Over the years I think I`ve learned to live with a low level sense of irritation at the way Jesus telling us that we must be `born again` or `born from above` has been effectively hijacked. I think I`m just a bit cross that this incredibly important teaching has on the one hand, been distorted by foolish people who want to separate Christians into sheep and goats: into those who have been `born again` as opposed to those who apparently haven`t. Whilst others find a rather dubious security in being able to parade themselves as having had a particular (and even profound) experience which they then say we ALL have to have if we are to regarded as proper Christians.
What I`m saying is that this passage (John 3.1-17) has been commandeered to support these two spurious agendas with the consequence that as soon as we hear it some of us just switch off and consign this passage as `belonging to the loony part of the family` and consequently, what Jesus really wants to tell us doesn`t get a hearing. So, let`s begin by getting this straight; both of these positions are simply nonsense, not to say immature but if that`s true then where do we begin? Well, let`s look at what Jesus actually says.
The point of being `born again` or `born from above` -being open to this work of God- is categorically NOT about becoming a better class of Christian or so that we can parade our spiritual pedigree… If you look at verse three and verse five you`ll see Jesus says we need to be born again so that we can `see` or `enter` the Kingdom of Heaven.
So, in this conversation with Nicodemus the subject that Jesus is dealing with is his favourite theme: The Kingdom… what the world looks like when God is allowed to be God….. What it looks like when God has first place in our home, our personal relationships, our work, our finances… and dare I say it our Church. Jesus is telling Nicodemus… (one of the religious high-ups who should really know better) that in Him and his ministry, something is going on; a process is in train which is so radical, so different, so counter to anything he had imagined that in faith terms he needed to go right back to the beginning. In other words, poor Nicodemus is so steeped in an old and outmoded way of thinking that he`ll never `get it` without help from outside… `from above`.
I was going to say that the best way of putting this is to think of Jesus speaking of something akin to our discovery that the world is round rather than flat… I mean, once you see that everything changes…. But maybe something a bit more dynamic would be better…? I mean, think of the difference made by the discovery of electricity!
You see, again what`s at stake is not the `sprucing up` of Christians so that we can feel a bit `holier than thou`… Neither is the Lord interested in giving us rather enjoyable religious feelings…! No, his agenda is far bigger than US… he`s in the business of re-creating a world.
So, sit down and read John`s Gospel and you`ll see that this is at the heart of what`s going on. Remember, he begins with, “In the beginning was the Word…” (John 1.1) John takes us right back to the creation story in the Book of Genesis… “In the beginning, God created…” (Gen 1) And then, notice that he concludes his account in a garden…. (John 21) We hear of a weeping woman by a garden tomb. A place of death…. just like the garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis… now becomes the place where life is restored”. This is great stuff!
And again, in that resurrection story Jesus gives the Holy Spirit to the disciples and says, “As the Father has sent me so I send you”. (John 21) And we learn the purpose of Christian life is not so that we can accumulate enough Brownie points so that we can `get` to some distant heaven. It`s the other way around.
No, we are we are those who have been drawn by the reconciling love of Christ on the cross… We have received the forgiveness of our sin… And now as those who are born again, (indwelt by the Holy Spirit) we are called to live in the here and now in anticipation of God completing his re-creating work. Being `born again` is about having your life re-shaped so that you will reveal to others what it looks like when God is allowed to be God. The Church; the community of the `born again` exists to demonstrate (in the here and now) to the world what God has in store when he brings all things to completion.
Rowan Williams in the Book we`ve been reading for Lent sums it up by saying that we are those who learn to be “a place in the world where the act of God can come alive”. (Williams: Being Disciples SPCK 2016. p18)
So, I think the reason for my angst towards those who for example, turn `born again` into a badge superiority is firstly their diminished vision of what Christ is doing (it`s not just about US) and secondly, I think it`s their lack humility towards what I`m calling the `process` that has been set in train. I mean, all too often the sheer `uncontrollability` of the Holy Spirit (about which Jesus speaks in that passage), seems to be disregarded in favour of an assumption that we can as it were conjure up, `the God effect` at will; dole out the God experience… give people a thrill. But it isn`t like that.
And the offshoot of this arrogance is that when we speak to others about Jesus or the Christian way we kind of assume that folk are bound to get it if only we explain it better, package it in a more entertaining way or shout more loudly… But it doesn`t work like that either…. Because it`s a work of God.
In Chapter twelve of John`s Gospel, Jesus says, “When I am lifted up from the earth, (I) will draw all people to myself”. (John 12.32) He`s referring of course to His cross. Perhaps one of the few things I have in common with St. Paul is the capacity to be tetchy. And I recall how a somewhat tetchy St. Paul once resolved to speak only of “Christ and him crucified”. (1 Corinthians 2.2) Because He knew from bitter experience that you can beg, plead, cajole and flatter all you like but it`s through the telling of this, the story of his being `lifted up` that Christ does his work; it`s through this that the transformation of life begins.
Lent is a season for us to renew our acquaintance with that most wonderful tale… and to be renewed in our vocation to be bearers of his love and his way of being human in the world. You were signed on the forehead on Ash Wednesday with a cross for this very reason. You were marked out as one who is being born into the way of Christ… a self-giving and a `cross-shaped` way.
My guess is that it`s because we`re uncomfortable with this (and we know that it won`t really `sell`) that we try to market the faith as a `born again experience` or a way of being able to think of ourselves as `a spiritual person` instead. But candidly, we run the risk of falling foul of the Trades Descriptions Act. Being `born again`, being `born from above`… joining in the vanguard of a new creation…. Going back to the beginning and learning that all that we thought about being a human was wrong…. Dying to our self-centred ways and allowing the Lord to re-shape and re-form us is not a prospectus that sells many seats in church… But that`s the deal; that`s the message we are called to bear; that`s the shape of life we`re called to live… and let the wind of the Spirit do the rest.