From a sermon from my pastor this weekend...
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.’
3 Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.’
4 ‘How can someone be born when they are old?’ Nicodemus asked. ‘Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!’
5 Jesus answered, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again.” 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’
9 ‘How can this be?’ Nicodemus asked.
I started to do a search on the internet, but after seeing that the first page of googling didn’t reveal my answer, I gave up. I’m not a very patient googler. It doesn’t really matter, anyway. What I was searching for was, “must be born again craze.” I was wondering when that began. Well, it really began with Jesus, of course, because he’s the one who said it. But when was it that it became such a huge thing in American religious culture? I think it had to do with Jimmy Carter, and that was when I was a teenager. I don’t remember exactly when, but what I do remember is that it was very confusing to me. You must be born again, preachers would say, meaning, you must become someone else. You must become someone else. That’s how I remember them preaching it, anyway. And that was hard for me to integrate, as it probably was for some of you. “Are you a Christian?” Yes… “Have you been born again?” Well, not really. I’m still just me.
And I think that’s why my heart sang when I heard John Philip Newell talk about this passage at Lake Junaluska this summer.
Because he said that Jesus wasn’t saying that we need to become someone else. He said that Jesus, in saying that we must be born again, or anew, was saying that we need to be born into our true selves. We need to be born into our true selves.
He pointed out something that we already knew, which is that Jesus was a Jewish rabbi. He wasn’t a Christian, and so he didn’t adhere to the Christian doctrine of original sin.
The idea of original sin, for those of us who might not be familiar with the term, is one that, whether we’re familiar with it our not, pervades our lives. When Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden, after having sinned, all of humanity was put in a state of separation from God, and it’s only through Jesus that we are reconnected. That’s the idea that many of us grew up with. You might remember the little picture that we sometimes used when we were trying to “save” someone. There are two cliffs with a great gulf in-between. God is on one side. Humankind on the other. And then you draw a cross in-between to connect the two? Does anyone remember that? Used to be an evangelical tool that we would use to share the “good news” of Jesus Christ. But Jesus Christ didn’t preach that kind of good news. Jesus didn’t preach about how we are disconnected from God. Jesus preached about how God is within us…
The concept of original sin didn’t come from Jesus.
Newell said that he was on an interfaith panel with some other religious leaders awhile back, and someone asked them to comment on original sin, and the Jewish rabbi on the panel said that when someone Jewish hears the term “original sin,” they are prone to think, now that was really an original sin! In other words, original sin wasn’t, and isn’t a Jewish concept, but rather came around years after Jesus’ death. It was first alluded to in the second century by Iraneus, Bishop of Lyon, and was later developed by St. Augustine. It retained its popularity through church reformers such as John Calvin and Martin Luther, and is very popular to this day. One of the founders of Celtic Christianity, Pelagius, was kicked out of Rome, first, and later, Italy, largely because he refused to accept the concept of original sin, by the way.
We spend a lot of time as Christians, not in this church, maybe not enough in this church, confessing our sin. We are bad, bad, bad. We were born in sin. But as Newell points out, what would it look like if we acted that way in one of our most important relationships? What if we were constantly apologizing and feeling guilty and less than? It would be totally unhealthy. And yet, that’s so often the way that people view their relationship with God. You must be born again. You must become someone else. Because who you are is never good enough...
You must be born again, Jesus says, calling us back to our true selves. You must be born from above. You must be born anew. Born anew into that of you which is the essence of God, the essence of your true self...
Now, I’m not an artist, and I can’t draw it. But I can tell you that I saw a very clear picture of this on Wednesday when our Diane - our homeless/hospitality minister - told me about what had happened at the Hospitality Program the day before. It was a busy day, she said, and in the middle of all of the busi-ness, a man brought in a woman in a bathrobe. He had found her a few blocks away. She was wandering around, lost and confused. She didn’t know her name, and, said the man, she was (made a motion with his finger to indicate craziness). Diane had the woman sit down with Kari, who talked with her and kept her calm while Diane made some phone calls. It took about an hour for the police to get there, and when they did, they confirmed that the woman was on the missing persons list. Her son had been looking for her. She had parked her car and left her keys and her purse and her i.d. somewhere, and they tried to find it, and they contacted her son, and they eventually took her to the hospital, where we are hoping that she received the care she needed.
It’s a sad story, but a precious one. I hate to think what might have happened had that man not have found her.
And here’s the thing that touched me most deeply about the story: The man who brought her in, said Diane, was drunker than anyone she’d ever seen. And note: this is our homeless minister talking. He was drunker than anyone she’d ever seen!
And yet, this man, as drunk as he was, was able to connect with the very essence of God within, with the love-longings of God, to share with this woman that there is a place where you can go where they will help you, and not just to share that with her, but to accompany her, stumbling alongside her until he had delivered into Diane’s care.
And in that experience, I believe that that man was born anew, not in the way we used to talk about, becoming someone else, but in that, even in the midst of his brokenness, he reconnected with the very essence of God. You must be born anew, says Jesus.
I am reminded of the voice that we hear in “The Help,” the voice of Abileen, a family maid, who babysits little Mae Mobley. Mae’s mother usually ignores her, and whenever she pays her any attention, she criticizes her. So Abilene sits her down everyday and says, “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”
The heart of God is beating within each of us. May we listen for it, may we hear it, may we be renewed in its rhythm.