All of us see the world, ourselves, and God, not as they are, but as WE are. If you are bitter and angry and suspicious and fearful, you will see these things in the world and in God. If you are loving and generous, you will see these things in the world and in God. That’s why most people live under a heavy weight of guilt and shame and inadequacy. They do not like themselves and therefore they do not believe they are liked by others or by God. They do not know they are loved and accepted by God, and therefore they cannot love and accept themselves or others. It works both ways and cannot be otherwise. John’s words at the end of this morning’s Gospel reading are scarily accurate and applicable for us today – if we avoid and distrust the Christ, we are in the dark and simply will not see life around us, or in us, or in others. We will experience only darkness in God (guilt, condemnation, dread, fear, resentment, etc.), and this darkness from God will seem angry.
Do you experience love and freedom and peace and joy? Or do you experience condemnation and guilt and dread and inadequacy? This is simply not God. There’s no other way to put it. If these things characterize the bulk of your experience with life, then your primary identity is not rooted in God and in love. I’m not being critical, I’m just telling you that’s the fact.
Is it possible to begin again? Apparently, the answer is “Yes!”
Well, not quite, but sort of. In our Scripture lessons this morning we hear (to paraphrase T. S. Eliot) of endings that are not endings and beginnings that are not beginnings.
At the end of his life, Abram is called by God to pick up everything and follow to a new place. As Christians, our path includes this difficult truth. The journey of living is long and can be hard, and yet, we say with certainty, what we can see is not all that there is, and our end is no real end.
Our spiritual ancestor Abram lives this out quite literally. At the end of his life, God calls on him to begin again, and it is not an easy journey once it begins. We too are called to the journey anew at times. Nicodemus, similarly, seeks out Jesus to ask questions whose implications are life-changing. Can a person begin again, he asks?
The change boot camp brings means leaving some of our old habits, prejudices, and weaknesses behind. The gospel calls this kind of fresh start being born again. Can we crawl back into the place of innocence and openness where we are ultimately vulnerable and dependent and try to see the world anew? Can we be re-formed, re-ordered or re-built to love more, forgive more, and demand more?
Jesus today says, yes. More than that, He says we must. He talks to Nicodemus, answering a question that the religious leader hasn’t even asked, Jesus, is very precise. He doesn’t say, “You know, Nick, you need to change a little bit to see the Kingdom of God.” He doesn’t even say, “You need to change a lot!” Jesus says – very directly – “You MUST be born again.” Again, not “you ought to be” or “it would be good if you were,” but you MUST.
And if you understand exactly to whom Jesus is speaking, then you can begin to understand the intensity of what He is saying. Pastor Bruce Milne, in his commentary on the Gospel of John, writes about Nicodemus saying: “There could have been few Jews, if any, in the entire city of Jerusalem, whose credentials were more impressive as far as acceptance with God was concerned.” Yet it was to that man that Jesus said being born again was a must not an option. Even he must have a spiritual transformation.
Unfortunately, the phrase “born again” has taken on a negative connotation. Thanks to questionable television preachers and in-your-face evangelists, many people don’t want anything to do with that “born again” stuff. Maybe there are some of you here this morning who are quietly saying amen to that sentiment. You come along to Church week by week and you think that you can rely on that. You think that church attendance and trying to be as good as the next person and not as bad as others is what makes you a Christian. I have to tell you this morning that you are wrong. In fact, it is Jesus who points out that you are wrong. It wasn’t Protestants or Baptists or Evangelicals that came up with the idea of being born again. It was the Lord Jesus Christ who first spoke those words. Jesus is absolutely emphatic that you must be born again, He says there is no such thing as a Christian who has not been born again.
It would be like calling someone a musician who couldn’t play any instrument, or someone who couldn’t swim a swimmer. Think about the implications of what Jesus is saying, if Jesus told a man as serious about religion as Nicodemus that he needed a radical spiritual transformation then he is saying exactly the same thing to you this morning. Of course, looking for big change is why you come to Boot Camp, right?
Jesus goes on from telling Nicodemus that the new birth is not an optional extra to explain to him that it is a New Life, not a New Leaf. Being born again Jesus says isn’t the spiritual equivalent of making an enormous New Years’ resolution.
So what does it mean to be “born again”? Actually, what Jesus really says is, “You must be born another.” Another is a Greek word with a dual meaning – it means both “from above” and “again.” To be born another speaks both of a TIME of birth – “again” – and the PLACE from which the new birth is generated – “from above.”
But Nicodemus’ language and imagination do not stretch far enough to grasp Jesus’ offer. Sometimes when we speak of being “born again” we make the same mistake that Nicodemus did: We understand Jesus’ words on only one level. We focus on being “born again” to the exclusion of being “born from above,” and flatten the expression to only one meaning, roughly equivalent to an individual’s private moment of conversion.
The “born again” metaphor speaks to the new context in which we function with others relationally. As a consequence, we speak, act and think differently toward those who are around us. Being born “from above” identifies the source of regeneration. The recognition that rebirth is a divine action in us removes from us any sense of this reset as something we can do ourselves apart from God’s work in us.
So what does a person who is spiritually reset look like? He’s open to surprises from God – unlike Nicodemus, who was full of preconceptions about what God could and couldn’t accomplish. She’s willing to let the Spirit of God blow where it chooses, not knowing where it comes from or where it goes, racing far beyond human knowledge and control. He believes that Jesus is the one who moves between heaven and earth and who brings the two together; he trusts that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (v. 17). She trusts that she has been born again and born from above so that she can live in the unending presence of God, in an eternal life that never really ages and never finally ends.
There is a sweet story told of an imagined conversation between twins in utero speculating on what happens after birth. One twin is convinced birth is the end. The other twin argues that it is a new beginning. They are both correct. Life as we know it ends, and new life begins. This reset; this rebirth is like those changes in which how we experience the world or how the world experiences us is fundamentally changed.
Abram goes off into the unknown and becomes the great patriarch. Jesus tells us we must be reborn as we move closer and closer to knowing ourselves in relationship to the One who has made us and finds us lovable without condition. What new beginnings is God urging you toward today?