Message given at Christ Church Toxteth Park & St Michael-in-the-Hamlet Church, 8 March 2020
“Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above’.”Jesus
Strangely enough I don’t think I have ever preached on this passage. Strange perhaps because in recent years at least it has become one of the most discussed and quoted passages in Holy Scripture. Also because on a cold November’s night in 1986 I had it read to me and a light went on in my head.
In those days I found it almost impossible to follow rules, especially moral codes. That’s what ‘Christianity’ was all about – slavishly adhering to moral codes – or so I thought. My experience of very religious people was that quite often they were unimpressively unspiritual. As Jesus said to the religious expert Nicodemus, “Are you a teacher of Israel [religious professional], and yet you do not understand these things?”
Yet, I knew I had to change. Somehow. But I didn’t know exactly how. Despite my objections to organised religion I had a hunch that the Jesus of the Gospels might have the answers. Mainly because, as in the case of Nicodemus, signs of His presence kept on appearing in my life. Disconcertingly so.
I love feasting. A table laid out with culinary goodies. Sometimes I get so into a feast that I miss the simple joy of eating. My experience of theology has been a bit like that. So many fine ideas, lofty thoughts and grand concepts that we can miss the the pure and simple truth.
Here in John 3 we see Jesus talking to ‘a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews’. A theologian, who was in time to become His dedicated follower. What Jesus imparts to Nicodemus is the simple truth of His Being and Nicodemus’s becoming.
“….no one can see [perceive] the kingdom of God without being born from above.”Jesus
According to Jesus the human person is designed for two births. One physical (of water) and one spiritual (of the spirit). One earthly and one heavenly (ἄνωθεν, gk. ‘from above’). Not a rebirthing, but a new birth. A birthing process that has something – maybe everything – to do with believing in Jesus (John 3: 15 & 16). Believing and receiving. Perceiving and entering.
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”Jesus
Some physical birthing facts (checked with my friend Katie – a midwife!):
- No one birth is the same. Each is unique, as each of us are unique.
- Some births are quick (precipitate)
- Some births are long and drawn out
- Birth is always painful…and full of joy
Its much the same with the spiritual birthing process. There is no formula (apart from baby formula!). The wind of the Spirit blows where (and how) it chooses. The things of the Kingdom of God cannot, and must never be reduced to a formula – do this, say this, pray this. God saves us. We cannot save ourselves. What baby ever gives birth to itself?
Some spiritual births are quick. Precipitous. Literally ‘sudden and dramatic’. ‘Born again’ events, the precise time of which we can name. Others are long and drawn out, like C.S Lewis tells of his spiritual birth:
“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” ― C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life
Each and every spiritual birth is a process. And every spiritual birth involves some kind of pain, over time or in the moment, as like Lewis we confront ourselves and the God who draws us in. The joy which follows can take us by surprise. Such joy!
Back in the day when this happened to me I developed a very formulaic – and condemning – attitude regarding my ‘Born Again’ experience. Us and them. I was a ‘Born Again Christian’, and all the others were…well…not. They were the ‘unsaved’. Especially the Anglicans. They were the worst!
The thing about being born is that you have to grow up (although some people resist it). I like to think that I’ve grown up a bit spiritually. For me Jesus is the life-giver. He is also the Judge (another talk/reflection). Its not my place to determine who is ‘in’ or who is ‘out’. Jesus has very stern words for those who seek to usurp His throne. However my conviction remains about that which is as clear to me as it ever was – the simple truths of Jesus’s words as retold in this passage. As humans we are designed for a spiritual as well as a physical birth. To perceive and to enter another realm. The God Zone or Kingdom of God. So be it.