March 12 , 2017 |John 3: 1-17| Rev. Nancy Talbot –
For the next several weeks in this season of Lent we are going to be focussing on stories from the Gospel of John. Most of you know there are 4 different versions of the story of Jesus in the bible told by the writers Matthew, Mark Luke and John. John’s gospel is unique among them. Several years ago there was a group here at the church that studied John’s gospel by watching a three hour movie that recorded John’s version of Jesus life and ministry word for word from start to finish. I didn’t see the movie myself but I remember asking some members of the group what they thought of it. One person said about half way through the film she turned to the person beside her and said “When is Jesus ever going to stop talking?”
It’s is a reasonable response because when scholars write about John’s Gospel they not only talk about its poetic language and rich metaphors, the way Jesus is portrayed as being so divine he equates himself to bread, water, wine, light and life itself; they also talk about its redundancy, the way the writer of John’s Gospel has Jesus say the same thing over and over again with just a slight variation in his words each time. Because of this it can be hard to understand exactly what his point is.
The story of Nicodemus is no exception. It’s wordy. It’s full with messages about wind and water, birth and being born again, salvation and eternal life. The inclination is to want to boil it all down to a couple key phrases to make it easier to understand. And that’s actually what some in the church have done with this story over the years. They’ve extracted two key phrases and hung everything about the Christian faith on those words. So it may be that when you are watching a football game you’ve seen people holding up signs that say John 3:16. They are referring to the passage we heard this morning that says “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” It may be that you’ve had people ask you if you’ve been born again or if you are a born again Christian.
I don’t know that I’ve ever identified myself as a born again Christian. That’s mostly because I don’t like the way some people who use that label imply that if you don’t consider yourself a born again Christian you’re not really a Christian at all. This week I found myself wondering if I wouldn’t call myself a born again Christian what kind of a Christian would I say that I am? If I had to declare what kind of Christian I am by using a passage from scripture I might call myself a “love your neighbour as yourself” Christian.
And yet if I were only a “love your neighbour as yourself” kind of Christian there would be something missing for me in describing what my life of faith is all about and that something would have to do with the mystery of the spirit, or as Jesus says to Nicodemus in our reading from today “the wind that blows where it chooses, you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” So when Jesus says you must be born from above or born again, there’s something that resonates with me.
One of the challenges with this passage is that when we zero in on the part of that speaks about being born again or about believing in Jesus and gaining eternal life, it’s easy for us to miss other aspects of the story. It’s easy to overlook that Nicodemus comes to see Jesus under the cover of darkness, presumably because he is a Pharisee, one of the Jerusalem based elites. Jesus refers to him as a teacher of Israel indicating he was highly educated and part of the ruling class that regulated the temple. Much has been made of his coming to Jesus at night as if he is embarrassed for people to see that he is even interested in Jesus and his teachings. But it’s also possible the writer of John’s gospel has him coming at night simply for the literary technique of contrasting night with day and dark with light. Nicodemus comes from the dark representing the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus comes from the light. We don’t really know what Nicodemus’s motivation is for coming to talk with Jesus, but we do know that although he is highly educated, he has a hard time understanding what it is Jesus is trying to say to him.
So when Jesus says to him “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” and Nicodemus replies “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” it’s clear that Nicodemus is stuck in his head. He’s taking Jesus literally. It’s as if Jesus is saying to him “you know, you and all your friends at the temple are so focussed on your academic pursuits with all your doctrines and dogmas, your rules and regulations, but you will never come to know me and what I am about at the end of an intellectual conversation. My way is a way of the heart, a way of the spirit, a way of the soul. Go with the flow, let the wind blow, let it all go.” Then, he uses the metaphor of being born from above as an illustration of what he’s trying to say.
Think about it for a minute. When a baby is in the womb, there’s no instructor that arrives in the final weeks of gestation to coach the baby on how to get out of there. The mother does not swallow a manual for the baby to read so it will know what to do when the time to be born comes. You don’t need to pass an IQ test before your allowed to go through the birth canal. In order to be born all the baby does is give themselves over to the process. They just let go and let nature take its course.
That’s why this metaphor of being born again and letting the wind blow where it will is such a beautiful metaphor for the spiritual life because it implies that in order to experience the realm of God or to inherit eternal life, which is John’s gospel is not about life after this life but rather the fullness of life on this side of the grave – the only way for us to get there is to get out of our heads and into our hearts, to surrender to the process of trusting that the spirit is at work in our lives and in our world. And, that the process of our becoming born again or renewed in our spirit is always for the sake of greater love.
When a baby comes into the world we talk about the miracle of birth because we know that even with all the scientific understanding we have, in and of ourselves we can’t make new life happen. We are not the world’s ultimate creators, we are merely participants in creation. If you have given birth yourself or been present at the birth, you know that even though people give birth all over the world all the time there’s still so much about the experience that is wrapped up in mystery. There are always elements of the birthing process that are outside of our control. Even if we genetically engineer the gender, eye, hair and skin colour of a child, there are aspects of the disposition of the child we just can’t predict. To give birth, to be born is to yield ourselves to the awesome wonder of life itself.
So when Jesus says you must be born again to Nicodemus, surely he is in part trying to say to Nicodemus, you’ve gotta loosen up my friend. You’ve got to get out of your thoughts and out of trying to control and understand how and why everything happens and get into your heart. You’ve got to lighten up on all those rules and regulations and give yourself over to the mystery of it all. Like a baby, dependent on its mother’s care, you need to let go and trust that all you need will be provided for. Surely that’s what Nicodemus was talking about when he said in order to experience the realm of God, you have to be born from above, spirit-born.
It sounds kind of freeing doesn’t it this invitation to begin again, to allow ourselves to be blown wherever the wind wants to take us, to allow ourselves to be led by love?
A life of faith, life in the spirit can be just like that sometimes. Even when we are old and grey, especially if we are curious and open, we can find ourselves awakening to new realities, experiencing new insights. I don’t think you we are ever too old to be born again. I also don’t think we only get one birth or one rebirth in the life. I think we can be reborn many times over in this lifetime of ours.
Last week we had a spiritual practice station at the back of the sanctuary with a variety of images laid out. We were asked to look at the pictures and chose one that described on the outside how we were feeling on the inside as we started our Lenten journey. The image that spoke to me was a picture of a baby with a bottle in her mouth. I think I was drawn to that image because one of the things I’m trying to let go in this season of lent this year of is some unhealthy parenting habits I’ve developed. It’s not an easy thing for me to do to change my behaviour. So I feel a bit like a baby learning something new. My hope is that over the course of these six weeks, by letting go of some of those habits, I will have the chance to begin again and to be made new. I’m really leaning into the spirit to help me do that. I’m trying to let go of my need to control.
I’m also hoping that this Lenten makeover won’t involve much or any trauma and yet if I’m honest with myself, I know there are no guarantees that will be the case. For as much as we like to talk about the beauty and wonder of a new birth or a rebirth, giving birth and being born can be a very traumatic experience. There’s a reason why some babies come out howling. Getting squished up and twisted around for the journey down the birth canal only to arrive in a place that is nothing like the place you just left behind is frightening and disorienting. Spiritual journeys and spiritual awakenings are like that sometime. They can be traumatic events. That’s how it was for Jesus and its possible it was traumatic for Nicodemus too.
That’s because when Jesus suggested to Nicodemus that he needed to be born from above he wasn’t really inviting him to just get out of his head and into his heart. He was inviting him into a whole new identity. In ancient Israel the location that you were born and the family you were born into made a big impact on your life. One’s status and place of honour in society was almost entirely determined by one’s family of origin. Nicodemus, a Pharisee would have been born into his privilege. For him the invitation to be born from above was really all about relocating his identity. It was about bearing the likeness of God, instead of the likeness of the patriarchy he was part of. It was about claiming his identity as a child of God and acknowledging a new societal order, an order based not on where your mother and father come from but on a common understanding of the brotherhood and sisterhood of all humanity, one family on equal footing.
For someone like Nicodemus, being re-ordered and re-identified, re-born in this way would have involved some trauma. He had a lot of status to lose. Letting go of our place of privilege in order to level the playing field for others is challenging when you are the one who is being asked to give up your place at the top. Some of us will go willingly into that kind of a life-altering birth canal and others of us will fight it all the way.
In many ways I think that’s what’s going on in our western society in this moment in history. We are being asked to make room at the table for immigrants and refugees, for our indigenous brothers and sisters, for women and there’s lots of us who don’t want to give up our cushy seats. We want to keep holding onto everything we have. Even if we are willing to go through the birth canal to a new world order we want it to be an easy birth, not a traumatic one. But if we can’t yield to the process, it’s probably going to be a lot more painful than it needs to be.
When I look around the world what I see is a whole lot of new life wanting to be born. It’s what the Arab spring was all about. It’s what the women’s march was all about. I also see others wanting to shove new life back into the birth canal. But if you have ever opened yourself up to a spiritual journey, a journey of the heart, you know that in the end love will have its way, even if we have to be delivered into love’s arms kicking and screaming.
Nicodemus asks how is it that having been already born one can re-enter the womb and be born again? Jesus response isn’t about what kind of a Christian Nicodemus may or may not become, his response is about what kind of a human being he wants to be and whether or not the family he wants to be a part of is the human family. In the end of the day, what will bring us eternal life, the fullness of life for each and every member of the human family is not whether we call ourselves Christians or Muslims, or Atheists or Jews, but whether we call ourselves sisters and brothers, siblings of one another.
In order to get to that place we’re not just going to have to love one another as we have been loved, we are also going to have to open ourselves up to being blown wide open and put back together by the power of something greater than ourselves, the power of love and life itself.
Love Divine we give you thanks that when we think we have learned all we need to learn and seen all we need to see, there is always more, more possibility, more to hope for, more wanting to be made new in us and in our world. Keep opening us to your spirit, give us courage, hearts large enough to desire a world made better not just for some but for all. Help us to loosen our grip on what we have trusting what we will be given is everything we need.
Into places of division and conflict… Israel, Palestine.. Syria and others blow your spirit of unity and peace… and enable us to be part of the delivery…
Into lives weary with waiting and merely existing… breath your spirit of anticipation… accompany the Badran and Mohammad families as they draw closer to the possibility of coming to Canada… be a source of both comfort and strength for all who have fled their homelands due to violence and help us to continue to be a source of welcome and compassion.
Breath your spirit of inspiration into those seeking to make life more dignified for those who are street entrenched, living with addictions, struggling with their mental health, living below the poverty line… helps us to seek and find ways of creating and participating in a more just and sustainable way of life…
Breath healing and renewal into all those grieving the loss of loved ones, living with life threatening diseases, diminished mental capacity and those caring for family and friends, we pray especially this morning for Pauline Rogers who is in hospital; for Suzanne Ellis undergoing reconstructive surgery this week, for Marcus as he continues to recover from surgery, Millie and Graham Cummings for others we name out loud or in the silence of our hearts…
We pray for the community of Lynn Valley United as they dedicate their new building today and for our church and the church around the world that through our words and actions we might be a presence and a force for love and the transformation of life…. we ask as we turn to you like a child turns to a mother singing together these words that Jesus taught us to pray.