Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 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.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ 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?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 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.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
‘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. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
‘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. ‘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.
When I was in college, I was a member of the Christian Intervarsity group on campus, and there were a number of folks in that group who were very into the idea of saving souls. They would take any opportunity they could get to ask people if they had been saved-- “have you been born again?” they would ask. And I have to admit that at the time, I was more than a little puzzled by this. I mean, what exactly did it mean to be born again anyway? For my friends, it seemed to be related almost exclusively to being able to say seven very specific words—“Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.” But this didn’t help ease my confusion, because I could never seem to wrap my brain around the idea that somehow just saying the words, or believing the right thing in my head would magically grant me salvation and an instant ticket into heaven. Granted, I would say the words, because I wanted to belong, and I wanted to believe, but deep down, it just didn’t seem to me like that should be enough. There must be more to being a Christian, I thought, than merely saying the words and getting others to say them too.
Well, as it turns out, I’m not the only person who’s ever found themselves confused by Jesus’ instruction that we must be born again in order to achieve salvation. In today’s Gospel passage from John, we read of a man who also finds himself puzzled by Jesus’ words. Now I have to say, before we go any further, that I think sometimes Nicodemus gets a bad rap. He is often portrayed as something of a coward, because he visits Jesus at night, and some say that he must have done this because he was afraid of being seen by the other Jewish leaders if he spoke with Jesus in the light of day. Other times, Nicodemus is portrayed as being a little bit slow and obtuse. Why does he have such a hard time understanding Jesus? He is, after all, a religious leader among the Jews. Shouldn’t he be a little quicker on the uptake?
Personally, I take issue with both of these characterizations. To begin with, I don’t think Nicodemus’ decision to visit Jesus at night has anything to do with him being fearful. In fact, I think it has everything to do with him being faithful. You see, the ancient Rabbis taught that the best time to study the Torah was actually at night, when all the distractions of the day had subsided. So I like to think that Nicodemus went to see Jesus at night, because he wanted to give Jesus his full attention. He wanted to study God’s word from the Word made flesh himself, and he didn’t want any of the major or minor distractions of daily life to impede his ability to take in all the wisdom Jesus had to offer. And as far as Nicodemus being a bit slow, I just think that’s kind of unfair and a little hypocritical. After all, it’s over 2000 years later, and we’re still arguing amongst each other about what Jesus meant— not only in this passage but in many of his teachings. If we’re being honest, most of us would probably have to admit to having been confused by Jesus at one point or another in our journey of faith. And so, as it turns out, in many ways, Nicodemus is very much like all of us— a person of deep faith who is drawn to this man named Jesus, wondering what he has to teach us about how to draw nearer to the heart of God. And in this particular instance, what Jesus has to teach us about drawing nearer to the heart of God is actually one of the most fundamental teachings in all of Christianity— that if we wish to see the kingdom of God, we must be born again.
So what does it really mean to be born again? Is it really just about saying the right words, or believing the proper doctrine? Maybe for some, but there’s another way of thinking about it. I think theologian Marcus Borg puts it perfectly when he says that “to be born again involves death and resurrection. It means dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being, dying to an old identity and being born into a new identity— a way of being and an identity centered in the sacred— in Spirit, in Christ, and in God.” In other words, we take all of those things that come between us and God— things like our selfishness, greed, resentment, disillusionment, or cynicism— and we allow those parts of ourselves to die so that our true selves can be born again.
There’s a great story, that to me, illustrates why this kind of rebirth is so important. Some of you may have heard this story before. It involves a little girl who was an only child until she was about three years old. When her mother told her that she was going to have a little baby sister, she was very excited, and when her parents came from the hospital for the first time, the little girl made a request. She wanted to be alone with her baby sister in her room, with the door closed. At first the parents were hesitant about granting the request, but then they remembered the video monitor that they had installed in the baby’s room. They would be able to see and hear everything that transpired between the two sisters. And so they allowed the older sister to go in, shut the door, and turned on the monitor to listen and watch. They saw the older sister approach the crib, and then, they heard their three year old daughter, say to her three day old baby sister, “Tell me about God—I’ve almost forgotten.”
This is what happens. We are born of God. We are born from above. But we forget. We are born with an innate connection to our creator—the very source of Love— but over time, that connection becomes frayed, and we are separated from that Love by our own worries and desires, by anger, resentment, and fear, by our addictions and our unhealthy obsessions, and by voices competing for our attention, telling us that we need more, and need to be more and need to achieve more. The older we get, the harder it is for us to remember who we really are and to whom we really belong. And so we need to be born again. We need to be born again in order to recover our true selves and our true purpose. We need to be die to our false selves, which are centered in this world, and be born again back into our true selves which are centered in the Spirit, in Christ, and in the very source of Love. That’s who we were when we came into this world, we just tend to forget that.
And so, contrary to what some Christians would say— that being born again is about having one major conversion experience that can be dated and defined as the day upon which one was saved— being born again is something we have to do over and over again. It’s not a one and done kind of thing. It’s a lifelong process of personal transformation. Which is good news, really, because it means that when we inevitably mess up and fall back into patterns of selfishness or self-centeredness, whenever we start to forget our true identity, or get too caught up in the ways of this world, God offers us a way to be born again in Christ. That way is the way of the cross. That path to transformation is the very road we travel during our Lenten journey, as we follow Christ to Jerusalem, as we follow him all the way to the foot of the cross.
It is perhaps worth mentioning that this idea of being born again is healing and transformative not only for ourselves, but also for our whole weary and divided world. When we put to death our false selves, we also put to death all of the superficial divisions that keep us from seeing one another as fellow children of God. As the apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians, “in Christ, there is no Jew nor Greek, there is no male and female, there is no slave nor free, for we are all are one in Christ.” To be born again in Christ is to remember our interconnectedness and interdependence, and to recognize that there is neither Christian nor Muslim, gay or straight, black, white or brown, Republican or Democrat, legal or undocumented, rich or poor— for we are all one in Christ Jesus. Imagine if there was a massive movement amongst modern day Christians seeking to be born again in this way. Imagine how far that could take us towards healing the wounds of this broken world. Imagine that, and then, this morning, dare to take the first steps on that journey. Dare to take the first steps to being born again this Easter. Amen.