Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” (John 3:3).
Open my mouth, that I may proclaim your Word
Open our eyes and ears, that we may see and hear you
Open our hearts and minds, that we may joyfully receive you.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Earlier this week I Googled the term “born again”. The first hit was an advertisement for a Christian dating site with the tag line, “Meet born again singles – Find your born again soul mate!” Then there was Born Again Auto Sales whose sign was complete with a giant Jesus fish. Another good one was a website, jesus-is-savior.com whose header proclaimed, “Ye Must Be Born Again!” I then came across two interesting articles. The first asked, “Are Catholics Born Again?” Good question! The second was an article that came out in The Atlantic in the run up to the 2008 US election. The title of the article was “Born Again,” and it looked at the growing population of evangelicals in America. One comment on the media’s view of Evangelicals caught my eye: “Journalistic coverage of evangelical Christianity has oscillated between confident declarations that the Christian right is dead and horrified discoveries of its continuing influence.” True enough, the term ‘born again Christian’ conjures up all sorts of memories many, if not most, of which are terribly painful and rather embarrassing, and rightly so.
Yet, recall Jesus’ own words in our gospel reading from today: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above (or, born again),” (3). In this scene we witness Nicodemus, a Pharisee and leader of Israel, come to Jesus at night and affirm that indeed Jesus must be a teacher sent from God, “for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God,” (2). Nicodemus has seen the signs but is missing an important piece. He has not yet believed in the name of Jesus. He has not yet been born from above. There is a difference, you see, between knowledge about Jesus and belief in Jesus. Here Jesus charges Nicodemus not only with a lack of understanding, but also a lack of belief, since what Jesus is teaching is beyond understanding, and so it is only faith that could comprehend it. What Jesus is saying to him is something like this: If you are not born again, if you do not share in the Spirit that comes through the washing of regeneration, everything you think about me will be from a human point of view, not a spiritual one (Chrysostom). It is impossible, Christ says, for someone who is not born in this way to see the kingdom of God. This saying of Jesus also implies that apart from this new birth we are exiles and complete strangers to the kingdom of God, and that there is perpetual opposition between God and us until He changes us by a second birth (Calvin). This is indeed a hard teaching. It is to say that we are not able to come to God on our own. It is to say that whatever it is God is doing to make the world new cannot be known apart from Christ Jesus, for his resurrection to new life is the first sign of what God has planned for the world. But more than this, it is to say that we are in need of being redeemed, that we are in need of being saved from the powers of sin and death. This is an affront to our modern sensibilities for we would much rather believe that we do not need to be born again. We are good enough the way we are, thank-you.
OK, so there can be no denying the weight of Jesus’ remark: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” This raises two important questions for us. First, how does this happen? Second, what does this mean? With regard to our first question Nicodemus himself is curious: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (4). Now, Jesus does not directly answer Nicodemus’ question here with a simple yes or no. Presumably, however, the answer is no, you cannot enter a second time into your mothers womb. Thank goodness for that. How is one born again, then? Jesus elaborates on his earlier statement: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit,” (5). So then, here we have it. One is born again, or born from above, by “water and Spirit”. The Christian tradition has, with a few notable exceptions, interpreted this to say that it is through baptism that one is reborn. This makes some sense in light of the surrounding passages of Scripture. Just prior to today’s gospel reading Jesus himself was baptized. Immediately following our passage John tells us that, “After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized,” (22). Furthermore, all of this talk of water and Spirit and entering the kingdom of God would have rung clear to a scripturally aware Jew like Nicodemus. The combination of water and Spirit with a particular hope for the future was deeply rooted in the Jewish consciousness. Israel’s prophets often proclaim a future time when Israel would experience renewal, by water and Spirit. Hear these words from the prophet Ezekiel: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God,” (36:25-28). God promises to renew Israel, to cleanse them by the sprinkling of water and by the infilling of His Spirit who will enable them to live in faithful relation with God. All of that to say the need for cleansing and expectation of the renewal of the Spirit was in the air in the period of Jesus and the early Church. Here is the part not to be missed, that in Jesus this hope for renewal is fulfilled and through baptism our old self, enslaved as it were to sin and death, is washed away and we are reborn in a new life of freedom in resurrection power. Of course, it is beyond us to say precisely how this happens in baptism. We must say simply that it does happen. After all, the Spirit like the wind has a life of it’s own. It blows here and there and we hear it’s sound though we know not from where it comes or where it will go next. Furthermore, this is not our own doing. That you and I may be reborn, indeed are beckoned to be reborn, is a work of God for there is only One baptism, Christ’s. Thus, “our” baptism is really a participation in Christ’s baptism. As we go down into the waters we die with Christ. As we come up out of the waters the Holy Spirit comes upon us with a life that is powered by the resurrection of Christ Jesus. We rightly call this, eternal life.
And that is the answer to our second question: What does it mean to be born again? It means to see and enter the kingdom of God. Another way of saying this would be to say that it means to receive eternal life. To believe in Jesus, to be baptized into his Body, the Church, and to be indwelled by his Spirit is to receive eternal life. So proclaims John in what is perhaps the most famous of all Bible verses, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” We modern Western folks tend to think of time as a linear progression. The present is a blip on the line. Behind us lies the past. In front of us lies the future. And beyond the future of our life on earth, beyond our death, lies eternity. We tend to think of eternity as part of our linear time, the part of time which lies a way off in the distance and which goes on forever and ever and ever. However, this is not eternity as Scripture portrays it. Eternity is not ‘part’ of time. Eternity, as understood Scripturally, is without beginning or end. It is that which always has been and always will be. Therefore, “eternal life” can not be something that “begins” after we die. It may be more helpful then if we think of eternal life not in terms of quantity (it just goes on and on and on forever) but in terms of quality (it is a particular sort of life). Whatever eternal life is, it has no beginning and it has no end, it is everlasting, which of course makes it rather hard to think about and talk about since our language is itself bound in time and space as is all that God has created. Our language itself begins and ends. Christian language in particular, begins and ends with Jesus. That is not simply a cute saying. It is the truth of the gospel, that everything that is, everything we can possibly say, properly understood begins and ends and is sustained in Christ.
Here, many would object. How can we claim such a thing? It is by no means obvious to us that Jesus is the clue to understanding history. This is a bold statement open to challenge and critique. And that is precisely the point! For John, eternal life comes only by the indwelling of the Spirit whom we receive with the waters of baptism and who opens our eyes so that we can not only see but enter the kingdom of God. Indeed, no one can see the kingdom of God without experiencing the renewal of the Spirit. For when we are baptized with Christ in his death we are raised with him to new life, resurrection life in the power of the Spirit. As St. Paul writes in Romans: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life,” (6:3-4). And again in the verse that preceded our NT reading for today: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you,” (8:11).
For John as with the other writers of the NT, central to a proper understanding of eternal life is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Arbitrarily acknowledging that God exists does not lead to eternal life. Even acknowledging that God exists and has something to do with Jesus does not lead to eternal life (as is evidenced with Nicodemus). To quote the great reformer John Calvin, the true faith which leads to eternal life is, “placing Christ before one’s eyes and beholding in Him the heart of God poured out in love.” Eternal life is to believe in the God whose originally wonderful and yet shocking love for us looks like the gift of His only Son lifted up upon the cross. Eternal life is to allow the God who loves the world in this way to penetrate our hearts and minds, renewing our entire being as the Spirit of the risen and ascended Christ lives and dwells in us. Eternal life is a blessed life that is freed from the confines and limitations of sin and death precisely because it is the bestowing upon us, or rather our participation in, the very resurrected life of Jesus. Furthermore, because the resurrection life of Jesus is central to our understanding of eternal life we cannot begin to grasp the effects of this eternal life apart from seeing the resurrection of Jesus from the dead as an event which paves the way for the resurrection and renewal of all things. The resurrection of Jesus and our experience of his eternal life right now points towards the time when the whole of creation will experience this in all of its fullness of glory. This is a time when the glory of the Lord will not only fill the temple, as Isaiah prophesied, but will fill the whole wide world: “Indeed,” writes John, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might saved through him,” (3:17).
How can we say that this is the sort of life available to those who would believe in Christ Jesus when our experience of the world is very often difficult if not seemingly mundane? Indeed, sin and death are still very much a reality for us, as they were for Jesus. This is because time as we know it is the time of our fallen world which is marked by decay and corruption and above all sinful history (T.F. Torrance). If you need evidence of this I might just point towards some of the news headlines from this past week. Or, lest we be tempted to think that the reality of sin and death only exist “out there”, we might turn our gaze inwards. Yet it is within this very time that the Father gave us His Eternal Son who is our very life (Gal. 2:20). The eternal life we experience now is in part. Then, when God renews all things and the whole world is filled with His glory, it shall be in full. Eternal life is life with God in his kingdom, whether that kingdom is on earth or in heaven. It is to share in the resurrection life of Jesus and, simply put, this transforms everything. The experience of eternal life is so unlike our usual experience of time, it is so unique and new, that the only fitting way to talk about experiencing it is to speak in terms of being born again, into a new world. Today we celebrate with Charlotte and her family as she, through baptism, is born anew. Charlotte, after your baptism you will be forever changed because your life will be connected with the life of Jesus and his Spirit will live in you so that you are a new creation. Friends, as we renew our baptismal vows along with Charlotte, may we see that at our baptism the Holy Spirit came upon us. May we see that together, the very Spirit of the risen Christ dwells in us. You are a new creation. Christ has made you his brother, his sister, and as such you are a child of God. This is true of you. Let us then live by the Spirit, being nourished by the same source which brought us into being (Augustine), and anticipate the life that is to come for all. Amen.