In the name of God ☩ Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.
Have you ever had to start over? Maybe it was after being laid off from a job and having to start from scratch. Maybe it was after getting divorced and realizing that life isn’t playing out the way you thought it would. Maybe it was after not getting into the school that you hoped to attend and you had to go back to the drawing board. Maybe an idea you had just didn’t go as planned and was a total flop. Starting over is scary, full of uncertainty, and even if it leads to a good, or better, end result, the process of disorientation is not often a pleasant one.
With this in mind, we can better understand the consternation experienced by Nicodemus when he hears Jesus tell him that he has to be born again. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, meaning that he doesn’t want people to know that he’s interested in learning from Jesus. He comes and calls Jesus “rabbi,” so he’s expecting Jesus to teach him something. Nicodemus has heard about what Jesus has been up to – his Baptism in the Jordan, the transformation of water into wine at Cana, and the cleansing of the Temple – and he knows that no one can do such things apart from God. So he comes by night to learn more about this power of God that is on display.
Obviously, I don’t know what was going on in Nicodemus’ head that night. But I know what’s in my mind. I think, “You know, I’ve built a rather good life: I’ve got some impressive credentials, a wonderful family, a great job, no fatal character flaws. I wonder if Jesus could make me even better?” Or even if your life is down in the dumps, we often turn to God to make things better. Nicodemus, perhaps, was expecting Jesus to give him a few tips on how to improve his life and his relationship with God. But a few pieces of advice is not at all what Jesus gives Nicodemus.
Jesus says “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” There’s an interesting linguistic trick going on here – the word for “from above” can also be translated as “again.” So Nicodemus understands Jesus to be saying that you must be born again, which is why he starts asking about climbing back into his mother’s womb. It’s a rather ridiculous question that Nicodemus asks, which reminds us that when it comes to faith, there’s no such thing as a bad question or a question you shouldn’t ask. After all, Nicodemus was considering climbing back into his mother’s birth canal, so whatever question you have, I doubt you can top that one. Never be ashamed of your questions.
But Nicodemus wasn’t understanding what Jesus was saying. He had no frame of reference for such a proclamation. When we come to Jesus expecting incremental growth or quick solutions to our problems, his responses back us to might seem rather confusing. And so Nicodemus asks “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” In addition to being tripped up on the logistics of how one can be born a second time, Nicodemus is likely wondering why anyone would want to start over and be born a second time.
Growing up is hard to do. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, meaning that he’s a religious leader of his community. He’s built his reputation, he’s graduated from the school of hard knocks, he’s paid his dues, he’s grown in maturity, and established his life. Why would anyone choose to undo all of that? If things are going well, why would you want to walk away from success and start over? We wouldn’t. What Jesus tells us is ridiculous, which is why Nicodemus follows up with a ridiculous question about entering back into the womb. That makes a much sense as throwing away everything he’s built up to this point.
But being born anew is exactly what Jesus is telling Nicodemus, and us, to do. And so Jesus clarifies by saying “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” In chapter 6 of Romans, St. Paul writes, “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. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” That is how radical Jesus is – we’re talking in terms of dying to self and being reborn to Christ. That’s what Baptism is all about.
Too often though, we want to skip over the Death part and go right to the Resurrection. As Jesus says, “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” But we cling onto the flesh – to all of those things that we build up for ourselves. The call to follow Jesus though is the call to take up our cross and follow him; or, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it, “When calls a person, he bids them come and die.” The life of faith really is that radical, not at all a few small changes, but it is completely starting over with a new identity as God’s beloved child and the new priorities of living in the kingdom of God.
Consider the call of Abram that we heard about in Genesis. Now, at this point in the story, he hasn’t been renamed Abraham, but it’s the same person. God says to Abram, “Go from your country and your family to the land I will show you.” That’s dying to self. Abram lived in a very different world, one where land and family meant a lot more than it does to us today. In his culture, land was your identity and family was the only alliance that you had. You didn’t have an employer, or civic organizations, or other social networks. You had your extended family and that was all, and without a family you had nothing. We don’t know it directly from the Bible, but Jewish tradition tells us that Abram’s father, Terah, was a very powerful man. Terah was the Chief General of the Babylonian army, meaning that Abram was asked to leave not only his family, but a very influential and affluent family. He was to leave all of this to go to an unknown land and to an unknown people. He was asked to die to himself.
And he went. St. Paul in today’s reading from Romans tells us though that Abram’s going wasn’t about him earning his own salvation, as he wasn’t justified by works. Rather, St. Paul uses the language of a gift and that word “gift” is the same word as Grace. What’s going on here is not that God is giving Abram a test to see whether or not he’ll get a chance to earn his salvation. No, God says that Abram will go and will be blessed so that all the families of the earth will be blessed. He’s blessed in order to be a blessing. God intends to bless this world with love. God opens the reality of abundant grace to all the world. The gift of grace is there for us all to claim, there’s nothing we have to do to earn it or deserve it. Rather, God lays before us paths so we can find this gift. Just as birth is passive and not something we have to do for ourselves, our salvation is the gift of new life.
For Abram, the path was to go off and make a fresh start so that God could create a nation that would become a symbol of God’s grace to the world. It started with Abram, and it continued through Moses, Ruth, and David and is culminated when God comes among us in Jesus Christ. This is what Jesus is all about – showing us the new and abundant life that God intends for us. If John 3:16 is the most well-known verse of Scripture, then John 3:17 might be most overlooked – “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.” God is a God not of condemnation, not of telling you that you don’t measure up, not of telling you that you could do better. Instead, God is a God of salvation, of liberation, of giving us fresh starts in grace. And Jesus shows us this path of salvation.
Jesus says “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” And before we miss the point, remember that “believe” doesn’t mean that you arrange your religious thoughts in a particular way, belief is about where you put your trust, your heart, your obedience. Here, Jesus is referring back to a story in Numbers 21. Moses and the people were living in a camp and poisonous snakes came out and starting biting and killing the people. So God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a stick. When the people look upon the serpent, they will be healed. This is why you’ll see that symbol on ambulances and doctor’s offices. The idea is that to be healed, you have to look reality in the face and see the problem.
Jesus sees his impending Crucifixion in this same way – people will look upon him when he is lifted up and be healed. We look at Sin and Death in Jesus on the Cross and we find eternal life. Jesus is showing us that a love that willing to die for others is what saves us. Grace that is unearned is where we have our hope. Mercy that is not required is what makes all things new. This loving grace is the grain of the universe, it is the path of salvation, it is the way to find abundant life, it is the womb that will lead us to being born anew into the kingdom of God. But we don’t get to Resurrection without Crucifixion, so as we gaze upon the horrors of the Cross, we see the salvation that God has already enacted for us as a mother giving new life to her child.
This is what enables our fresh start, our being born anew. It is scary to think about giving up the things that we’ve built up for ourselves. It is unsettling to be told that the priorities that we’ve lived our lives by are not always in alignment with the kingdom of God. I don’t know what this will mean in your life – I can’t tell you what ideas, habits, or priorities you need to die to. I can’t tell you what needs to be left behind for you to encounter more fully the abundant grace of God in your life. But I can tell you that you won’t be alone when you make a fresh start because the Holy Spirit is with you on every step of that journey. And I can tell you that even if you struggle to make a new start, God still loves you, God will continue to meet you where you are, and God will continue to lead you into the reality of grace.
As challenging as this message of the Gospel of being born from above is, there is also great comfort and hope in knowing that God desires for us to flourish in love, that no matter how dead the end is, there is always the possibility of new life. Because of the Cross of Christ, we can trust that God will always be with us, no matter how difficult the situation. In his boldness, we can take the risk of starting over, of loving, of dying to self, of seeking first the Kingdom of God. And that is what salvation is all about – being freed to live in love and grace. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” Thanks be to God.