First Reading: Genesis 12:1-4a; Gospel: John 3:1-21
Have you been born again? Our reading had “born from above”, but some translate this as “born again,” and another alternate from the translation is “born anew.” What does that even mean? Within Christianity, we might say being born again means something about giving your life to Jesus, taking Jesus as your savior…I’m sure you’ve heard the verbage before. I am uncomfortable with that language, as I imagine some of you are. And yes, I know there are some of you that like that language – it’s what you grew up with or what you are comfortable with.
“Being born again” – that phrase, isn’t common to our Lutheran articulation of faith. I know lots of Lutherans who struggle with how to answer that question (Are you born again?) because we don’t use that language. We tend to use language that might include being baptized, being claimed as children of God, living as disciples of Jesus, living out our faith… This is one area that we as Lutherans could work on a bit, work at developing the tools to talk about our faith. That is one place that we struggle – articulating what it means to be a believer.
The risk with the language of being “born again” is that it is often used to mean that if you just say the little prayer to bring Jesus into your heart, that’s all there is. There are two assumptions from this approach. One assumption is that it’s our work to bring God into our lives. I would argue God is there already and we would just be claiming something that already exists. Another assumption is that doing that, whatever “that” is, is all there is and then you’re safe. But safe from what? Hell? Or an afterlife spent away from God? Is that all that faith is for? Preparing for what comes after death? I don’t think so. Or I hope not. And I have experienced not. If faith is only for preparing for death, that does not inspire me to want to live out my faith in the here and now. It doesn’t inspire me to pray or worship or serve.
John’s Gospel approaches this idea of being born again, or born from above, differently. John approaches lots of things differently. Since we’re going to spend the next 4 weeks in John’s Gospel, it will be good for us to learn some key themes in his gospel now. We need it to help set us up for these coming weeks. So bear with me as I introduce 4-5 themes in the Gospel of John.
- One theme that fits our reading today is that belief in the Gospel of John is about action. Belief is not just saying a little prayer and calling it good. Belief is not just saying “yes I believe” with your lips and not showing that in your life. To believe in Jesus in the Gospel of John is to enter into relationship with God, a relationship that is revealed by your actions. If you are in relationship with God, then you should be acting like it. Your life should reflect that relationship. The word “belief” in John is always a verb.
- And the opposite of belief in John’s Gospel is sin. There are different definitions for sin in the Bible, and this is a good example. Sin is not a moral category in John, it’s not what you do wrong. Sin is being separate from God. So when Jesus is called the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (which is a line that comes from John’s Gospel), it means Jesus comes to reconcile the relationship of humanity with God, to remove the barriers that keep us from God.
- Through Jesus, God gives us life. Eternal life. John is a promoter of eternal life, but it’s not the kind that only exists after death, which actually isn’t eternal if it doesn’t start until we die…eternal means past, present, and future. This is the sense of it in John’s gospel – that this life is for you now. You can live into God’s promises now! You don’t have to wait.
- The last theme that will help us is John’s use of light and darkness. In our Gospel reading today, it says that Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. Yes that could mean that Nicodemus was going to Jesus under the cover of darkness for his own safety. But in John, being in the dark or light also says something about that person’s relationship to Jesus – whether or not they recognize him for who he is. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. And the encounter reveals to us that he doesn’t get it, he doesn’t understand – that is why Jesus is challenging him. Nicodemus might understand part of it, but not all of it. He sees Jesus as connected to God because of what he does, but he doesn’t quite yet know what that means, or what that means for himself and for the world. John uses darkness to give us a clue that in this story, Nicodemus is in the dark – physically and spiritually. We will contrast this next week with the woman at the well who comes to Jesus at high noon.
- I need to mention briefly that there is a risk here, and throughout the Gospel of John, of anti-Semitism, and we need to be aware of that. To know that just because Nicodemus was a leader in the Jewish community doesn’t mean that Jews live in the dark. Just because we talk about Christians as children of God doesn’t mean our Jewish brothers and sisters can’t be. What would that say about God? That God breaks promises? Steadfast love really isn’t true? That is not the God that I know and proclaim.
- There is another aspect to the use of light and darkness in John – judgement. Judgement in this gospel happens based on your response to Jesus. You judge yourself – God does not judge you. God does not condemn you. It’s based on your response – whether or not you believe (living out your faith). Remember sin is being separate from God in this gospel, the opposite of belief.
- Vs. 17-21 – Judgement and condemn are the same word in the Greek. And the root is krineo – “crisis.” An encounter with Jesus is a crisis moment, a moment that asks whether you will recognize Jesus or not. Jesus doesn’t judge you about it – remember, God did not send the Son to condemn the world – not for judgement – but in order that the world might be saved through him.
- The gospel reading we hear today is Nicodemus’ crisis moment. Will he recognize Jesus or not? Will he enter into relationship with Jesus or not? Those questions about Nicodemus do not get answered here, and some would say they don’t get answered throughout the Gospel story, even though Nicodemus shows up two more times.
This is the question for us today in John 3. Will you enter into relationship with Jesus? Will you believe? Remember that believing is about living out your relationship with God. Will you choose life? It turns out that the “born again” question we entertained at the beginning doesn’t really matter – how it gets translated. What Jesus is asking from you, and from Nicodemus is more than just words, more than a prayer, more than being able to say “Yes, I believe.”
I’ll end by connecting to Genesis. God asked Abram to leave everything he knew – his extended family, his inheritance, the power that could be his – all on the basis of some voice he heard in his head. God asked him to leave on the premise of a promise, a covenant, that Abram must have thought might be too good to be true – that through Abram God would bless all the families of the earth. The fact that he and Sarai couldn’t have children must have made him wonder how this would happen. And God doesn’t exactly spell out where Abram will go. It will be into the unknown (thank you, Elsa). But Abram says yes. He chooses to believe. He chooses a relationship with God. He chooses life.
Today with these scripture texts, you are invited to choose the life Jesus offers you, not just with your head and your “yes” but with your very life, with your actions. Choose to be a blessing, like Abram. Choose life despite your questions, despite your doubts. Choose to enter into the unknown, and trust that God who has birthed you will continue to lead you, guide you, and be with you all along the way – in the darkness and in the light.