision. Born again can simply mean that we've made a decision to put our will and our lives into the hands of a loving and all powerful God, because we know by ourselves we cannot be the people Jesus Christ is calling us to be.
And there is such good news in these words, because God does love the world, God loved the world so darn much that God sent his Son to us to live and teach and be the example of perfect living. That God gave up that Son in order that we will no longer be under the sway of death, that we learn to believe in God and join in God's kingdom. That God, all powerful and all knowing God loved the world, the whole world, that Jesus was sent to us not to send us running perishing into the legendary flames of a realm of fire, but that we are saved through Christ.
And we can live in our rebirth, loving God and one another, in all God's glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord.