John 3: 1-8; 16-17
As I have told my Disciple Classes before, John’s gospel is so different from the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. If a best friend gave an interview about your life, and a professional writer gave another one, those two reports would likely be entirely different. Goodreads.com lists over 500 books pertaining to the great leader of the British Empire Winston Churchill. I own two of them, and they are very different from each other. In Jesus’ case, it is likely that Matthew who wrote the first gospel was the tax collector Jesus called to follow him. He was an apostle, but not apparently in Jesus’ inner circle. Mark, most scholars think was John Mark, a man who wrote like an historian and is listed in the book of Acts. And Luke was a later writer who filled in some stories that early accounts did not include. He was traditionally described as a physician. John, one the other hand, was one of the closest of the apostles to Jesus. He was almost certainly the one to whom Jesus gave the care of his mother at the cross. “Here is your mother” Jesus said to John. Not his actual mother, but a woman who should be treated as his mother. “Woman, behold your son,” he said to mother Mary; again, a symbolic gesture. She was not actually his mother. John speaks like that all the time; and John includes euphemisms and metaphors that Jesus said. Among those are the famous “I am” declarations. “I am the bread of life.” (He’s not actually bread.) “I am the gate.” (He’s not actually a gate.) “I am the true vine.” (Jesus is not really a vine.) As I said in my message for children, sometimes adults talk in figures of speech. My grandchildren have looked at me in disbelief when they heard someone say, “She’s as big as a house.!” “No she’s not!” they told me. Or “He’s a dead man.” “No! He’s alive!” they told me.. We as adults have learned not to take these expressions literally: “He’s a basket case” doesn’t mean what it says. And saying someone is “sweating like a pig” is a misnomer because pigs don’t sweat! This is the way Jesus talks in John. He doesn’t literally mean what he says; he means what he means. We have grown up learning what Jesus meant when he said he was the light of the world. And when he said he was the good shepherd, history says he was never an actual shepherd, he was a carpenter. But we adults know what he means. One amazing thing I’ve found out: there are still grown adults who read the Bible with flat footed literalism. They say, “God said, it, I believe it, that settles it.” Maybe Nicodemus is such a man. Could he have heard Jesus say to him, “You must be born again,” and literally have thought he needed to climb back into his mother’s womb? Come on, Nicodemus! Flat-footed literalism?
As we hear the question Nicodemus asks Jesus, I almost think that question would come from a child! Children think in concrete ways by seeing, touching, or even tasting. But Jesus says it this way: “I am telling you the truth: persons cannot see the Kingdom of God unless they are born again.” Born-again Christians. Our NRSV Bibles say “born from above” but I believe Jesus must have said “born again.” Why else would Nicodemus be led to ask such a child-like question? When you hear “born again,” do you say, “That’s me! I’m born again!” I once met a man who said, “I’ve met some ‘born againers’ before; they’re hard to be around!” Do such people make you uncomfortable? Let’s think what it means to be born again as adult thinkers.
Dr. Elton Trueblood puts it this way:
“Since the time of Nicodemus, [the experience of Christian rebirth] has been puzzling to those who have not shared it, and we are not surprised that many are puzzled today. It has to do with commitment. A Christian is one who is committed to Jesus Christ!” For a person to be a born-again Christian, a change of commitment, focus, or desire comes over that person. When Jesus was baptized, the Bible says the Spirit descended on him as a dove. He was blessed by that event. Born-again Christian generally describe their Christian journey not just as a progressive set of events, but as a distinct day when things changed. “Before I used to be this way” one might say, “but not I am focused on Christ in a new way.” But when you have known Jesus’ love from cradle to present day, you might not think of yourself as “born again.” Let’s keep examining those words Jesus said in John.
A pastor sat down on the front steps of a sanctuary to give his children’s message. He told them that people who loved God and followed Jesus went to heaven. With excitement building, he said in cheerleader fashion, “Do you love God?” “Yes!” they cried out together. “Do you want to follow Jesus?” he asked. “Yes!” that answered. “So where do you want to end up?” he asked. “Heaven!” they all said. And finally, speaking in a crescendo voice, he asked, “And what must you be to get into heaven?” Thinking they would say, “born again” instead a boy cried out, “Dead!” Yep. That’s the literal way kids think!
As we get back to what it means to be born again, it boils down to this: Persons who are born again have made a conscious decision for Christ, not just doing Christian things because their family wanted them to do so, but because they have chosen to do them on their own. The affirmation of faith asked of youth or adults as they join the church is: “Who is your Lord and Savior?” And they respond, “Jesus Christ.” Being born again is to not only say that, but also to mean that. It is that change in your heart that happens when, as the old hymn says, “I have decided to follow Jesus!” If Jesus is on the throne of your life, you are a born-again Christian. If you ask in a daily fashion, “What would Jesus do?” you are a born-again Christian. If Jesus is your co-pilot, change seats! Jesus needs be the one who carries you above the trees, and the ground, and the valleys.
So let’s recap: First, being born again is the time that you decide to follow Jesus when you were either following worldly ideals before, or you were only Christian because others asked you to be. In your bor again experience, there might have been a time when you heard God’s voice; or maybe a time when the direction of your life took on new clarity; or perhaps you hit bottom and cried out for someone to save you. Claiming Jesus as your personal Savior can be life changing.
Second, being born again makes some parts of your life less important than before, and others more important. Some people develop a hunger to be in touch with other Christians. Some people develop a deeper prayer life, and others have an increased desire to praise God. Some grow extra hungry to read the Word. All of a sudden, you are willing doing for Christ what others could not talk you into doing willingly before! Being born again is when it’s your idea to follow Jesus and spread his light.
Finally, being born again does not guarantee that life will be a rose garden; but followers honor the one who was plaited with a crown of thorns on the cross, the action that blazed a trail to eternal life for them. Nicodemus didn’t understand what Jesus meant. Now I hope you do!
Let us pray: Holy Spirit, keeping helping us to hear as Jesus needs his followers to hear him, and to follow where he leads, bringing others along with us.
Thank you! Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner March 8, 2020