“…Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again...” John 3:1-17
Few phrases receive such an immediate and silently emotional response as “born again”. For Christians, as people who are supposed to be united in the truth of the Gospel, united in our mission in the world, and united in our hope of the resurrection, it’s a phrase, taken from the lips of Jesus, which more often than not divides rather than unites us as his Body.
What do you think when you hear those words, “you must be born again”?
For some, proclaiming that they are “born again Christians” is a way of saying that their church and their pastor are real Christians, meant to distinguish themselves from both the comfortable, wishy-washy forms of self-help religion, while also announcing proudly that their real, old-time religion has cut itself off from the faith handed down by the apostles as guided by the Holy Spirit; cut off from the same faith that united us in the Apostles Creed of baptism.
For others, and I’ll admit that I spent a long time in this camp, hearing someone use the words “born again” caused me to think, “ok, good to know… you’re one of those Christians… note to self: stay clear!”.
It’s a phrase that makes people uncomfortable, not least because our culture, in movies and shows, uses those words, usually shouted and accompanied with a fiery message about hell and damnation, as a broad brush to paint an unfortunate picture of Christians on the defensive.
But, like any phrase or verse taken out of context and turned into a motto, those silent, emotional responses put us at risk of glossing over what is actually being said. After all, like it or not, Jesus – the same Jesus that we claim whether we’re Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, or King-James-Only fundamentalists – was the one who said, “very truly … you must be born again”.
It started with a compliment…
Here, in today’s Gospel, we have an expert of the Law given to Moses, and a leader in the Jewish government; Nicodemus was his name. This Nicodemus was paying attention – he knew that God sent the prophets, and he believed that the promises of God would be fulfilled, that God would send the Messiah to redeem his chosen people, that, through Israel, the nations of the world would come to worship God in spirit and in truth. Now, Nicodemus was being careful – after all, there were many eyes on him as a government official, and many of his colleagues were more than a little skeptical about this son of a small-time rural carpenter.
Yet, quietly, after dark, Nicodemus came to Jesus to present him with the very claim that many of the skeptics of our own age would bring: “We know you’re a teacher who has come from God, and God is with you”. Or, to put it in today’s language: “That Jesus is a good man. Sure, he’s one of many wise teachers.”
And what does Jesus do with this compliment? Does the kind, gentle, polite, blonde hair and blue-eyed Sunday School Jesus look at him with a gentle smile and say, “thank you for noticing; you’re not far from the kingdom”; is that how it goes?
No, Jesus, hearing this complement from a respected Jewish leader, ignores the niceties altogether. Jesus looks him in the eye and says, ‘as sure as you’re standing there; mark my words: no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.’
Huh. Quite a greeting, isn’t it.
Nicodemus, not your average working man like the apostles, but a faithful expert who knows the scriptures inside and out, doesn’t recognize what Jesus is talking about. After all, the Jewish religion, faithfully tracing its roots back to God’s promise to Abraham, is firmly founded on birth. Each child born is a fulfilment of God’s promise that Abraham’s descendants would be like the sand of the sea, and birth – being born to Jewish parents – is the normal, expected way to become a Jew. Sure, some people take their faith more seriously than others, but as long as your parents brought you to the priest after you were born, and as long as you bring a socially-acceptable amount to place in the offering plate, you’re in… right?
And then, provoked only by the claim that Jesus was a good teacher, Jesus proceeds to do the least socially-acceptable thing possible: to point out, how very wrong this guest actually is.
…And, in doing so, if we take the time to read it, he challenges us too, right to the core.
A Lesson from the Old Testament
If we think back to Genesis 12, yes, God chose Abraham as the one through which he would bless all the peoples of earth; yes, God chose Abraham to receive a land of promise, and to be the father of many.
But, right there in the midst of that, is something remarkable, a first.
We know that Abraham wasn’t the first that God chose. Before Abraham came Noah. And Noah, we’re told, was chosen because he was the only faithful, righteous person to be found. In that respect we might say that Noah, through his actions and manner of life, earned God’s favour. God made Noah a promise, and you know how the story goes.
But, once life was back to normal, what become of Noah? Well, as soon as there was a crop of grapes, he made a mighty batch of wine, drank it, took off his clothes, brought terrible shame to his family, and all the good works of this righteous man went to hell in a handbasket.
So much for choosing the brightest and best.
But why was Abraham chosen? Surely, this forefather of the proud nation chosen by God was a great hero to be celebrated?
No. By the grace of God, and St. Paul would say in Romans, to make an important point, Abraham is just a guy, a normal guy raising his father’s sheep, a guy whose name is destined to be forgotten, as his wife is childless.
And it’s to this childless couple that God says, “go”. Leave your land, leave your family, leave your inheritance, and follow me. Abraham didn’t do good or live righteously to earn God’s promise; rather, God’s offer came first, as St. Paul would say, his righteousness came by faith: the faith to give up what he had and take God at his word.
So much for being “born into” the faith of their fathers. Turns out the very founder of the faith was called to leave his father’s house, and that was the only thing that counted him righteous in the eyes of God.
“As Moses lifted up the serpent…“
So then Jesus, speaking to Nicodemus, brings up Moses – that greatest teacher of the law, the one whose writing Nicodemus and the Pharisees knew inside and out.
Of course, it’s through Moses and the law that Jews could know if they were being faithful or not, if they were righteous in the eyes of God.
But where does Jesus go with this? He cuts straight to the heart of the misunderstanding: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness”.
After God had miraculously freed his people from slavery, after Moses had given the law, after God had forgiven them for the idolatry of bowing down to a calf, after God had led them through the desert and defeated the leader of the Canaanites, Numbers 21 tells us that God’s chosen people were, and I quote, “impatient”. They were sick of the desert, and though God had provided manna and quails to eat, they cried out, “we detest this miserable food”.
And that very day, poisonous snakes slither into their camp and many of them die.
It’s then that people realize that they need to repent, and God tells Moses that he must make a snake out of bronze, hoist it up on a pole. God doesn’t take away the snakes. Instead, those who are bitten can turn and look at the snake on a pole – can come face-to-face with death itself – and live.
But wait, do they have to offer two pigeons? Do they have to offer a lamb without blemish, or the blood of a bull?
No. They must turn, look upon death itself hoisted onto a tree, and that act of faith is accounted as righteousness, and they are saved.
Yes, God gave the instruction that children should be brought to the priests. Yes, God requires the offerings of the people. Yes, God provided rituals to remind the people of his goodness toward them, to train them in righteousness, and to give them the words with which to call upon his name. But, as much as those are God-given, it’s faith that enacts the promise of God.
“You must be born again.”
This isn’t about being born in the right faith tradition, but it also isn’t about a “right” set of works, so that any can boast before God.
Rather, we must be born again.
“Who can enter again into his mother’s womb?” Nobody. And that’s the point.
No one chooses to be born. Actually, the one being born has very little say in the matter, and certainly, no one can be born twice.
But, how can one who was born, who has a family, a people, a name, be born again, given a fresh start? Is it a special prayer prayed after one reaches some arbitrary age of maturity? Is it the good work of baptism in a river?
No – one who was born can be born again by adoption. It’s in adoption that one who was born receives a new name, a new status, a new family – not on account of their own action, but by the free gift of the adoptive parent.
Or, as St. Paul puts it, God chose us, before the foundation of the world, to become holy and blameless in his sight. Out of His Love, he prepared us for adoption as sons and daughters through Jesus Christ.
Jesus said, “you must be born by water and the Spirit.” As St. Paul says, “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship”, so that we call God “our Father”, and if we are children, then we are “co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory”.
Born again, adopted as heirs by faith, being willing to leave all and follow, like Abraham.
Born again, adopted as heirs if we share in Christ’s suffering, or, as Jesus says, like the snake-bitten Israelites, if we turn, come face-to-face with that which kills us, look to the Son of Man on a tree, and live.
This was a challenge to Nicodemus. It’s a challenge to all Christians today. To those who proclaim themselves “born again” by their right words and actions, it’s a call to repentance and humility, as no baby chooses to be adopted; the only choice is if we will live by the family rules, or if we will run away. To those who, like me, cringe at the phrase, it’s a call to remember that the God-given, Spirit-led worship of the Church handed down from the apostles trains us for righteousness, but that nothing but God’s grace, God’s call to look to Christ means anything. Not to glory in an empty cross, but to accept and live into his invitation to adopt us as his children as we turn in faith, look death in the face, and trust him as Lord.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him, might be saved. And this is the gift of God, our Father by adoption, so that none can boast, so that none have any glory, apart from the glory of the cross, the glory of the Son of Man lifted up for the sake of the world.
To God be the Glory forevermore. Amen.
 Ephesians 1:5