12 March 2017
“How can anyone be born after having grown old?” A very logical question, Nicodemus. Unfortunately, Nicodemus is thinking a little too logically. Because when Jesus answers back with this gem, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” It’s really no surprise that Nicodemus is a bit confused. What does he mean, born from above? Whatever can Jesus mean?
The phrase, “born from above,” in the NRSV is the same phrase that is translated as “born again” in other translations. “Born again” is definitely a buzz word in modern Christianity. It stands for inclusion into the more fundamental evangelical conservative groups on the Christianity spectrum. Only if you have had an experience of being born again, having a total life reversal because of an encounter with Jesus, can you be born again. When I think of the phrase, born again, I think of televangelists and celebrities who have done bad things and then claim to be born again. I think of people walking the streets with pamphlets asking if I have been saved or born again or if I know if I am going to heaven or hell.
So what does Jesus really mean? Jesus tries to clarify by saying, being born of water and Spirit. Now, that is still not the clearest answer in the world, however it is one step further. We can make a connection with being born of water and Spirit. We are born of water and Spirit in our rite of baptism. Baptism is where we acknowledge and accept the spiritual nature our lives and where we are imbued with the Holy Spirit. We become part of God's family through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In baptism we are reborn with the intention of living a life following Jesus and in relationship with God. In Episcopal parlance, being born again would mean living very seriously out of our baptisms. I like how Jesus says that we must be born of water and Spirit. It is a both/and situation. Being born again requires both the physical aspect of our bodies and the spiritual aspect of the Spirit. We are not just physical or not just spiritual. One of the many heresies that the church tried to shed itself of in the early centuries of Christianity was the gnostic movement, which came out of popular Greek philosophy which viewed the body as evil and corrupt and that the best way of life was to escape the body as much as possible. This is not the case with Jesus, water is a very physical aspect of our lives as human beings on this planet. We need water for survival. I was at the Carnegie Science Museum this past week and one of the things I learned is that I have approximately 13 gallons of water in me, about 60% of me is made up of water! We are both physical and spiritual and we need to be born both physically and spiritually in order to follow Jesus into eternal life.
Living out of our baptisms is what Episcopalians have been trying to do very specifically since the approval of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Baptism makes all people ministers of the church. We all have a mission. In order to take our baptisms seriously, in order to make that mission our own, we have to take the baptismal covenant promises seriously. If you look at the promises of baptism in the BCP (p. 304), you’ll see that we are all called very intentionally in the Baptismal Covenant to do certain activities, to be part of the community, even when we disagree with those in the community. To share in the breaking of bread, to continue in a prayerful relationship with God, to share your story about Jesus with others, to serve others, to love others, and to love yourself! We have been called to renounce the evil ways in our lives. Wait, I know none of you are intentionally maliciously evil to anyone else. However, evil is sneaky. We are all unfortunately complicit in the institutional evils in our country that trap people in poverty and ignorance and hunger. We all have prejudices we cannot see or don't wish to see. We are all tempted in many and various ways to use our abundance selfishly or to put something other than God first in our lives. We all fall into the trap of thinking that we can save ourselves through hard work or smart plans or through some deal. Thankfully, as we are called to repent and renounce all this evil, we have God’s promise of forgiveness. And there is still more. We are called to work for justice and peace and dignity for everyone. Not just those who are like you or us. Not just those who speak the same language or follow the same religion. Not just those who legally live in Franklin in a separate house. We are called to work for justice and peace and dignity for everyone, of every color, nation, gender, ability, background, we are all born of water, made up of water.
Jesus ends the gospel passage from John that we hear today with such good news! God loves us. God sent his Son to save us. God wants us to have eternal life. This is definitely good news. Baptism is part of our way of accepting this good news. There are others. We accept the gift that God has given us. Good works come forth from our acceptance and our willingness and our desire to share. Through this acceptance and belief we come to see the kingdom of God. The author of the gospel of John only refers to the kingdom of God twice in the entire book. Both times are in this passage. The kingdom of God is not something that we are waiting for, Jesus says, it is something to be seen. “Very truly,” Jesus says, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” How can we see the kingdom of God here on earth? We see it in the sharing of communal life. We see it in those who are working on behalf of others. We see it in the time and effort of those who work the Shepherd's Green Community Food Pantry. We see it in all the great work and mission being done outside our doors.
Being born of water and Spirit is about accepting the invitation into the family and kingdom of God. Once in the family, there are, as every family has, family rules. The rule of God’s family is most simply summarized in one word. It is in fact a four letter word, and it is not the easiest word in the world to do and act on and be and feel… but it is the family rule. God calls us to love. As God loves, we are called to love. With love, we will see the kingdom of God around us. With love, we will be healed and saved. With love, we will understand the greatest mystery in the world. Amen.