Tuesday, March 14, 2017

What Does it Mean to be Born Again?

John 3:1-17

Someone recently asked me, “Do Episcopalians believe in getting born again?” I’ll be honest, I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. The question can be interpreted in a number of ways. Did she mean, “Do Episcopalians affirm chapter three, verse three, of the Gospel according to Saint John when Jesus tells Nicodemus the Pharisee, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God?’” If so, than yes we most certainly do! In fact it is our Gospel reading for this very day, the Second Sunday in Lent.

But I suspect her intention was somewhat different. She wanted to know if Episcopalians identify with a certain kind of Evangelical Christianity which has often made having a “born-again” experience  a centerpiece of their teaching. They state that a Christian must come to a crisis and experience a moment of conversion in which they make a decision to give their life to Jesus, be saved, and enjoy a personal relationship with him. To that I can only say, “The Episcopal Church is a big tent and we have all kinds!”

Our text for today has become a kind of battleground text for Christian identity. It comes with a lot of cultural baggage and associations. For some, the associations are very positive. I know of many kind and wonderful people who proudly proclaim themselves, “Born Again Christians.” My father was one of them.  For others, this phrase comes with different associations that can be a real obstacle.

“What do you mean I must be born again? I had a cousin who got ‘born again’ and he became a really pushy, sanctimonious jerk!”

“What do you mean I must be born again? Aren’t those born again types all part of the religious right? Isn’t being born again synonymous with anti-intellectualism, misogyny, and homophobia?”

I want to assure you, when Jesus told Nicodemus he must be born again, he didn’t have any of these things in mind.  In order to get at what Jesus really meant, we will need to peel back these layers of cultural associations and remember that Jesus was a Jew from Galilee in the first century and not an American from New York in the 21st Century!

Let’s take a look at the text. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. Why at night? Some have suggested it is because he didn’t want to be seen. He was curious about Jesus, but he didn’t want it to get around. Others have said, if you really want to learn from a rabbi, you go late. That way your conversation isn’t interrupted by the business of the day and you can talk long into the night. Both of those suggestions seem plausible, but I think there is a spiritual meaning behind this.  Saint John is awfully fond of using light and dark as a metaphor. I believe he is telling us that Nicodemus came to Christ in spiritual darkness, but he is about to be enlightened. Jesus is going to illuminate the sacred mysteries for him.

 When Jesus prefaces what he says with, “Very truly” or “verily, verily” you know that what he says next is about to let us in on something very important. That is exactly what he does here. He says, Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

That is how our translation, the New Revised Version, renders it. As we have been saying, it is often translated, “born again” as well.  Why the discrepancy? The Greek word here used actually can mean two different things depending on the context. It can either refer to an earlier time or it can refer to a higher position, thus the different translations, “again” and “above.” Its confusing isn’t it? Now you understand how Nicodemus felt!

You see, Nicodemus assumed that Jesus meant “born again” and he took him literally, as if Jesus were saying that one had to experience child birth a second time in this world. He asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

Jesus clarifies what he means, “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. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’”

Jesus is not talking about another birth like our first one. He is talking about a spiritual birth from above or in other words, from heaven. Jesus has come to give us a new kind of life, eternal life. We sometimes mistakenly think of eternal life as being about quantity—about our life just going on forever and ever—but it isn’t just about quantity, it is about quality. It is a life like his, an immortal, heavenly nature, from God, one that is not frustrated and defeated by sin and death, but victorious.

Moreover, we don’t need to die before we start living this kind of life. We can begin today. This isn’t just about a happy afterlife, but a more meaningful and effective life here and now. Jesus came not just to purchase you a ticket to heaven when you die, but to empower you to live a life of beauty and virtue that gives glory to God. This is the way the Christian author Dallas Willard paraphrases verse sixteen,

“God's care for humanity was so great that he sent his unique Son among us, so that those who count on him might not lead a futile and failing existence, but have the undying life of God himself.”

This is the kind of life we need if we want to live in the Kingdom of God. It is the kind of life that is only possible through the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

So who is it that receives this kind of life? Does it only belong to a special class of super Christians who have had a born again experience? The key is understanding what Jesus meant by being born of “water.”

We have already seen how the birth Jesus is speaking of is a heavenly one from above through the power of the spirit, but why does he mention water? Some commentators have said that “born of water” refers to our physical birth. Unborn babies float in a sack of amniotic fluid for nine months and just before their mother gives birth, her water breaks.  Some have suggested that Jesus is saying that we need both this natural birth, through water, and a second birth through the spirit.

This seems plausible enough, but the early Church Fathers—the generation of Christians closest in time to Jesus—are unanimous in interpreting this saying of Jesus as referring to Baptism.

Baptism is called, “the sacrament of regeneration” or “the sacrament of rebirth.” In it we are washed with water and the spirit and made a new creature. Saint Paul writes that through baptism we are united with Christ in his death and raised to newness of life. Our Baptismal rite in the Book of Common Prayer affirms this stating,

“We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we areburied with Christ in his death. By it we share in hisresurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.”

What this means is that being “born again” isn’t meant to distinguish us as a special class of super Christians, but rather every baptized Christian can be said to be “born again through water and the spirit.” God promises us this gift of eternal life through the sacrament of Holy Baptism. He empowers us to be his disciples and he promises to always be with us.

This raises another question, “Does this mean that only those who are baptized can be saved? Isn’t it true that some people show evidence of living the kind of life Jesus is talking about without being a Christian or being baptized, without knowing Jesus like we do?”

Jesus is very clear about the importance and necessity of baptism. He wants everyone to know him as Lord, love him, and receive baptism. We cannot be complacent about that, but on the other hand, “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.” We can’t put limits on God’s mercy.

I actually really like what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says,

God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.”

It continues, 

"’Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery.’ Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.”

The wrong conclusion to draw from this would be, “God will handle it, I don’t need to step out and share my faith, the church doesn’t need to do evangelism, or Baptize…” That would be silly because if we love someone we want to share the truth with them. We want to bless them and there is no greater blessing then baptism. Christ commanded his church to make disciples of all nations and to baptize them. He has given us a job to do. He wants us to be a part of his project of restoration and redemption.

All of us, like Nicodemus, come to Christ in darkness. Christian or non-Christian, we are all in the same boat.  Just as patiently, Jesus takes us by the hand and leads us to the light.  It is his joy to give us birth from above. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.