Rebirth of Understanding

March 16, 2014

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA

The Second Sunday in Lent – Year A RCL

Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17

Nicodemus at NightIn today’s gospel we hear the familiar story of Nicodemus, a leader in the Jewish tradition; a Pharisee. During the night, under the cover of darkness, Nicodemus comes to Jesus. Having seen the signs that Jesus has done, he affirms that Jesus must be a teacher who comes from God, because surely these signs wouldn’t be possible without God’s presence.

And instead of accepting this affirmation from Nicodemus, it says, “Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’”

Nicodemus is confused by this. He likes things to be straight-forward. He’s used to abiding by the letter of the law, carrying out the commandments that God has set forth. So now, he hears Jesus saying that one has to be “born from above” and Nicodemus’ literal nature responds in a literal way: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

But Jesus isn’t talking about an earthly birth, one based in flesh, but instead, he talks of being born of the Spirit. Being born into the person God calls us to be; not the image that the world has for us.

So what is this rebirth? What does it look like?

We hear people use the phrase “Born Again” when they talk about having a conversion experience, and certainly, when one comes to know God in a new way, it can be life-changing and transforming. But that isn’t the only kind of rebirth.

This past week I was at the Norcross Cooperative Ministry for a breakfast they hosted for priests and pastors in the area. After hearing the business update, a young couple came to the front of the room and shared what I characterize as their story of rebirth.

You see, although they grew up in the Atlanta area, amid family and friends, they realized that these influences in their life were not positive ones. They reached a point where they understood that living a life of addiction was not healthy for them and not the best environment for raising their three young children. So, without knowing what the outcome might be, they left their familiar community and moved to Norcross.

Since being here they’ve received help from the Norcross Coop, and this has helped them to transform their way of being in the world. They admitted that it still isn’t a cake-walk… there are still struggles and temptations, but they’re now in a community that builds them up, not one that tears them down. I don’t know what happened specifically to prompt them to make this kind of move, but something inside them provided a willingness to take the risk of being reborn.

We see a similar story in today’s reading from Genesis. In this brief passage it says that “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” And, in response, Abram went. And there’s a short phrase, just after today’s passage that says “Abram was seventy five years old when he departed Haran.”

[As if to answer Nicodemus’ question about the possibility of being reborn after having grown old.]

But, does rebirth have to be this dramatic? For some, perhaps, but what other forms might rebirth take in our daily lives?

What might rebirth look like for the couple that has spent the last 20 years raising their children – helping them with school-work, carpooling, teaching them to drive, helping them understand right from wrong. And then, when that last child heads out on their own the rhythm of the household changes. Now these two people face a new stage of life together. What does rebirth look like for them? How do they embrace a new stage in their married life together?

Or for the person who has a successful career, but is no longer satisfied, or feels a yearning for something more, something else, yet is afraid to leave the comfort of the solid, stable job. What does rebirth look like for her?

Or for the church with a vibrant community, good programs, and engaging liturgy, yet it feels that God is calling them to the work of evangelism, opening themselves to encounter people and share the message of Jesus in new and unfamiliar ways. What does rebirth look like for them?

And where is God in these moments of rebirth?

Well, I’d suggest that if God isn’t there, it isn’t a rebirth through the Spirit. Yet in order for God to be part of the rebirth, we must take time to listen and discern what God is calling us to. Sometimes it presents itself clearly, but all too often, it is revealed over time, through the work of the Holy Spirit.

John’s gospel makes explicit the role of the Holy Spirit as the means of sharing God’s revelation. In Chapter 16, as Jesus is preparing for his death, he tells his disciples that there is still much for him to say to them, but they can’t bear it. So, the Holy Spirit is the Advocate provided as our guide. It continues to reveal the new things God has for us to understand.

To be born of water and Spirit is to continue to grow and learn what God is doing in the world and in our lives. We know that all knowledge and understanding didn’t stop with what was known at the time Jesus lived. Humankind has continued to develop and so has our understanding of the world. With this, we have to expand our understanding of God and our understanding of what it means to be people of God.

In Jesus time, the neighbor or enemy whom we were to love was within walking distance. For us, the reach far exceeds this limited geography. Therefore, every encounter we have, whether in person or virtually, is an opportunity to be a light of life to others. To show what God has done in our lives. And for upholding our baptismal vow to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves.

Yet, even at the time of Jesus, there was an expectation of rebirth. Jesus imposed a new understanding of what it is to be a follower of God.

Although the Hebrew law said to keep the Sabbath Holy, Jesus pushed the boundaries of what that meant. When he healed the blind man on the Sabbath, those with a narrow faith pushed back and accused him of breaking God’s law. But Jesus was challenging people to a more mature understanding of what “keeping the Sabbath Holy” is about.

It wasn’t about following a bunch of rules and prohibitions, but about devoting this day to giving our full attention to God, not our worldly obligations. So healing in God’s name is not a departure from the intention of God’s law.

Deposition from the Cross from Vienna church – Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimatea. Photo courtesy Shutterstock (http://shutr.bz/15W6boY)

Deposition from the Cross from Vienna church – Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimatea. Photo courtesy Shutterstock (http://shutr.bz/15W6boY)

And in the same way, by pushing back on Nicodemus, Jesus invites him to a more mature understanding of God. And we see signs of rebirth, the maturing, of Nicodemus’ faith, later in John’s gospel.

After Jesus has been crucified, Joseph of Arimathea requests Jesus’ body so it can be laid to rest before sunset. We are told that Nicodemus comes to help anoint Jesus’ body; no longer in the shadow of darkness, but in the bright light of day.

And while the act of anointing the dead is a Jewish custom, the issue is more complex than that. You see, the law also says that it is an abomination to die by hanging on the tree, that is, by crucifixion. So, here we see Nicodemus’ rebirth of understanding – that God calls us to compassion above all else. So Nicodemus set aside the law of condemnation in order to uphold God’s desire for us to show compassion.

And, in that same spirit of maturity, as Christians, we are to do likewise.

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Today’s gospel ends with a familiar verse, John 3:16. We see its reference on poster-board signs held up at sporting events or in the eye-black of football players.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Many Christians use this as a text for exclusive rights to God through Jesus. They seem to understand it to be written another way, something like: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that ONLY THOSE who believe in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” But that isn’t what it says. It just says that everyone that does believe in him will have eternal life. It doesn’t talk about anyone else.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I believe in Jesus, and I believe that he is the best path to God for me. I tell others why Jesus is important to me and believe he is the way to God for many people and I welcome all into this Christian circle. But, I also don’t want to limit God’s ability to be in relationship with ALL people.

In fact, later in John’s gospel, when talking about the Good Shepherd, verse 10:16, says: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

grace_wins2Bishop Wright’s reflection this week reminds us that Abraham was not a Jew when God called him, and likewise, Jesus was not a Christian. But by faith, each came to know the gift of God’s grace, and through it, they shared in the experience. He concludes by asking “have you been delivered through faith by the Spirit to the understanding that faith alone is what God desires from us: our faith, tattered, stumbling and small as it may be some days. God desires our faith so we might finally be open to see the unseen world of God’s riches.”

As mature Christians, I believe we are called to this rebirth of understanding, so we might more fully grasp the expansive nature of God, where the same gift of grace that God bestows upon us is something we can also bestow upon others. Through this rebirth, we can begin to see the Kingdom of God, that place where all live together in harmony, and where compassion continually triumphs over condemnation.

I invite your thoughts and insights.

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