“Born of the Spirit” Isaiah 6:1-8
Rev. Sean Weston John 3:1-10
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL
May 27, 2018
Nicodemus, I imagine, had carved out a pretty good place for himself in the world. He was one of the good people. He was a one of the most religiously observant people around, a leader, a member of the Sanhedrin, which was the top decision-making body for the Jewish people. This religious leadership thing wasn’t necessarily lucrative work, at least not compared to the Romans who were really in charge. But he was better off than most. He was well-respected. He was good at following the rules. He knew his place in the world, he knew how things worked and what he believed. Like everyone, he had his ups and downs, but he was content. He woke up in the morning knowing what his life was about.
At least, until he heard word of this Jesus, who was shaking everything up. After all, Jesus had just entered the Temple, the most sacred of places, driving out the money changers in the most radical form of public protest, shouting out “stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” Well, now this Jesus had the leaders’ attention. Claiming to be God’s Son? Messing with the ways things have been for who knows how long?
Most of the leaders responded in anger and fear. Their power was being threatened, and they all knew that the Romans would show no mercy if they couldn’t keep their people under control. Nicodemus, for whatever reason, is more curious than fearful, so he goes to see this Jesus.
Who knows what he expected, but he didn’t get it. That seems to be part of dealing with Jesus.
Instead, Jesus says all this confusing stuff about needing to be born from above to really see God’s work in the world. The Greek isn’t clear here, so Jesus could have been saying “born again,” which is what Nicodemus hears. And that makes NO sense. He is utterly confused. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus doubles down on all that confusing language which really doesn’t help much: to enter God’s kingdom, you must be born of water and Spirit. Huh? Jesus continues, almost as if he just poking fun now, rubbing salt in the wound of Nicodemus’s confusion. Don’t be astonished that I’ve said this! “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Ouch.
I wonder, when Nicodemus woke up the next morning, was he so sure what his life was about? I wonder if that how spiritual rebirth starts? When we’re not so sure what everything is about anymore.
I must join with Nicodemus and admit to a lot of discomfort with this language of being “born again” or “born of the Spirit.” When I was 18 I worked at Wal-Mart and I finally told a co-worker that yes, I am born again, to get him off my back. I think he sniffed out that I wasn’t the kind of born again Christian he thought I should be because it didn’t work one bit. In the last 50 years in this country, a certain group of Christians have grabbed on to that phrase. People who know full well of my Christian faith, even after I have entered the ministry, will ask “but are you born again?” which may as well be saying “but are you Christian according to my standards?”. It’s as if the “born again” Christians are the real Christians as oppose to the rest of us who I guess are just not-quite-the-right-kind-of-Christians.
Maybe I’m wrong, but I think God’s vision is a bit wider than that. I refuse to abandon the idea of spiritual rebirth just because of how the phrase has been used as a weapon in recent history. I invite you to set aside whatever assumptions you may have about this whole “born again” thing. Let’s go back to this conversation with Nicodemus and Jesus.
The problem is that makes me uncomfortable, too, because I’m much more like Nicodemus than Jesus and I don’t always appreciate the reminder. I, too, have carved out a pretty good place for myself in the world. I know I have my flaws but I think of myself as a good person, who gets things right most of the time. And I’m a pastor. I get mail addressed to “The Reverend Sean Weston” which can work a mess on my ego if I’m not careful. I’m not getting rich, but I do just fine. And I am really, really good at following the rules, at least the ones I have for myself. I know my place in the world, I’m comfortable with my place in the world and my beliefs.
It’s pretty easy for me to wonder, “why would I need spiritual rebirth? I’m doing just fine.”
This is one of the biggest dangers of religion: we religious people tend to imagine that religion is just about being a good person. We become a good person by following the rules we were taught at some point in our life, often as a child. The rules differ for each of us but we all have some. Go to church. Do what you’re told. Wash your hands before eating. Read your Bible. Say your prayers before bed. Mind your manners. Be happy. Don’t cause a fuss. Now, hear me, we all learn rules that are helpful and rules that aren’t. Many can be both. And I’m definitely in favor of people being good. But faith is so much more than being good. It is about drawing nearer and nearer to the amazing, mysterious, terrifying, life-giving, thing-greater-than-ourselves that we call God. The problem comes when we imagine that following the rules means we’ve arrived. There’s really no need to learn more, grow more, deepen our connection with God’s Spirit.
This gospel story suggests that the people who are most in need of rebirth are us religious people who think we don’t need it. This is Trinity Sunday – the only Sunday in the liturgical year dedicated to a doctrine. And you’ll notice I haven’t yet mentioned that, and I haven’t taken the moment to explain such things as the hypostatic union of the human and divine in the triune Godhead. The ten dollar words have their place but not today. The Trinity, the doctrine that there is one God in the three persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is confusing and far beyond human understanding and that’s what is worth remembering today. The moment you think you have it all figured out is the most sure sign that you don’t.
Nicodemus, the good religious person, approached Jesus, only to be told that he had only really approached the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much more out there, Jesus is saying, but you have to open yourself to receive it. One writer commenting on this text compared Nicodemus to us good religious people today: “Like Nicodemus,” they said, “we collect pennies from heaven when what is being offered is unimagined wealth.”
Jesus, of course, was not talking about literally being put back in your mother’s womb and being born again. He was inviting Nicodemus to allow his whole being – body and soul – to be transformed in the winds and waters of God’s Spirit. To set aside what he thought he knew and to begin a spiritual journey towards growth and newness: new ways of thinking, new knowledge, new ways of experiencing the world. To not imagine that just because he was good at following the rules, just because he had carved out a decent place for himself did not mean he had nothing more to learn, no more growth to seek. No matter where we are on our spiritual journey, God is always offering more. Rebirth is not just a one-time thing, but a life-long journey to drink more deeply of God’s Spirit. The waters of rebirth are not meant for one-time consumption but rather are to nourish us our whole lives long.
The vision of Lyonsville Church is to be a home for the spiritual journey. In light of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, I’ve been thinking about that that means.
- A home should be a safe space, where we can all rest and relax, knowing that we are loved and cared for. A place to explore and grow, make mistakes and experience forgiveness, to discover more and more who we are.
- A spiritual journey is about who we are, body and soul, as a unique creation of God. How we see ourselves, others, and the world the world; how we understand our experiences, how we grow in knowledge and love of God.
- A journey means that we keep moving and growing, challenging ourselves, becoming something new. We never imagine that we have everything figure out, just because we are good church people.
How do we provide a home for each of us, from age 1 to 101, to journey with God’s Spirit? How do we invite anyone who comes through the doors to embark on that journey? I’m trying to do my part – see the most recent newsletter for some more about summer opportunities I’m offering focused on spiritual growth. But it takes all of us, committed to walking the spiritual journey together, making a home for the youngest and the oldest, for those of us who want nothing more than to drink from the Spirit, and we who like to think we have it all figured out.
The spiritual journey, this rebirth thing, it’s a wild and windy ride. We can’t do it alone. But we can do it together, church. There’s nothing better.