Text: John 3:1-8

    One of the most volatile terms in the Christian vocabulary is the phrase "born again."  It has been thrown around in politics, used as a spiritual litmus test in churches and religious groups, and has managed to inspire just about every emotion that a person can have....depending on the person and the situation.  If you hear the term and think that's what the church is about, you are not alone.  If you hear the term and want to run screaming from the pew, you are not alone...even among Christians.

    In these weeks of May, we are looking at some Christian basics in terms of the elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water.  So, I figured with the week on Air falling on Mother's Day, this was the week to take on spiritual birth.  Where does that much used and abused term "born again" come from, and what on earth does it really mean?

    The first part of that question is relatively easy.  The phrase comes from the Bible...in the Gospel of John, chapter 3...from the story of Nicodemus.  No, Nicodemus is not a skin patch. He's a man.  He's a Pharisee, actually, one of the leading Jews of Jesus' day.  In the story about him in John, he comes to Jesus by night.  He is sneaking around, because at this point it is not fashionable among the Pharisees to seek Jesus out.  But he wants to show Jesus that there is at least one Pharisee who knows that Jesus is someone special.  And Nicodemus tells him so.

    "We know you are a teacher who has come from God," he says, "For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him."  Jesus follows that statement with a compliment, but it is one that Nicodemus doesn't get.  Jesus says, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."  The implication is that Nicodemus has observed the truth...he has recognized the kingdom of God in Jesus...and therefore has been born again.  He's not telling Nicodemus what he has to do, but rather telling him what has already happened to enable Nicodemus to recognize Jesus for who he is.  But Nicodemus gets hung up on the language.

    The Pharisees were nothing if not literalists.  They were the ones responsible for teaching the details of the law to the people and being sure that it was followed to the letter.  The training was so complete, that when Nicodemus heard "born again," all he could think of was some kind of literal going back into the womb.  "What?!" says Nicodemus, "Surely he can't crawl back into his mother's womb and be born a second time!"

    Jesus must have wanted to bang his head against a tree, but instead he explains.  OK, Nicodemus, the two births I'm talking about are first bodily...you must be born out of the waters of the womb of your mother...but then there's a spiritual birth...water and spirit both...earth and air...natural birth and spiritual birth.  The word translated "again" in "born again" can also be translated "born from above."  To see the kingdom of God you must first exist as a human being...you must be born of water as a baby, but then you must also be born from above...you must have a spiritual birth.

    So in a very basic sense, the phrase "born again" or "born from above" simply means you have got to have a spiritual birth...a spiritual awakening.  Think about an unborn child...we've got a lot of those around the church these days...there's mystery baby McCusker, unknown baby Aumann, hidden baby Williams and LaLonde and others.  The world around them is filled with all sorts of things...people and houses and trees and woodchucks.  There's food and the cat and the internet and toys and school.  But they know nothing of those things.  They will, but not now. Not until they are born.  When they are born, their eyes will be able to see Mama, and their ears will be able to hear bird songs and they will discover that their world is so much larger than they ever could have imagined in a dark, wet womb.

    Well, it's the same with spiritual birth.  There is God and spiritual gifts and a living creation that is shouting deep truth.  There are spirits and powers and energies and senses beyond the physical all around us.  But like the baby in the womb, we can't know they are there until we have been spiritually born.  After a spiritual birth, all of a sudden our eyes are open to see things we never knew were there and our ears are tuned in to unspoken sounds and new meanings for old words.  

    OK...so we need a spiritual birth to see and understand spiritual things.  How do we do that, exactly?  Let's say I want to be spiritually born...what do I have to do?  I thought about that question a lot this week, and I thought about the various ways I had heard the concept presented. Mostly, the presentations left me flat.  The answer I have heard most often is some version of "say these words and mean them," which is usually some form of saying we are sorry for our sins and accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior.  While that's not wrong, it does tend to encourage some sort of magical thinking about the words.  Simply say this in this manner and use these words and presto-chango you can put "born again" on your resume.  That's not what is intended, but that is often the result.

    So I want to come at the whole thing a bit differently...in a way that I think of as the woman-preacher's revenge for years of male preachers using mostly sports imagery.  It's Mother's Day, and we're not going to do sports.  We're doing birth.  The news that there is a second birth is actually great news for those who, like me, have always dreaded Mother's Day because we are not able ourselves to give birth.  We don't get to do the first birth...the born of water part.  But we can give spiritual birth, no matter what.  There is no infertility in the Kingdom of God.  I like that.

    Anyway, I really tried to think through our spiritual birth in terms of physical birth.  Jesus compares the two, so they must not be too far apart.  The first thing I realized when I thought in those terms was that none of us chose to be born.  It was basically a passive activity.  We weren't and then suddenly we were.  From two bodies came one flesh that grew and developed for a good while and then was born into the world.  When were we born?  When we were ready.  When we were good and cooked.  We might know about the time that should happen, but who really knows?  Babies are born...not of their own will but of the will of others, and they are born when they are good and ready.

    So it is, in a way, with spiritual birth.  We can't be born by ourselves.  We need a mother. We need God.  When our flesh is willing to commit to joining with God's spirit, the spiritual baby is conceived.  But if there is any type of creature that is born immediately upon conception, I'm not aware of it.  There is first...before birth...a period of growth and development.  Certain things have to be in place for us to live outside of the womb, and those things take time to develop. Spiritual growth happens before there is spiritual birth.

    How do we do all that?  Well, if you want to be born spiritually, you have to begin by making a commitment.  It sounds like the good, old advice...if you want to have a baby, you need to get married.  And that is exactly what all that language about accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior is trying to get at.  Spiritual birth is a result of spiritual development reaching a certain point.  And spiritual development cannot really begin in earnest until we have made the decision to commit ourselves to the God that is made known in Jesus.  We might have a sort of spiritual puberty before that...a time when we discover that we are spiritual beings and we experiment with that in different forms.  But for the type of spiritual birth Jesus is talking about, we must first make a lifelong commitment to God.

    This is where the traditional language of accepting Jesus comes in.  What is it?  It's a marriage, basically.  When we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior, ask Jesus into our hearts, say we believe in Jesus, or whatever language you want to use, what we are doing is expressing our desire to be united with the particular God that Jesus revealed.  Remember, Christianity does not teach that Jesus is a separate being from God.  Jesus, we believe, is God in human form.  Jesus is what God did when we couldn't figure out what God was talking about through the law and the prophets.  When we couldn't grasp God's Word as it was spoken and written, God finally said...OK...I'll come there myself and show you what I'm talking about.  I'll make my Word into flesh and I'll live with you on earth.  When you want to know how to live, you can just follow my example, rather than trying to interpret the words.

    So when I say that I accept Jesus...I mean that I accept that Jesus is God.  That in Jesus is represented the true nature and desires of God.  "I accept Jesus" means that the God I worship has the same values that Jesus had and that the way Jesus acted is God's command for how we should act as well.  In fact, they are so close that I am willing to take the leap of faith that says not only does Jesus represent God, but Jesus is, in fact, God in human form and I believe that the things about Jesus that are told in the Gospels represent the truth about God and about us.

    God is honored by the phrase "I accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior" because it means that finally somebody has heard what God has been trying to say from the time God first breathed life into Adam onward.  It means...yes, I can see the principles of God at work in Jesus, I am convinced that is what God has meant for us all along, and because I know that Jesus is God speaking, I will make Him my Lord...I will live my life the way He taught and do what he asked of us.  And I believe that God has always intended to save us and to free us, and I believe that God was at work in Jesus to do just that.  Yup, I accept it.  Jesus shows the Spirit of God, so I will be obedient to that God and will trust that God to save me.  That's what accepting Jesus means.

    And with that commitment, life begins.  Biologists may debate about physical life until the cows come home, but spiritual life, at least, begins at conception.  And spiritual life, not being bound by the flesh, is eternal.  When you are spiritually conceived, you receive eternal life and your spiritual birth is sure.  Now it may take awhile.  You may need to hang out in the womb and develop for a number of months, but your commitment to God in Jesus will feed you in that time and you will grow and develop.

    And then one day, when you least expect it, you'll be forced out of the comfy, cozy womb into an amazing, eye-blinking, lung-screaming psychedelic spiritual world.  You won't be done growing yet...you'll still be just a baby in this great, new world.  But there will be older children and adults to help you understand why the tattered old man you saw with your other eyes now looks remarkably like Jesus, why the old way of simply getting ahead now seems somehow like stealing, and why rituals and words in church that used to leave you flat or bored suddenly inspire you to laugh or cry or clap your hands.

    "I tell you the truth," says Jesus, "No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."  Would you like to be able to see with spiritual eyes?  Have you ever really made the commitment to unite with the God revealed by Jesus?  It might be time.


(c) 2001, Anne Robertson

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