by David Baer, January 28, 2018
Text: John 3:1-21
One of the perks of being a dad, I’ve found, is showing up to some place where your kid is, whether it’s day care or a park or a party, and having this little person come racing over to you, fling their arms around your knees, and shout, “Daddy!” I don’t think anybody else is ever quite this happy to see me! And I still remember being on the other side of this, too—racing out to meet my own father as he came home from work. When you’re a child, it means you’re related to someone. Every one of us has parents we come from biologically. Some of us have parents that chose us, that became our parents not through biology but through a love that nurtured and shaped us. To be somebody’s child means you come from them, you owe who you are to them.
You can see what being a child means in the way we sometimes use that word to talk about people who grew up in different periods of time. If you’re a child of the 60’s, or a child of the Depression, or a child of the Internet age, it means those eras shaped you. Being a child means being in a relationship with someone or something that makes you who you are.
During these past few weeks, we’ve been reading stories in the gospel of John that help us experience who Jesus is. “Come and see,” Jesus told the first disciples, when they came to him with questions. And when the first disciples told their friends about the amazing teacher they had found, and those friends responded with doubts and questions of their own, the disciples told them the same thing: “Come and see.”
A couple of weeks ago, we came with Jesus to a wedding and saw him rescue the party when the wine ran out. He took great big jars of water, and turned it into an overwhelming gift–the equivalent of 600 bottles of high-quality wine. We came with Jesus to a wedding, and what we experienced there was abundance, God’s rich blessing beyond anything we dare to imagine or hope for.
And last week we came with Jesus to the Temple and saw how that same abundance changes our relationship with God. Jesus disrupted the marketplace that had risen up to support the worship of God through animal sacrifice. It was an action that made no sense, apart from Jesus’ own sacrificial gift of his life for us. In Jesus, God provides all that is needed for us to be forgiven and to become generous and forgiving people.
Today we come with Nicodemus at night to see Jesus. And the focus of that conversation is about what makes a child of God. This is something Jesus knows a lot about. When he prayed, when he spoke to God, he cried out as a child. He called God “Father.” But although this is a unique relationship, although he calls himself God’s only Son, he also talks about the possibility of others being “born from above.” God’s abundance, God’s rich generosity toward us, breaks over us again in this story, where we see how deep and tender God’s love toward us really is. And again that abundance is meant to change us: We become God’s children, we become related to God in a way that shapes us and makes us into the people we will become, when God’s Spirit breathes into us.
Nicodemus is a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council in Jerusalem. In general, these folks were not Jesus’ biggest fans, but Nicodemus is different. When Jesus made that ruckus in the Temple, turning over the moneychangers’ tables and freeing the animals being sold for sacrificial worship, the story says that followed it up by performing signs, and that many believed in his name because of those signs. We’re meant to understand that Nicodemus is one of those people impressed by what Jesus did. But he comes to Jesus by night, in secret, so as not to be observed. Nicodemus is intrigued by Jesus, but he’s cautious.
He begins by giving Jesus what he thinks is a compliment. You must be a teacher who has come from God, he says, because apart from God no one could perform the signs you perform. Then Jesus seems to answer a question that Nicodemus hasn’t asked. Maybe the question was on his mind, though. The question seems to be, “How can I see the kingdom of God?” or in other words, “How can I perceive what God is doing to put wrongs to right and make the world new?” Jesus answers that question Nicodemus didn’t ask by saying, “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.” Sometimes that gets translated “born again.” It’s the same word in Greek. Nicodemus thinks Jesus means “born again,” and so he questions Jesus—it’s absurd to think a grown man could go back into his mother’s womb and be born a second time, isn’t it? But that’s not what Jesus meant—not just born a second time, but born from above.
Sara Miles is a journalist who didn’t grow up in church. In her memoir, Take This Bread, she talks about being the child of parents who had never embraced the faith they were raised in. She witnessed war while working for a human rights organization in Central America, but she returned to this country to give birth to her daughter. She lost her father to cancer and a couple of good friends to AIDS. She felt lost, struggling to find direction as the people and ideals that had oriented her fell away. One day she wandered into St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, where she lived. The priest invited everyone to receive the bread and the wine, so she did. She writes:
I still can’t explain my first communion. It made no sense. I was in tears and physically unbalanced: I felt as if I had just stepped off a curb or been knocked over, painlessly, from behind. The disconnect between what I thought was happening—I was eating a piece of bread; what I heard somebody else say was happening—the piece of bread was the “body” of “Christ,” a patently untrue or at best metaphorical statement; and what I knew was happening—God, named “Jesus,” or “Christ,” was real, and in my mouth—utterly short-circuited my ability to do anything but cry.1
Receiving Jesus the way she did changed not only Sara Miles’s life, but so, so many other lives too. She was baptized and became a member of St. Gregory’s, where she founded a food pantry that currently feeds 800 needy families every week, in the very same worship space where she first received communion. It’s not such a stretch to say that Sara Miles was born a second time, from above. She herself talks about her baptism as marking the beginning of a new life. “What is born of flesh is flesh,” says Jesus. Miles loves and appreciates both her parents. She wouldn’t be who she is without them. But the person she had to become, the person God intended for her to be, needed to be shaped in another way that her natural parents just could not do. “What is born of the flesh is flesh,” Jesus says, “and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Miles’s experience opened the door to a new kind of life, one that was shaped by who God is.
Maybe you can point to an experience like the one Sara Miles had. A light switch trips, and all of a sudden nothing is the same. That’s what a lot of people think of when they hear the words “born again.” But even in the scriptures we find someone like Timothy, a friend of the apostle Paul, whose faith was shaped by his mother Eunice and grandmother Lois (2 Timothy 1:5). Being born from above doesn’t have to be a dramatic break with your childhood or your parents’ values. All it means is that you are touched by God, related to God, shaped by God in a way that goes beyond what you can explain through natural causes. You are a child of your biological parents, sure. But what is determinative, what really matters, what makes the you that will withstand sin and hurt and death is being a child of God.
And that’s nothing you can claim for yourself or control. The wind blows wherever it wants to, says Jesus, and so does the Spirit. But in just the same way that you hear the sound of the wind, in just the same way that you know it’s active and moving, so you also know when the Spirit is alive in someone. Feeding eight hundred families a week, with a staff that includes former junkies and other improbable churchgoers like Sara Miles—I’m going to go out on a limb and say the Spirit did that. God’s Spirit blows where it wants to, it shapes and claims new children for God where it wants to, and you can’t see it, you can’t control it, but you know where it’s been. You know if it’s touched you.
You can’t make yourself a child of God. Only the Spirit can do that. But that’s why it’s so important to hear Jesus say what he says about God’s love. It’s so important that some of us can quote the words from memory: “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.” Think about that. God so loved the world. In Greek the word is “cosmos,” the whole created order. God’s love is all encompassing. It reaches out to embrace the universe. “Indeed,” says Jesus, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” God’s intention is to save the world. Jesus came not to condemn, but to save. If you are drawn to him, if you are here because you want to get close to Jesus, then don’t worry too much about whether you’ve had an experience that other people recognize as being born again. You belong to him, and he’ll be with you soon enough. The all-encompassing, all-embracing God who sends Jesus isn’t in the business of orphaning God’s children.
How can a person who has grown old be born again? asks Nicodemus. How can any of us, shaped as we are by our upbringing and experiences, take a new direction? When life has been used up, not simply through living out our years, but used up with guilt and hurt and disappointment, how can we begin anew? Life is supposed to become worn out and run down, in the same way that a wedding party that runs out of wine is supposed to peter out and finish. But with Jesus there is abundance beyond our imagining, a new beginning, a second birth as God’s child.
You are loved, with a love big enough to put its arms around the universe, and particular enough to call you “my child.” Thanks be to God. Amen.
Sara Miles, Take This Bread: The spiritual memoir of a twenty-first century Christian. New York: Ballantine, 2008. pp. 58-59.