Sunday, February 17, 2008

"You must be born again"

Click here to listen to my sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent.

Night-time is a special time. So many interesting things happen under the cover of darkness. Jesus was born at night, the gospels tell us. Many of you were probably born at night.(Probably all of us were conceived at night.) When I did an internship as a hospital chaplain, I was surprised to see how many people died at night. It almost seemed as if no one ever died during the day.

People do some reading at night, deep thinking at night, praying at night. They gaze up at the stars and ponder the big picture and talk to God. It seems like all the best conversations take place at night. In today’s Gospel, a Jewish leader named Nicodemus has a troubled conscience, and he seeks out the Lord Jesus for some late-night counsel. Part of it is likely that he wants to avoid political trouble that may come from being seen talking with Jesus. But I think there is also something more. He comes with what we might call “night-time questions.”

Nicodemus is very aware of who Jesus is and what he has been up to. He knows about Jesus’ miracles, what John calls “signs” of Jesus’ Messiahship. Nicodemus has listened to Jesus’ teaching and knows him to be wise. Nicodemus begins by stating his confidence in Jesus’ word: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher from God, for no one can work these signs apart from God.” Nicodemus is in a unique position to listen to what our Lord has to say.

We are not given the whole conversation, but it seems that Nicodemus is exploring the possibility of supporting Jesus openly, of becoming a disciple, but he is unsure. What Jesus first says to Nicodemus seems like an ultimatum. He is nudging Nicodemus toward making a decision. He says, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Nicodemus either doesn’t quite understand, or (and I think this more likely) he is afraid to face the implications of Jesus’ statement. So our Lord pushes him further. “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of heaven without being born of water and the Spirit.”

There is a word in that first statement that is a little difficult to translate. The Greek word anothen can mean “from the beginning”, “again” or “from above” as in a different source. The common meaning is about making a radical change and gaining a fresh start as God intended. This is not about self-help, gaining wisdom, trying harder, or making a few improvements here and there. Make no mistake about it, “you must be born again.”

Now the whole phrase, “born again” Christian is unfortunate. It has turned into a label, often a derogatory one at that. Back in the 80s, there was a poster that said, “The Episcopal Church welcomes you . . . regardless of race, color, creed, or the number of times you’ve been born.”

If someone is talking about a “born again” Christian, they’re talking about you. It’s a redundant description anyway. There is no such thing as a Christian who has not been “born again.” To be born again is to become a citizen of God’s kingdom and a member of Christ’s mystical Body—the Catholic Church. The process by which that happens is, as Jesus says, by “water and the Spirit.”

Some people mistakenly think that Jesus is contrasting the physical and spiritual. That, first we’re born physically, then we’re born spiritually. But Jesus is talking about starting over—not half of you, but all of you. The way by which we are born again is the sacrament of Holy Baptism.
In baptism, we find an end to the old life and the beginning of a new one. It is a new birth, “by water and the Spirit.” It is, as Paul would write in his letter to Titus (3:5) “a washing of regeneration and renewal.”

St Peter told his flock that in Baptism, we are “born anew to a living hope” (1 Peter 1:3). Yet even though we are baptized only once, in a very real way, we can have an infinite number of new beginnings. Praise God for that. Because some problems just can’t be fixed. Sometimes you just have to start over and begin again.

Lent is a time for new beginnings. It is a time to go back to the first things—to the Bible, prayer, fasting, good works. It is a time for going back to the font for fresh grace. We do that in sacramental confession. Like Nicodemus with his troubled conscience, we go to Christ in the priest, to open ourselves up to God and share our burdens that we cannot bear and problems we cannot fix. In the absolution, we receive a new washing, a new cleansing, fresh grace and mercy poured out like a river.

Jesus entrusted this unique authority and power to his ministers so that we would always have a way to begin again. Before he ascended into heaven, the risen Christ breathed on the apostles, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit: If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:22-23).

The ways of God often don’t match our expectations. Some of the Jewish establishment were turned off because they saw the “wrong kind of people” becoming disciples of Jesus. Jesus tells Nicodemus not to be discouraged or confused. “The spirit blows where it wills. Don’t be surprised when I say that even someone like you, Nicodemus, a teacher of Israel, needs to begin again.”

If we had known the ways of God, we never would have expected to see the cross. But God’s ways are better than our ways. God is always driven by love. “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For the Son of Man came into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

And Jesus sets up that statement with a very interesting comparison. In Numbers 21:4-9, we read that a number of the Israelites were struck by deadly serpents. Moses turned to God to heal the people from the poison and was told to raise up a bronze serpents on a pole (the sign of their sickness and judgment) so that all who looked to it with faith would be healed. By the way, this is the origin of the medical insignia and it is why Orthodox bishops have serpents on their pastoral staffs.
Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up (talking about the crucifixion) that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

We are not told what Nicodemus’ reaction was to this late night counsel, the Gospel narrative simply moves on to talk about John the Baptist. But it seems that Nicodemus took Jesus’ words and pondered them, for he shows up again in chapter 7, where he speaks up for Jesus in the Sanhedrin, saying he ought to be given a fair hearing.

Nicodemus turns up again at the crucifixion. Two Jewish leaders who are secret disciples, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, come to prepare Jesus’ whipped, crucified, and broken body for burial. It was a return of thanks and love to the Lord who had once offered him (and all of us) an opportunity to begin again. The question for us remains: will we take advantage of our opportunity?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Let's remember the kind of baptism Jesus and the apostles had and preached took place at an age when the person could understand its meaning and what the commitment entailed, and by imeersion to signify by going under descent into the grave and then by coming up, the resurrection of the body. Thus Paul could say, I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. In another passage he said that "you have died to the old life (old man) and risen in newness of life as a new creation in Christ Jesus.