March 8, 2020, The Facts of Life, John 3:1-17 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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We read from John’s gospel this morning about a man named Nicodemus, who came to visit Jesus. He came under cover of night, because he was a Pharisee and visiting Jesus wouldn’t have been a popular or even safe thing to do. But Nicodemus was drawn to Jesus because he recognized the hand of God in what Jesus was doing. And we know from John’s gospel that Nicodemus truly believed, and continued to believe in Jesus. Later on, in chapter 7, when Jesus’s popularity was really gaining ground, and the chief priests and Pharisees had decided to nip things in the bud and to have him arrested, we see Nicodemus taking the serious risk of speaking up on Jesus’s behalf. “Does our Law judge a person without first listening to what he has to say?” Nicodemus asked. And he got a pretty scathing rebuke from his colleagues. “What, are you a Galileean too?” they sneered at him. “You know perfectly well no prophet ever came from Galilee.” And then again, in chapter 19 of John’s gospel we see Nicodemus going public right after Jesus had been executed by the Roman authorities, bringing a great quantity of spices and oils and helping Joseph of Arimathea prepare Jesus’s body for burial.
But at their very first meeting, Jesus shocked Nicodemus by telling him that the only way he was ever going to reach God was to start all over again, from the very beginning, be born again just like a newborn baby. And Nicodemus was dumbfounded; he was sure he was too old to start all over again. “What do you mean, born again? You think an old man can go back into his mother’s womb and be born a second time?” And he made it sound as ridiculous as possible, because to him the whole idea did sound ridiculous.
To be told you have to start all over again, when you are already old and feel you are already “there”, wherever “there” is, is terrifying. Nicodemus was an old man, a successful man, and in the eyes of his fellow Pharisees he had “arrived”. He was a teacher and follower of the law of Moses, which had taken him years and years of study and hard work. But Jesus was telling him he had to start over, let go of what he knew, and get ready to follow God’s Spirit, which wasn’t something you could pin down and study and memorize and become an expert in. The Spirit, Jesus told him, is like a wind that blows where it wants to, so that you never know where it’s coming from or where it’s going.
Imagine you’re standing on the edge of a cliff. Everything you’ve ever known and accomplished is solid and safe and sure at your back. And then somebody tells you that if you want to follow God all you have to do is take one step – forward – into thin air. That’s what Nicodemus must have felt when Jesus spoke. It’s like a man who retires from a job he’s been working at for 40 or 50 years, trying to imagine what he is going to do in the days stretching ahead of him, and who he is going to be when he is no longer the electrician or teacher or bricklayer he has been for as long as he can remember. It’s like a woman whose last child goes off to college, looking around her at an empty house, empty beds, and silent, empty hours stretching ahead of her. It’s like anyone, young or old, just leaving home, or graduating from college, or losing a job, or after a divorce, or after the death of a loved one. Entering into an entirely new life is one of the scariest things we are asked to do, and maybe scariest of all when we feel old and tired, but Jesus told Nicodemus that was exactly what he was going to have to do.
I think when we hear the term “born again” many of us have it associated with a certain kind of fundamentalist Christianity: “born again” seems to be mostly identified with people who obey the Ten Commandments and take the Bible at face value and go to church several times a week and sing worship choruses. “Born again” Christians often say they are “born again” because of the things they have chosen to do and believe, the way they choose to live. But actually the term “born again” doesn’t belong to a certain branch of Christianity, it belongs to Jesus. It’s his metaphor. And the Greek has a double meaning – not only “born again” but also “born from above”, just as John said in the prologue to his gospel: “To those who received him, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of any man, but only by the will of God himself.” One reason Jesus used the metaphor of birth, is because birth is not something we chooose – it is something that happens to us. Think: is there any time you were less in control of your life than when you were on your way through the birth canal and into this world you knew nothing about?
And that’s what makes birth such a good metaphor for faith; because faith means relinquishing control, prying our fingers off the steering wheel, and handing the direction of our life over to God. That’s what Jesus is calling us to do when he asks us to deny ourselves, and take up our cross daily. He asks us to let go of our selfishness and anger and jealousy and fear, to let go of our big plans and hopes and certainties – which is a very hard, sometimes a very painful thing to do. But when we trust Jesus enough to let those things go, we are born once again through the process of rebirth and renewal that is our life of faith in Christ. Then we are delivered from the bondage of human expectations and rules and traditions, and led by the entirely unpredictable breath of the Spirit, who fills our lungs each time we emerge, gasping and wide-eyed, into the fresh mercies of God’s new day.
The process of being reborn by faith is never as neat and tidy and controllable as just getting baptized, and following the Ten Commandments and having a daily quiet time and spreading the gospel, as good as those things might be. If birth is a good symbol of the life of faith – and Jesus seemed to think it was – it is at least in part a good symbol because living by faith is messy, sometimes scary, sometimes exhausting, and often painful. Control or no, birth is not an easy journey for a baby to make, any more than it is for the mother. But birth is the only journey that leads us into life.
So here’s the thing: when Jesus told Nicodemus that he had to be born again, or born from above, if he wanted to enter the kingdom of God, he was not telling him that he had to do and believe the right things so that he could go to heaven when he died. And I think that is very often the way people understand what Jesus is saying here. Because the kingdom of God that Jesus is speaking of is not life-after-death; it’s abundant life now, living and being reborn day by day, being transformed from glory to glory, as Paul put it. Day by day we are being reborn. And yes, we look forward to the time when the birth pangs are finally at an end and the whole Creation is brought forth at last in wholeness and perfect deathless health.
We look forward to the time when everything that has been lost through the brokenness of the world, all the things that have been destroyed, all the beloved people we have lost, will be restored to us. But even now, as we make the journey of death and re-birth with Christ day by day, we already see the kingdom of God which has broken through the darkness, and we already hear the voice of the Spirit whose breath fills our lungs. It is a journey. It’s a hard journey, and a long and tiring one. But it is the only journey that leads to life, and we are never too old, and it is never too late, and God’s mercies never fail to strengthen and refresh us. And we do not travel alone, because Jesus, the God who is with us, has chosen to go through the whole process with us, purely and simply because he loves us so very much that he wanted to share his own abundant life with all of us.
When my little brother was born I was 7 years old, just old enough to be aware, by eavesdropping on conversations and generally being nosy, of the messier aspects of childbirth. I was just beginning to form a rudimentary understanding of the whole where-babies-come-from issue, I drilled my mother with urgent questions about things like pain and blood and stitches. And I’ll never forget what she told me, after she had carefully answered all my anxious questions. She told me that after her babies were born, she never even remembered the pain because she was so full of joy to hold the new little life that had come into the world. And after bringing ten children into the world, I know that she was right. What stays in my mind as I remember the details of the births of each of my little guys is the astounding joy of seeing and feeling and hearing that brand-new little person who has entered into my world.
Every Friday during Lent we hold a simple service here called the Stations of the Cross. I know many of you have participated at one time or another. We follow the icons that are hung around the walls of the nave, and those bring us from one step of our Lord’s Passion to the next, his arrest and beating, his falling down under the heavy burden of the cross, his meeting with the weeping women, the pain of his grieving mother, and the unthinkable sorrow of his death. In that short but enormous journey that we take each Friday we are following the Son of God through the dark birth passage of suffering and death. It is not an easy journey to take, even in remembrance, and I think many people choose not to participate because it is just so painful.
But when we remember that the pain of Christ’s Passion was the birth pangs into eternal life, for all of us, and for the whole of Creation, then that terrible pain is transformed into hope and joy. We know that the Incarnation and Passion and death of Jesus Christ didn’t end up in the tomb like a still-born child who will never see the light of day. We know the truth of Easter morning. The glorious joy of the Resurrection eclipses every memory of pain and suffering and loss, so that we can follow our Lord even through his Passion, in the assurance that out of all pain and all weariness and even death God was giving birth to new and abundant life.