John 3:1-17 – Born Again and Again and Again

For every Christian there are moments when faith becomes incredibly complicated.  There are moments when the simple faith of our childhood seems to not quite fit the circumstances in which we find ourselves.  It may be a moment when you see bad things happening to good people.  It may be a moment of prayer, when you either don’t get the answer from God that you want or just don’t get any answer at all.  It may be a moment of frustration when God seems not to be working the way you think he should.  All of us have moments such as these.  The most vivid example in recent years has been the admission made by Mother Theresa that she routinely had moments when she couldn’t sense the presence of God.  For Mother Theresa, and for all of us, the journey of faith is set on a road with many twists and turns.

French philosopher and theologian Paul Ricoeur said that the journey of faith has two primary stages which he called the first and second naiveté.  The first naiveté is that stage in which faith is simple and uncomplicated.  It’s a black and white faith with no grey areas, a faith that affirms along with a popular bumper sticker, “The Bible says it.  I believe it.  That settles it!”  As we walk our roads however, there are times when the people around us, the circumstances in which we live, and even God himself challenge that and jolt us into a new awareness.  In other words, our faith grows and becomes more authentic.  We realize that the Bible says things that trouble us when we are comfortable or complacent.  We find that our personal beliefs don’t quite answer all the questions that arise in our struggles.  We also discover that God’s ways are not our ways, and that the journey of the Christian is at times very unsettled.  We may as well print up bumper stickers that say, “The Bible doesn’t say what I thought it did.  I’m not quite sure what I believe all the time.  That unsettles it!”

According to Ricoeur, these unsettling twists and turns in our faith journeys lead us to the second naiveté.  The second naiveté is a more open faith, a more honest faith where you have questions and you have struggles but you also come to rely not so much on your personal beliefs but rather on God’s creative and redemptive power.  In the second naiveté we open ourselves to the uncertainty of God, to the unpredictable wildness of God’s Holy Spirit that is forever at work in our lives, creating us, sustaining us, redeeming us.  Faith becomes trust in a God-driven mystery rather than a self-driven list of rigid doctrines.

Let me give you an example.  It comes from the life of one of the most unusual people I have ever seen.  He’s unusual because he happens to be green and lives in a swamp.  He is, of course, an ogre.  And his name is Shrek.

Now if you’re a pastor in any church and you decide to use both Paul Ricoeur and Shrek in the same sermon, you have some explaining to do.  In case you haven’t seen the movie, Shrek is an ogre who lives on his own in a swamp and has no use for other people at all.  He’s a radical individualist who believes beyond all doubt that everything he needs is in the swamp.  He is self-sufficient and self-driven.  By the end of the movie, however, he has become not only community-minded but he has also come to care most for the weakest and most marginalized creatures in his society.  Shrek begins with a stubborn certainty, a rigid belief that he and his swamp are all that he needs.  He eventually comes to see the world and others differently.  He becomes driven and guided by that most uncertain and unpredictably dynamic of all forces: love.  In the end, of course, he also gets the girl.

Shrek’s story is remarkably similar to that of a man we meet in our New Testament reading for today.  His name is Nicodemus.  Nicodemus is one of the most unusual people you will meet in scripture.  He was a prominent Pharisee and also a member of the Sanhedrin.  Pharisees were the most devout Jews of their day, and they maintained a rigid adherence to the very letter of the Jewish law.  They believed that one became righteous on one’s own, by obeying the religious law perfectly.  They lived in a world of “clean” and “unclean” where adherence to religious laws gained you favor with God.  For Pharisees, the law was life.  The Sanhedrin were the official court of seventy priests, scribes, and elders who provided religious leadership.  They were also the council that would decide to have Jesus arrested and killed.

As a member of both of these groups, Nicodemus was a prominent religious leader and powerful politician.  It’s possible that he had a great deal to lose by coming to see a rabble-rouser like Jesus.  He presumably comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness, so no one will see what he’s doing.  “We know you are a teacher who has come from God,” he says.  Jesus very abruptly cuts to the chase.  He knows Nicodemus.  He knows that Nicodemus has been raised in the religious school, the rigid atmosphere in which already-accepted practices were viewed as God-given law.  Anything new would not be accepted or tolerated.  Yet, it was precisely something new that Jesus wanted to give to Nicodemus.

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Nicodemus misunderstands him and replies, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  How can anyone be born a second time?”  See, Nicodemus thinks Jesus is saying that you have to be “born again”.  The Greek word used there is anothen, which can mean either “again” or “from above”.  Evidently Jesus says anothen and means, “from above”, but Nicodemus hears anothen and thinks, “again”. We know about this misunderstanding because John in his Gospel uses the word anothen four times, and in each instance the intended meaning is “from above”.  When John wants to say “again” he uses a different Greek word.  It’s ironic that so many Christian believers out there place such great emphasis on being “born again” when that’s not really what Jesus said!  In fact, Jesus is saying that one must be born “from above”, and if you’re being born from above, who do you think is doing the birthing?

It’s God, and it’s clear that this new birth from above is entirely different than one’s physical birth.  Our physical birth is something that happens once.  Nicodemus is right.  We can’t go back into our Mother’s womb and be born a second time.  Our birth certificates record a one-time event.  You know what time it happened, you know where it happened, and you know who gave birth to you as well, the one to whom you belonged on your first day.  Nicodemus is thinking only in these terms, and so he misses what Jesus is saying.  There’s a new kind of birth, a new way of seeing the world that isn’t so rigid and self-centered.  There’s a new way of life that’s not governed by laws or an inflexible system of beliefs.  No, this new way of life is as unpredictable as the wind.  It 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 will be with everyone who is born of the Spirit, born from above, born from God.  It’s not something that happens once in our lives, but again and again and again.  God’s creative Spirit is never ever through with us.

What Jesus wanted to give Nicodemus, and what God wants to give each of us, is a new identity, a new birth, a new start.  God wants the cells of our faith to grow according to a new set of DNA.  It’s not about rigid adherence to doctrine.  It’s about the unpredictable and mysterious reality of God’s redeeming love.  That’s why in the middle of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus we find the most succinct and beautiful summary of what God was doing in Jesus Christ in all of scripture.  “For God so loved the world that he have his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him!”  Every Christian has moments when this truth comes into startling focus, and suddenly the overwhelming power of God’s gracious love reorients everything you are and everything you do.  You see yourself and others differently, not according to yourself but according to God’s love.  It’s like being born anew.  Over and over again.

This is what happens to Nicodemus, though it takes time.  He doesn’t suddenly become an avid follower of Jesus in one big “born again” moment.  He slowly has moments when it looks like God’s grace is having an effect on him, gradually chiseling away at his rigid belief system.  He reappears in chapter seven when the Pharisees are plotting to have Jesus arrested and killed.  Instead of going along with the plan, Nicodemus asks the other Pharisees whether it wouldn’t be more prudent to question Jesus first to find out what he’s really doing.  He’s starting to see things differently.  Nicodemus disappears from the scene and isn’t heard from again until chapter nineteen, after Jesus has died on the cross.  Nicodemus, along with Joseph of Arimathea, actually comes to bury the body of Jesus.  The Jewish law at the time stated that contact with a dead body rendered one “unclean”.  Furthermore, this was the dead body of a crucified criminal.  Clearly, something has changed for Nicodemus.  I like to think that he buried the body of Jesus out of love.  I like to think that he suddenly began to see things not in terms of “clean” and “unclean”, but in terms of God’s grace.  I wonder if he anointed the dead body of Jesus and thought to himself, “for God so loved the world…”

Christian author Frederick Buechner imagines that a few days later, after Jesus had been buried and sealed in the tomb, Nicodemus hears some of the disciples saying that they had seen Jesus alive again.  And Nicodemus simply sits down and cries openly, just like a newborn.[1]  Of course, that’s exactly what he was.  And so are we.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1979), pp. 136-138.

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