I have always been a bit irritated that one corner of the Christian faith has claimed the title "Born Again". No doubt you have heard it said or been asked, "Are you born again?" (In fact a better translation is to be "born from above".) It is a rather simplistic way of trying to discover whether you are in or out of the faith. In fact it has more to do with whether you are in or out of my particular brand of Christian faith.
Let me make it clear to all who are gathered here today, "I am born again and again and again " You see, perhaps one of the most valuable insights we have about Christian faith is that it is more a process then a one-time event. It was the apostle Paul writing to the early church who dropped in the single and most important line, "You are being saved." Now there is a sermon in those few words, but the significance is that each day, as the sun rises, Gods grace, love and mercy pours into my life. Of course, I have to be open to its transforming power and I confess that often I am not.
The Story of the Religious man who comes by Night
It can be a risky thing to be seen in the wrong company. So this religious leader Nicodemus finds darkness a good cover to meet a radical teacher who is spreading intriguing and yet dangerous teachings:
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a religious leader. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "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."
Some commentators are critical of Nicodemus approach by night. And yet he was no fool and measured what he would lose by being seen with Jesus. Others say it was the best time for a quiet conversation without the distractions of the crowds that followed Jesus throughout the day. Regardless of the time of day he's chosen, he comes with a question that puzzles him. He sees Jesus as both a wonder-worker and also possessing a wisdom that could come only from God.
Jesus answers with an "absurd" story
A thing that has haunted Christian faith over the centuries is that there must be a single clear answer to every sincere question. It is built on the Socratic Method 1. That is, through question and answer one participant will contradict themselves, thus strengthening the other's argument. Now I am not suggesting that that is what is happening here. But it did come about as the way the church argued theology and the nature of God for centuries.
But there is another way and Jesus is about to use it. In many cases it is a more profound and illuminating way. It is the way of story, of narrative and a perplexing literary device called paradox. So rather than give a straight answer, Jesus says:
"Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?"
There is a deep truth in this illustration and Jesus doesnt want Nicodemus to get it too quickly. It is meant to be perplexing. It calls us to reflect, contemplate and wonder. But not just about its meaning but rather its meaning for us, for me.
Where Jesus differed from his religious colleagues was that his message led to a direct encounter with God, with the creator, and the religious rituals, laws and oblations were the finger pointing to that reality and not the reality itself. And so this absurd story of rebirth points to the greater story of union with God and a new way of being in the world.
I am not sure Jesus makes it any clearer with his next comment and a mixing of metaphors:
Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit."
But perhaps that is the purpose. Jesus is not so much giving an answer as he is giving Nicodemus material to work with in his spiritual life. It is wisdom that will take him on this new journey, not just knowledge of information. Is there a more profound quote, for this age and the past, than T. S. Eliots words?
Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
Religious information is helpful to a point. I have dozens of books on my shelves - just so you know, I know a lot of stuff - about theology, religion, God ..Ah, but there is the rub. I am convinced that we need more than books or even more than one book to encounter the divine. And there is a hint of that in this story. Did you notice that unlike other passages in the scriptures Jesus does not use a passage from the Bible to answer Nicodemus questions?
He uses childbirth, a fundamental experience. One that we have all passed through.
He speaks of flesh and spirit. The two components that come together to make us a living, breathing human being.
And finally he illustrates his narrative of this new life which can only be experienced, is changeable and not just known about. It is the wind:
"Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."
Nicodemus got more than he bargained for. You could say he left more confused that when he came. He sought the simple answers to a few questions and received a lifetime of spiritual insight.
"How can these things be?" Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony."
I read a quote this week which I didnt write down, so it goes something like this: Christian faith has too often over-spoken and under-listened. It has given simple answers to questions that need a lifetime of reflection.
I wonder if Jesus was saying that when you get born from above you begin to live not just in a different way, but with a different way of seeing reality. It is not so simple. Following the rules just wont do it, but following the light and the wind will reshape you, not all at once but day by day.
|1|| Socratic Method is named after the classical Greek philosopher Socrates. It is a form of inquiry and discussion between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas. It is a dialectical method, often involving a discussion in which the defence of one point of view is questioned; one participant may lead another to contradict themselves in some way, thus strengthening the inquirer's own point.