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Free Sample for March 16, 2014
By David Howell
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Preaching John 3:1-17
Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Born again. There may be no phrase so misused, so misunderstood, in Christian parlance.
Born again is what some churches demand of their members, in order to qualify as a true believer. They assume the phrase is self-explanatory, as if every Christian experienced it in the same rite-of-passage way.
Born again is what Jesus told Nicodemus he had to be, in order to see the coming realm of God. Nicodemus thought Jesus was ribbing him. Jesus wasn’t.
When faced with difficult or perhaps loaded metaphor, I always find it helpful to let go, take a step back, go deep into the words themselves. Without getting tangled up in the literal and biological, what does it look like, to be “born again?”
“Born” is the past tense of the verb “to bear.” And surely that is an apt description of childbirth. Someone bears us from that world before into this one. She bears the pain, the labor, the weight, the responsibility. She bears with us—alien creatures, growing within her very body—and she bears all that comes with us: blood, milk, mess. We are literally born into being, and it is hard work.
So what would it look like, to be born again?
Nicodemus presses Jesus on this, and even chides him, a little. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” he asks. “Can one enter a second time in the mother’s womb and be born?”
Do you hear a hint of longing in his words? I do. Who hasn’t wished, at some point, to go back, erase, rework some chapter in life? Who hasn’t yearned for a magical rewind button, so that the events of a particularly fateful day might have played out differently? Who hasn’t held a baby, and thought wistfully of one’s own youth, one’s own innocence, before age and years did their burdensome work?
Ah, Jesus. It sounds beautiful; almost too beautiful. Born again. Everything fresh and new. All our lives before us. But how can anyone be born after having grown old?
Maybe . . . it has to do with the One who bears us. Nicodemus is right: we cannot ever go back and enter our mother’s wombs a second time. Our mothers cannot be prevailed upon to bear us twice—although some have certainly tried. We know what those uncut cords between parents and children look like.
But Jesus says we must be born of the Spirit. It is the Spirit that will bear us, when we are born again. So I am wondering if it is the Spirit that bears us from this world into the realm of God?
If that is so, then perhaps we can assume some things. We can assume that there is pain involved; labor; weight; responsibility. The Spirit bears with us—alien creatures, growing to fullness in the body of Christ—and the Spirit bears all that comes with us. It is messy and complicated and embarrassingly embodied. There are repercussions. There are consequences. There are stitches and secretions, not all of which are fit for polite conversation.
Jesus says we must be born of the Spirit. To me, this says that we do not escort ourselves down the aisle on our own, in our journey from born to born again; no, there is another force at work, another force entirely. We cannot do it on our own. We cannot go back and erase or replay the years that have turned out as they have, much as we might wish to. You might say this: we cannot bear ourselves. We never could, and never will. Only the Spirit can do that. Only the Spirit can usher us from this world of fixed realities to God’s realm of new possibilities.
Some hear in Jesus’ words a dichotomy of flesh and spirit, as if the latter trumped the former. I am not so sure. What I hear is the redemption of our bodies, the incarnation of Spirit. Each form reaching for the other. Each giving and receiving. Each bearing the grace of the One whose power is at work in us, for the glory of God.
Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.
Isn’t it remarkable, that before we can enter it, we have to see it?
May God bear us and bear with us, on our way to that place.
Anna Carter Florence
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