Lent 2, Year A, 2011

Listen to the sermon here.

My family did not grow up going to church.  I would go once or twice a year to the military chapel with a friend or to my grandmother’s Baptist church, but church was not part of the fabric of our weekly lives until my teenage years.  When I was in sixth or seventh grade a local youth pastor used to come pick up kids at school, bring them back to the chapel and have bible study at lunch time.  Somehow I ended up on one of these adventures—and they were adventures since she was a terrible, terrible driver, who absolutely should not have been trusted with the well being of middle schoolers.

The week I attended her bible study, she told the story of St. Paul, riding his horse and then suddenly being knocked off his horse by the power of God.  She used that story as an opportunity to talk to us about how Jesus offers us eternal life.  Now, I was a really uptight, nervous kid who worried about things like death with some regularity, so eternal life sounded pretty good to me.  The youth pastor told us that if we died, and were at the Pearly Gates, all we had to do was say that Jesus was in our hearts and we would be welcomed right in.

I felt like I had been given a secret code!  All I had to do was ask Jesus into my heart and I would be golden!  For at least the next three years, I prayed every night that Jesus would come into my heart.  By my account that means I have been born again approximately 1,095 times.

Of course, I did not quite understand the meaning behind the youth pastor’s words.  Nicodemus has a bit of a hard time following the concept of being born again as well.  Nicodemus was a Pharisee, which meant he was an authority figure in Jewish religious life.  If you’ll recall, Pharisees were not high on the list of Jesus’ biggest fans.  But something about Jesus intrigues Nicodemus, so he sneaks over to Jesus under the cover of night to ask him some questions.  Nicodemus can see there is something special about Jesus, because he has witnessed the miracles Jesus performs. Nicodemus is trying to wrap his head around who Jesus is.  He is trying to understand Jesus within his own framework.  He calls Jesus “rabbi” and refers to Jesus as a teacher. These are roles that Nicodemus can understand and accept.  Jesus, however, responds to poor Nicodemus with this completely strange sentence, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Poor Nicodemus.  He was probably expecting Jesus to say something like, “Thanks, I’m so glad you’ve noticed all those miracles I’ve been doing!”  Instead, Jesus throws this new theological idea at him like a hot potato.  To his credit, Nicodemus does not drop the hot potato.  Nicodemus is probably used to the process of midrash, where scholars go back and forth over scriptural language to try to understand it more deeply.  Nicodemus fires back—like any sensible person would—How can any grown person be born again?  We can’t crawl up into our mother’s uterus again!  (For which, all of the women in the room, are quite grateful, thank you.)  And now Jesus takes the opportunity to blow Nicodemus’s impression of him out of the water.  Jesus is about to clam that he is not just a rabbi, not just a teacher, but Jesus is the Son of God.  Jesus says,

Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’  The wind 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 is with everyone who is born of the Spirit”  He goes on to say, “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  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.

Nicodemus got way more than he expected.  He was expecting a theological conversation, sure, but was not expecting to be confronted by someone claiming to be God and the vehicle for humanity to gain eternal life.  The text never explicitly states that Nicodemus leaves, so I just imagine him backing away slowly, not quite able to fully engage with this concept.  Nicodemus does not disappear forever, though.  He comes up twice more in the Gospel of John.  Once to defend Jesus’ right to a trial and when Jesus dies, Nicodemus brings a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes to anoint Jesus’ body.  Nicodemus might not have been able to make the leap from Pharisee to disciple, but he clearly loved Jesus, even if he did not fully understand him.

This idea that Jesus presented Nicodemus—of being born again—is a powerful one.  The fundamentalist  traditions in this country are all over being born again.  In fact, my mother would use the phrase “born-again” as a way of describing someone who was fundamentalist.  And she did not mean it in a complimentary way.  In the fundamentalist context being born again means saying the sinner’s prayer, in which the person acknowledges his own sin, asks for forgiveness, acknowledges that Jesus is God, and then invites Jesus into his heart.  As someone who spent her college years with an evangelical para-church group, I can say that the poor students who had been life long Christians always felt like second class citizens.  Their life long faith was looked on with suspicion.  The real Christians were the ones who had the opportunity to sin a little and then repent in a public way, say this prayer, be born again, and be welcomed into community.

Right now you might be feeling a little superior.  You might be thinking to yourself, “Man, I’m glad I’m Episcopalian and I don’t have to worry about this born again nonsense.”  If you are thinking those thoughts, I direct your attention to page 306 of the Book of Common Prayer.  In the prayer over the water said at every Baptismal service, the priest says, “We thank you Father, for the water of Baptism.  In it we are buried with Christ in his death.  By it we share in his resurrection.  Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.”  And if that isn’t enough for you, I invite you to turn to page 858.  In the catechism we ask, “What is the inward and spiritual grace of Baptism” and we learn that it is, among other things, “birth into God’s family the church”.

Guess what folks, we are born agains!

We, too, believe in the power of new life through the resurrected Christ.  We may use different language, but we believe that when a person is baptized—whether that happens as an infant or as a fifty year old—that we die with Christ in his death and are born again and receive the Holy Spirit.

Now, many of you were baptized well before you started forming lasting memories.  You may have had this powerful spiritual experience, but you don’t remember it and you may not even feel any connection to God at all.  Feelings of alienation from God do not mean God has abandoned you.  When you are baptized and anointed, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, God has laid claim to you and won’t let go.

If you are feeling alienated from God and not feeling so filled with the Holy Spirit, there is hope!

Do you remember Fr. Paul’s sermon last week?  He preached about the idea of being totally honest with ourselves and with God.  He talked about telling ourselves the truth.  That kind of honesty is the first step in becoming renewed with God and reclaiming our status as baptized Christians.  Coming before God and telling God the whole truth about yourself may feel awkward, especially if you haven’t prayed in a long time.  But remember, God knows everything about you already and still loves you.  You clearing the air with God is more about you realizing you are forgiven than God actually forgiving you.

And once you’ve cleared the air with God, just stay in conversation.  Keep praying.  Try different forms of prayer.  Be patient.  Not every faithful Christian has amazing, emotional, transcendent experiences of prayer.  God may not show up in ways you expect, but God is and will be present with you as you pray and throughout your life.

Nicodemus was not ready to drop his life and start following Jesus.  Nicodemus wasn’t ready to trust this Jesus who claimed to be from heaven.  Nicodemus stood on the sidelines and loved Jesus in his own way—but he could have had so much more.  Nicodemus could have had a place at Jesus’ table every day.  Nicodemus could have walked alongside Jesus every day, marveling at the miracles and the new realities Jesus was bringing.

Too many of us live like Nicodemus, cautiously observing Jesus from the sidelines, rather than acknowledging that, whether we like it or not, we are born again, we belong to God, and Jesus invites us along for the adventure.

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