Today’s scripture reading from the Gospel of John, in which Jesus and Nicodemus discuss how a person is born, seems fitting when one considers that we are in the midst of a season of births in the church community. Over the past month, three babies have been born to members of the church’s staff—our administrative assistant Tabatha Stokes; one of our nursery attendants Elizabeth Outhwaite, and our organist William Mennell. And there is still one more baby on the way, a girl due in early June, who my wife Elizabeth and I are very eager to meet.
The birth of a baby is a great joy—a wonderful celebration and witness to the goodness of God’s creation, to God’s miraculous gift of life in the flesh. We know this truth very well. We also know and understand the natural process of how a birth occurs. We know how a baby develops and grows, eventually becoming an adult who understands who they are and where they came from as human beings. Birth and growing is common knowledge. Most people know and can explain about birth without having to bat an eyelash.
We know about the creation of life so well that when many folks hear the phrase “born again” they become a bit confused: Huh? What do you mean, born again? Even many thoughtful Presbyterians will hear the phrase “born again” and immediately start thumbing through the Biology and Reformed notebooks in their heads: Wait a minute, we’re only born once. It’s not physically possible to be born twice out of our mother’s womb. And according to our faith, we believe that God creates us once, gives us the gift of baptism, a sign that we belong to God and have been born into God’s family, once. Those fundamentalist TV preachers are always saying that a person, even a devout Christian, has to be “born again” to rightly receive God’s love. That’s nonsense.
It’s a valid point. “Born again” stirs up some confusion and is ultimately misinterpreted or blatantly ignored. Brian McClaren, an evangelical pastor in D.C. and the best-selling author of The Secret Message of Jesus tells us:
Born anew or born again…is another frequently misunderstood phrase, one that many people make equivalent to saying a prayer at the end of a booklet or tract, or having an emotional experience at the end of a church service. It often signifies a status achieved through some belief or experience, so that it become an adjective: “I’m a born-again Christian.” But it’s clear that Jesus isn’t talking about a religious experience or status Nicodemus needs to acquire like some sort of certification. No, Jesus is saying, “Nicodemus…if you’re coming to me hoping to experience the extraordinary life to the full…you are going to have to go back to the very beginning. You’re going to have to become like a baby all over again, to unlearn everything you are already so sure of, so you can be retaught.”
That is a daunting command for Nicodemus when you consider that he is a respected Jewish teacher and leader in the city of Jerusalem. As a Pharisee, he is well known for obeying the Law to every detail and for admirably trying to understand how best to apply the Law in each situation of life. To unlearn everything he has been so sure of since birth, and again become like a child who has to be retaught, seems unreasonable. But if Nicodemus truly wants to follow Jesus and understand what it means to live in God’s kingdom, then he must re-examine everything he knows about the world and system he lives in.
Nicodemus is part of a system that holds the law over doing what is just, such as feeding the hungry on the Sabbath. He and the Pharisees follow the rules so tightly that they ignore the hungry, the sick, the lonely and those suffering physically and financially under the Roman Empire’s thumb.
Even though Nicodemus has seen the way Jesus is subverting the system through signs and miracles, he comes to Jesus at night feeling pretty good about his position in the world and confident that he knows Jesus is a fellow colleague called by God. So Nicodemus initially says to Jesus, “Rabbi, we all know that you are a teacher straight from God. No one could do all the God-pointing, God-revealing acts you do if God weren’t in on it.” Nicodemus’ words are true and grounded in the knowledge of his own faith. His expectation of how Jesus would respond, however, is false.
Nicodemus expects Jesus to praise him for such a statement, which would give the Pharisee and staunch law abider the satisfaction of being right. Instead, Jesus challenges Nicodemus by pushing him to look past the simple statement to gain a deeper understanding of his faith, of what God is doing in Christ. He tells Nicodemus that he is much more than just another teacher and miracle worker sent by God to talk about God’s kingdom. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he is God in the flesh, dwelling among human beings so that God’s kingdom of love and mercy may be established in the world.
The kingdom of God is a different world, an alternative reality, time and way of living that exceeds all human understandings of linear time that carries us somberly from point A to point B to point C and so on—that measures life and individual performance on how one successfully obeys all of the laws and customs to move from one point to the next.
For human beings to live in the kingdom as God’s alternative from this world, one must recognize that in addition to being born of flesh from their mother’s womb, they are born “from above/again” by the pneuma, the Greek word for “Spirit” of God; also translated as the “wind” and “breath” of God. And living by the Spirit means we allow ourselves to be blown this way and that with “no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next.” Living in God’s kingdom by God’s Spirit means we have to let God show them how to truly live a life that is free from the things that drag folks selfishly from point A to point B without ever recognizing their neighbor.
Nicodemus is very puzzled by this idea of letting go of what he has known and learned. He doesn’t understand this new way of living and understanding one’s identity and purpose by God in the Holy Spirit. Dr. Laura Mendenhall, the president of Columbia Theological Seminary, shares some insight on Nicodemus’ situation in a sermon she preached in 2000. She says:
Nicodemus wants to line up proofs and arguments in order to arrive at a clear conclusion and thereby become a believer. Nicodemus assumed that this was how faith is born and sustained…Jesus told Nicodemus that faith is born of the Spirit, a Spirit that blows like the wind, blows where it chooses…. Jesus told Nicodemus that life in God’s kingdom cannot be earned or achieved. One is simply born into God’s kingdom and living in the Spirit cannot be controlled, charted or calculated. All of this was very confusing to Nicodemus who only knew how to trust in the security of the rituals, doctrines and moral instruction of the synagogue.
The same is true for many of us. We hold very tightly to the arguments, rules, regulations and self-serving philosophies that make us so certain that we deserve a higher status and reward in life than our neighbors. Like Nicodemus, we have to become like a baby all over again, to unlearn everything he is already so sure of, so he can be retaught.
Jesus’ challenge to re-examine how we’ve lived out our worldly births and to live instead in a kingdom of God as a new people born of the Spirit is something, that the theologian Justo Gonzalez says, we must take seriously:
What we must do is to take the new birth very seriously, and to be ready, not only to accept the new life that God offers, but also to leave behind the old life that God rejects. To be born anew is not simply a matter of changing a few things that are obviously wrong in our lives, and then keep on with the rest as if nothing else has changed. To be born again is to begin anew…To be born again is to put all thing at God’ disposal, so that God will do with them as God pleases…The promise of new birth is true and dependable. There is no need to remain enslaved by our past. And the promise of new birth is also a challenge and a demand.
Living into the promise of new birth is much more than just filing into the sanctuary to sit in a pew week after week to offer prayers, say all the right words and sing the favorite hymns. Doing all of those rituals is an important part of what we do to show our love to God, but doing them consistently and correctly is not what makes us loving and faithful Christians or members of God’s kingdom. No, it is the Spirit of God who breathes in us that makes us disciples and stewards of God’s kingdom. It’s not about being born right but rather, in the words of the singer/songwriter Paul Simon, it’s about being “born at the instant the church bells chime and the whole world whispering born at the right time”—God’s time. When we recognize that we are born to live in God’s time, things start to change. God’s kingdom, God’s alternate way of living in the world becomes much clearer.
Laura Mendenhall tells us that “when Nicodemus began to allow himself to be born of the wind, things changed for him.” Throughout the rest of John’s Gospel, Nicodemus stands up for Jesus, publicly speaks out against his fellow Pharisees and friends who judge and criticize Jesus and his ministry. After Jesus’ death on the cross, Nicodemus helped prepare the body for burial. Nicodemus chooses to confront the brutal and oppressive system of Jesus’ day. Nicodemus chooses to live differently from the world by living into God’s kingdom through the Spirit. “Nicodemus,” Mendenhall says: “was no longer intimidated or afraid. Nicodemus had come to realize that he was born from above not by his own doing but by the love of God who birthed him anew and gave him a life of boldness.”
Understanding that we are born of the Spirit for the purpose of living a life of boldness in God’s kingdom (a world different from our own) is the challenge and the demand that each of us face everyday. It’s a challenge that is very similar to the one faced by Denzel Washington’s character Joe Miller in the 1993 film Philadelphia. The critically claimed movie is about a young gay lawyer named Andrew Beckett who is after being infected with AIDS, is fired from his law firm in fear that they might contract AIDS from him. In a last attempt for justice, Andrew sues his former law firm with the help of a tenacious and successful lawyer, Joe Miller—who also happens to be a staunch homophobe. Joe follows the rules of society, of the world very closely when it comes to AIDS. Joe believes without a doubt that he can contract AIDS germs simply by shaking Andrew’s hand or breathing the same air—a common belief back in the early days of the disease.
During the court battle, Miller sees that Beckett is no different than any other human being on the gritty streets of the city of brotherly love. Joe eventually sheds his homophobia and helps win the case before AIDS overcomes Beckett. The scene of transformation, the moment in which Joe finally lets go of his prejudices and certitudes about others, is breath-taking. It’s late at night. Joe and Andrew are going over the case in Andrew’s loft apartment. The beautiful sounds of an Opera are playing on the stereo. Joe begins talking about strategy for the trial when Andrew stops him and says:
This is my favorite aria. Andrew stands up and clutching to his IV pole, the pale faced and graying young man shuffles to the center of the room …This is “Andrea Chenier” by Umberto Giordano, he says to Joe. This is Madeleine (singing). She’s saying how during the French Revolution, a mob set fire to her house, and her mother died… saving her. “Look, the place that cradled me is burning,” Andrew’s shuts his eyes and clenches his fist as if to emulate the French woman and says achingly, Can you hear the heartache in her voice? Can you feel it, Joe? Joe nods. His eyes are fixated upon Andrew who is expressing his suffering through the aria.
Andrew, his eyes still shut, smiles and he begins again to describe the music and translate the words: In come the strings, and it changes everything. The music fills with a hope, and that’ll change again. Listen… listen…”I bring sorrow to those who love me.” Oh, that single cello! “It was during this sorrow that love came to me.”
Joe’s eyes water. Andrew’s smile seems to cover his entire face, which is now suddenly bathed in this illuminating orange-red light from the fireplace. Andrew continues speaking, his clinched fist raised high in the air: A voice filled with harmony. It says, “Live still, I am life. Heaven is in your eyes. Is everything around you just the blood and mud? I am divine. I am oblivion. I am the god… that comes down from the heavens, and makes of the Earth a heaven. I am love!… I am love.”
The music ends. Joe tells Andrew goodbye and quietly goes home. Upon arriving at his house, Joe picks up his sleeping 7-month-old daughter, hugs her and says, “I love you.” And then he crawls into bed, fully clothed, wraps his arms around his wife and he lies there, his eyes wide open; tears streaming down his cheeks.
Joe Miller finally understands and recognizes what it means to be born of the Spirit for the purpose of living in and for God’s kingdom. Joe knows that allowing himself to be born of the Spirit means he is allowing himself to see the love of Christ Jesus in the face of Andrew Beckett, the other. Joe is no longer enslaved by his past bigotry toward the people that the world told him to fear and hate. Instead Joe has allowed the Spirit to guide him to live his life treating others with loving mercy. Joe knows that he wasn’t born to always be right, but he was born for the right time, for God’s time, God’s reality, God’s kingdom.
My hope during this time of Lent, this time of self-examination, is that we allow Jesus to challenge us to go deeper with our faith—to ultimately unlearn and let go of every selfish certitude we have about ourselves and others. My hope is that we live as those born for the right time of God, as those who are born from above/again by the Spirit, and who trust in that wind of God to show us a new way of living in the love of Christ Jesus, who continues to point us in the direction of the kingdom.
“The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering The Truth That Could Change Everything” by Brian McLaren, 2006
“Born of the Wind” sermon by Dr. Laura Mendenhall, June 18, 2000
“Three Months With John” by Justo L. Gonzalez, 2005
“Philadelphia” starring Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks, 1993