BEING BORN FROM ABOVE
A sermon by Rev. Richard Miller, Minister of Trinity United Church, Montreal, QC. February 20, 2005. John 3:1-17.
Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above."
– John 3:3
A few weeks ago one of my sons and I were talking, and he said something about older people being set in their ways. Since I am getting into that category myself, I bristled a little. But I think I did fairly well, and I said that rather than being set in one’s ways, what all of us have to do is to find a way that works for us. I think that was the case with Nicodemus in the Gospel lesson. He had found a way of thinking and of living that worked for him. And then, along came Jesus who said something that didn’t neatly fit into his categories. Jesus said, “…no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again” – or “born from above.” This didn’t make sense to Nicodemus, and he pressed Jesus farther as to how this could be. Let’s look a bit more at this story.
Note that Nicodemus is a religious person and a leader. Note that he does not challenge Jesus, or demand that he give a sign. Rather he recognizes the signs that Jesus has already done. John's Gospel has only reported two so far, but the people who read this Gospel would be thinking of all the signs and miracles that Jesus had done, and so they – and we – would listen and agree. Jesus had to be from God. Otherwise he could not do these signs.
But then the plot thickens. Jesus said to Nicodemus, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Now let us remember that we are at the beginning of the book of John – Chapter 3 out of 21. John is setting down a theme for his entire book, namely, to have the presence of God requires more than changing a little water into wine or driving money-changers out of the Temple. No, in order to have the presence of God, you have to be born “again” or “anew” or “from above.”
If we look at the notes in a Reference Bible or consult a Bible dictionary, we find that the Greek word used here (anothen) can have any of these meanings – it can mean either "again" or “anew” or "from above." The earlier translations usually render it as "again" or "anew," but the version we have here at Trinity gives it as "you must be born from above." And when we know this, we can make more sense of this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. For Nicodemus is taking it in the sense of being born a second time, while Jesus is using the word in the sense of being born from above or from God. And so Nicodemus asks, "How can someone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" But what Jesus is saying is that you do not recognize the presence of God by a few signs, but only by being born from above – only by being regenerated by God.
And to go just a bit farther, when Nicodemus asks, "How can I possibly be born again?” what he is asking is, “What can I do that will cause this to happen? Can I enter my mother's womb a second time and be born?" And what Jesus is telling Nicodemus is that he cannot do anything. Being born is not something that you do; and in the same way being born again or from above is also not something that you do. Rather it is something that God does.
Now I think that many people have known this, even when they have spoken of being "born again." They have understood this verse as part of the whole story of Jesus, and they know that it is not about doing something. Rather it is about relying on God and what God is doing. "You must be born again" means that you must let God have God's way with you. Then you can see the Kingdom – then you are able to recognize the presence of God. Not by a few signs, but by the spiritual sight which only God can give.
I think that in some important ways, the story of Nocodemus is the story of every person and every church. For like him we find ways of thinking and of living that work for us, and then along comes this Jesus who says and does things that want to stretch us in some different directions. Jesus wants us to allow God to have God's way with us. We must "let go and let God," as some have put it. In other words, we must discern who God is calling us to be, and what God is calling us to do, and “follow the gleam” of that calling.
One thing that strikes me about Christian people today is how much we resist change. We all know what we don't like. This has made me wonder if the reason you and I resist change so much is because we know how much changing we need to do. Perhaps we already know that just a little window-dressing isn’t enough: we need to be born from above. We need to be reborn as God’s new people. And if I think – as I sometimes seem to – that this only applies to other people and not to me, then I also have to discover that I have my ways of resisting change too. In fact, we all do, don’t we? We all have our ways of knowing that we are right, and things would be fine if everyone else would just be like us and do what we do. Does that sound familiar? Sometimes it sounds all too much like me.
And so when we think we know the truth – when we say, as Nicodemus did, that this must be right because we know that this is the way that God works – then Jesus reminds us that we too must be born from above. We too must relinquish our old ways which quickly cause us to sin against one another and against God; and we must be born from above.
And do you know what else? This is not a one-time thing. It does not happen once and for all. Rather we have to keep being born from above – to keep being reborn as new people, holy and innocent, fresh from God's transforming grace. And we have to keep relinquishing the thoughts and ways which served us so well yesterday so that we may receive the new ones that God will give us for today. And so we have to trust ever more completely in God, and to be born from above over and over again.
In closing: when we speak of being born again – of being born from above – we are affirming the wholeness and the completeness of who we are called to be as Christian people. And this completeness is not just earthy and not just spiritual, but it means that we become human beings who have been reborn with the fullness of God in our lives.
So then, let us rely completely on God and God's love. Let us allow God to work his miracle within us and among us – birthing us as his reborn children – recreated in the image of God and the form of Jesus Christ. When this happens, we need no longer resist or be afraid of any changes God calls us to make, for they are ways that we are becoming more and more like God. Amen.