Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Born By Water And The Spirit

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was John 3:1-17:

Today’s scripture might contain two of the most famous passages for American Christianity.  First we have the famous John 3:16, and then we have Jesus saying that we must be born again, or born from above, which is how the NRSV translate it, an idea which plays a major role for a significant portion of the American church, and so I was asked to explore what this idea means.  What did it mean for Jesus and what does it mean for us?  Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night to engage in a conversation.  When people came in darkness it is often the sign of bad things to come.  This is true in most books of the Bible, but for John darkness is a metaphor representing a separation from God.  But there is something positive here as well, and that is that Nicodemus seeks Jesus’ out, which is the first step of discipleship in John.  So from the start it’s not clear whether Nicodemus is on Jesus’ side or not.  He says he knows that Jesus is from God, although he doesn’t actually really know.

So Jesus tells him, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Notice that the primary emphasis here is not about eternal life, but about the kingdom.  While we talk a lot about eternal life, Jesus actually had little to say about the afterlife, but he did talk a lot about the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven depending on which gospel you are reading.  In fact, in the synoptic gospels, the first thing Jesus says as he begins his ministry is “repent,” why?  For the kingdom of God has come near.  Jesus’ message is a kingdom proclamation, and not just of a kingdom to come, but of a kingdom here and now, just as we pray each week, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Even John 3:16 is about the here and now, “for God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”  When does eternal begin?  Is it something that only starts when we die?  Doesn’t sound very eternal.  This is not a statement about the afterlife, this is a statement about eternal life, a life lived in the eternal presence of God.  This is a statement that shifts the emphasis not to our death but to the here and now.  Our eternal life with God is taking place here in the present, it is a current reality.  This is an eschatological claim, and we’re remembering that eschatology deals with the end of time.  Jesus is saying that the end of time is here already, and yet it is not here as well.  Repent for the kingdom of God has come near.  Our eternal life with God begins not sometime in the future; it begins now in this very moment because the kingdom is here, now, and God is present for us, here and now, and for all time.  But how do we get that?  Well that’s where knowing a little Greek helps, or at least leaning on those who know the Greek, which is what I do.

Jesus says that we must be born anothen.  The Greek word anothen means both “from above” and “again.”  And thus when translators are trying to render this in English, they have to make a decision to preference one meaning over another which says to the reader that this is the right translation and the other is secondary which can be found in a footnote, if anyone actually looks down there. So the NIV says be born again, and the NRSV says be born from above.  But do those mean the same thing?  Are they supposed to be the same thing?  The biggest problem is that in reading it this way we become just like Nicodemus, because Nicodemus does not hear in Jesus statement be born from above, he only hears, be born again and wonders how we could possibly reenter our mother’s wombs.  He skips over the intentionally ambiguous statement that Jesus makes, and focuses only on the one meaning.  But I think we have to keep both meanings in place and hold them in tension with each other.  We have to be born by water and the spirit; we are to be born again and born from above, that we are to be born both in time, again, and born from a place, from above.

For us a Christians, these statements carry along with them the images of baptism, and they probably should, although we should remember that Nicodemus would have had no conception of this when he first heard this statement.  We have talked in the past that one of the acts that takes place in baptism is that we are to die to our old selves and are reborn, and that early baptismal fonts represented this by being either in the shape of a coffin or the cross.  People would enter into the water of baptism on one side and exit on the other side having died to their old selves in the water and being reborn as a new entity on the other side, being raised with Christ through Christ’s death.  We are made new people, we die with Christ and we are raised up with Christ.  We are to be fundamentally transformed by this act.

One of the major problems, and we might even say heretical problems, of the way being born-again is understood  by much of American Christianity, is first that it preferences the personal change more than how that change is brought about, or who brings it about, and that is Christ through the cross.  That is bound to happen when only one meaning of anothen is given, that of being born again.  Second, it says that being justified in Christ, that is accepting Christ, is the only and most important element of Christianity, of conversion, that as long as we can say that we are saved, are born-again, that we have had a conversion experience that nothing else matters.  Which leads directly into the third problem and that is cheap grace, that there is no cost, no expectation demanded from us by baptism.  All we have to do is say some magic words and instantaneously we are preferenced and saved for all time, all it takes is a simple verbal assent and we’re all set, with the majority of the work having been done by us.

Rev Zan Holmes tells a story about his first bishop, Bishop Willis J. King.  Bishop King was a graduate of Willey College, what was then an all-black institution founded by the Methodist Church, before he went, as all great ministers do, on to Boston University and then to Harvard University.  Bishop King was the first person in his family to graduate from college, and he was so proud of what he did that with his diploma in his hand he told his parents he was going to go down to the bank and take out a loan for $500 in order to buy his first car.  This was obviously a long time ago.  His father asked him if he wanted him to go with him so that he could co-sign his loan, and Bishop King said no, he was going to do it himself because he had his degree.  So off he went down to the bank, and he sat down with the nice bank manager and said he wanted to take out a loan for $500.  The bank manager then said, “Well what do you have for collateral?  You have to have something worth at least $500 to support the loan,” and Bishop King, all smiles, pulled out his diploma and put it on the desk and said, “I have my degree.”  And the manager said, “Look, we’re really proud of your degree and what you have accomplished, but that is not enough for us to be able to give you a loan.”

Bishop King said he had never felt so dejected and rejected in his life, and as he was making his way back across the lobby, head down, he thought he heard his father speaking to someone, and he looked up, and sure enough there was his dad.  He asked his father what he was doing there, and he said he had come down to co-sign his loan.  “Dad,” Bishop King said, “How are you going to cosign my note when you can’t even read? How are you going to cosign my note when you can’t even write? How are you going to cosign my note when all you can do is make an x?”  And about the time Bishop King said that the banker came out and said, “Son you may be right that your dad can’t read and can’t write, and can only make an x, but it’s a good x.  It’s the x that got you the loan that got you into school, it’s the x that got you the loan to keep you in school, it’s the x that got you the loan that got you out of school, and if you want a loan from this bank it’s that x that’s going to do it for you.”  Bishop King said he learned one of the most important lessons of his life that day.  He learned that it wasn’t about him or his diploma, that there were more powerful forces working behind the scenes that made him who he was, that it wasn’t about him, and more importantly he learned the power of a father’s love.

We are not the actors in being born again, we are the recipients, God has already done all the work.  God has already signed the paperwork, it’s God’s X in the sign of the cross that gives us grace, that makes us be born again and from above.  That’s why I’ve said that all the arguments we like to have about baptism totally miss the point, because it’s not about us.  It is not the person who does the baptism who conveys the grace, it’s not the water, or the amount thereof, that conveys the grace, it’s not the age of the person receiving it who conveys the grace, it is God who conveys the grace through the person of Christ.  Jesus says that just as Moses lifted up a serpent in the desert, so must the son of man be lifted up.  Moses lifted up the serpent in order to save the people who were being bitten by poisonous snakes, and Jesus was lifted up in order to save us.  The saving action is not ours, it is Christ, but it does come with responsibility, which is the second part of the question that was asked of me, how do we know that we have been born again?<

This is my DeWalt 5” orbital sander, and some of you might be saying, “hey Pastor John got power tools for Father’s Day,” and maybe some of you are even a little jealous, but I didn’t get this for Father’s Day.  I bought this three years ago, and yet here it is still in its wrapper.  Now Linda will say that just proves that I didn’t need it, but the simple fact is I did need it, I just haven’t found a need for it yet, and those are two different things.  But if we are to be born again, to claim it as our own, to see God’s movement in our lives, then we have to be willing to take the packing off, to be changed by this moment in our lives.  To be born again and to be born from above is to take on a way of life that is totally reoriented to the ways of God.  As Paul says in Romans, “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (rom 12:2)  To repent, means literally to turn around, to be going in a different direction, to be dead to sin, to be moving towards righteousness, which we covered last week which is total alignment with God and with each other.  It is as we Methodist’s say to be moving past justification onto totally sanctification, or to be perfected in the faith.

How do we know that we are born again?  Well what Jesus says is that we are to be judged by our fruits, that the fruits of our faith will reveal our faith, what we do will show who we are.   In the book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, Ron Sider, who is himself an evangelical, addresses the problem that of why Christians are living just like the rest of the world.  According to polls done by groups like the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project and the Barna Group, those who claim to be born again or evangelical are more likely to divorce than the general population, sometimes 50% more likely to divorce, men are 300-400% more likely to abuse their spouses, and in fact when Promise Keepers was at the height of their popularity, after they left town, there would be a statistically significant increase in the number of abuse reports filed with the police.  But the founders of Promise Keepers say that one of the things that led to their downfall was their radically egalitarianism when it came to race relations, which may be true, because in poll and after poll white evangelical Christians rate the highest as people who say that they would have a problem if a non-white family moved into their neighborhood.  They are just as likely to commit adultery and just as likely to view pornography, and evangelical teenagers are actually more likely to be engaged in premarital sex than the general population.  In other words there is little difference in behavior, among Christians who claim to be born again then there is in the general population, and when there is a difference it tends to entail worse behavior. Sider says “Today, unfortunately, many people despise Christians, not for their unswerving obedience to Christ, but because of the hypocritical disconnect between Jesus’ teaching and our action.”  Now we all fall short of the glory of God, but are we being transformed by our relationship with Christ?

In Ephesians, in a passage Alan Bell used a few weeks ago, Paul says that we are “to lead a life worthy of the call to which you have been called.”  And what does that life like look, what are the fruits of that life, how do we know that we have been transformed and are living of life not conformed to this world, but conformed to the will of God?  Paul continues, “do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.” The gift we receive when we are born again and born from above.  “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.  Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

Jesus says that to see the kingdom of God, that to help bring about the kingdom of God, that we must be born again and be born from above, that is the time and also the place from which God’s grace is given to us, and when that happens that we die to our old selves, we have to die to our old selves, that if we are not fundamentally different people than we were before, if we are not fundamentally different people from who society says that we are to be, then we have not been transformed in Christ.  We know that we are born again, that we have been born from above, that we have died with Christ on the cross and been risen with him in the newness of life when the fruits of our lives match those of Jesus himself because this new life comes with a cost, and that cost is to pick up our cross and to follow Jesus, and that means that we need to be leading cross centered lives.  We lead cross centered lives by living lives of righteousness, by living in right relationship with God, our vertical, and living in right relationship with each other, our horizontal.

God did not send his son in order to condemn the world, but to save the world, because God so loved the world that God gave us Jesus so that we might not perish but have eternal life.  Eternal life that starts not sometime in the future, but eternal life that begins right here and right now as we are enveloped in the eternal love of God. Jesus calls us to a life of differentness, to be known not because we mimic the world, but because we are different from the world, to be in the words of Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, resident aliens, to be known because we are seeking not only to see the kingdom of God but to bring about the kingdom of God here and now, a kingdom in which there is no longer slave or free, Greek of Jew, male or female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus, dying with him and being raised in glory with him so that we can be salt to the world and the light on the hill, that we can be, in the words of Ron Sider, a “new community of transformed sinners whose common life is so faithful to Jesus that it stands in stark contrast to the tragic brokenness of the surrounding society.” And that those who live in that brokenness see in us a different option, a different way of living, and want to be a part of it. May it be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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