John 3:1-17 (New Revised Standard Version)
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 “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.
17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Yes, I am born again! I know that there will be those who will challenge my claim, but who gets to define what it means to be born again? Is it George Barna, the pollster, who defines a Born Again Christian as a person who has made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is ongoing? Well, by that definition, I definitely am born again. But, there’s a second part – and that has to do with life after death. Do I believe that I’m going to heaven because I’ve confessed my sins and accepted Jesus as my savior? Well, I regularly confess my sins and I have accepted Jesus as my savior, but I’m not quite sure that is my ticket into heaven. Surely, there’s more to being born again than that.
The “born again” question emerges in a conversation that features one of the best known passages of Scripture – John 3:16. If we’ve memorized any biblical texts, this is probably one of them: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (KJV). After all, why would people flash signs at Super Bowls that simply read John 3:16?
This lectionary reading for the Second Sunday of Lent has been well trodden. So much so that it might be difficult to say something new or at least enlightening. The reading encompasses a conversation between the Pharisee Nicodemus and Jesus. The conversation itself extends into verse 21, but the creators of the lectionary have cut it short. That could possibly due to the fact that if we end at verse 17, we end on a high note, but if we end at verse 21, the tone is a bit harsher.
That Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night is a reflection of John’s desire to contrast light and darkness. Nicodemus is a religious leader – a person who wants to believe, but he remains in darkness. The question is – will he leave the darkness for the light. According to Jesus, we will be judged on whether we embrace the one who is the light. Those who live in darkness, do evil. Those who emerge into the light – who embrace the light of God – will do what is good (vs. 18-21).
Nicodemus is intrigued by Jesus’ teachings – and his miracles – but he’s afraid of what his colleagues might think of him. Nicodemus compliments Jesus on his works, because no one can do what he’s done unless they’ve come from God. Then, things get interesting. In his response, Jesus tells Nicodemus that if he’s going to see the kingdom of God he has to be “born from above” (NRSV). Nicodemus doesn’t understand the reference. It’s clear that he’s stuck in the literal. How do you return to your mother’s womb so you can start over? Jesus is, of course, thinking spiritually not physically. Having been born of the water (physical birth), now he must be born of the Spirit. To enter the realm of God one must experience both physical/natural birth and spiritual birth. Perhaps, this dual birth is represented in the course of being baptized in water and in the Spirit.
While you can see where Barna gets his definition, surely experiencing spiritual birth is more than simply getting your ticket to heaven punched. Barna’s version of being “born again” seems rather minimalist. It doesn’t require much of you, nor does it make much of a difference in your life. No wonder his surveys suggest that self-proclaimed “born againers” are little different from the general population. But, is that what Jesus (or John) has in mind? If it is, then surely Nicodemus shouldn’t have much problem signing the form.
With the contrast between light and darkness in the background, it would seem that to be born again or born from above is to experience transformation. Consider Paul’s word about new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). The old has passed and the new has come.
So the question then is this – how has one’s “belief” or trust in Jesus made a difference? How is the Spirit working? The Spirit blows where it wishes (Jn. 3:8). Are we ready to put up our sails and let the wind of the Spirit take us into new realms?
Jesus poses a choice to Nicodemus. Will you come out of the darkness and into the light? It is a question that we too face. I was struck by Deborah Kapp’s pastoral reflections on this passage. She reminded us that we live in an age that prizes privacy of faith. We are encouraged to keep our faith compartmentalized. Are we ready to move out of the private realm and enter the public realm as a person of faith? In asking this question, Kapp reminds us that new birth is a process – like gestation.
God conceives us as Christians and nurtures us in the wombs of our faith, save and warm and secret. At some point, like any pregnant woman who is close to full term, God gets impatient with gestation and wants to get on with it; God wants to push that baby through the birth canal into greater maturity, into fullness of life, into a faith lived wholly in the world. That is what Jesus talks about tin this text. Jesus thinks it’ is time Nicodemus came through that spiritual birth canal. Perhaps he thinks it is time for many others to be reborn too. God is ready to give us birth by water and Spirit. [Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 2: Lent Through Eastertide, (WJK Press), p. 72].
God loves the world, and sends his own son into the world, that those who will put their trust in him will experience this new birth in the Spirit. They will be transformed, as they leave darkness and enter the light. It isn’t a matter of giving assent to a creed. It is a matter of entrusting one’s life to Jesus in such a way that one is enabled to leave the darkness and enter the light. If this is true, then perhaps I shall amend my confession. I am in the process of being born again!