Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
I’ll tell you something you already know. We are shaped by what we can perceive. Beyond what we can imagine is the great unknown unknown. Think how understanding about what is real and what’s not expanded with the invention of the telescope, or the microscope, or the transistor, or today, think of what cell phone videos have taught us about systemic racism. We could name a thousand more examples. In the 1980’s, at the birth of the internet, a new form of mathematics called network theory was born to describe the interaction of vast interconnected computer networks. Almost immediately, biologists, using network theory began to see a vast and ancient interconnection between plants and trees popularly described as the “Wood-wide web. They once were blind but now can see, literally, the forest for the trees. The closer scientists look at everything in the universe, the more complex, interconnected, co-evolved, intelligent, and alive everything appears.
Jesus said to Nicodemus, “…no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:3). How different might our perception of what is real expand when we are equipped with the ears, eyes, mind, and heart of Christ? One commentor helpfully suggests we substitute the word ‘culture’ everywhere in scripture we encounter the word ‘kingdom.’ What if Jesus had told Nicodemus, ‘No one can see the culture of God without being born from above.’ Culture is not a place. It’s a worldview. Cultures are not ruled by kings but by prophets, priests, poets, composers, philosophers, novelists, and artists. We can share the same zip codes and sidewalks with people inhabiting different cultures. Indeed, we can shift between cultures within our own body. Lutherans believe we are both saints and sinners. We cleave to Christ to be born again of water and spirit, to inhabit the culture of God, and turn away from the culture, economy, politics, the religion of the Devil.
I am convicted by Jesus’ question to Nicodemus. “Are you a teacher of the church, and yet you do not understand these things?” (v. 10). How hard it can be, and how difficult, to live and make choices drawn from the mind of Christ when it is clearly not always in my self-interest to do so, or sometimes disadvantageous to my bottom line, and even perhaps to my physical safety?
Bible scholar, Marcus Borg writes that being born from above, or sometimes, as it is translated, being ‘born again’ was utterly central in early Christianity and the New Testament as a whole. “’Dying and rising’ and ‘to be born again’ are the same ‘root image’ for the process of personal transformation at the center of Christian life: to be born again involves death and resurrection. It means death –our death—to the old way of being and being born into a new way of living…a way of being and an identity centered in the sacred, in Spirit, in Christ, in God.” (Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, p.107)
In this new birth by water and spirit you have become a vital part of the body of Christ. God has made the world and loves it so much that God has placed it, along with Gods own self, into your hands. ‘You are licensed by the incarnation to be the action, the activity of God in the world’ (Peter Gomes). You do God’s work with your hands.
Born again in water and spirit we begin to see life differently through the eyes of Christ. The line between my welfare and yours falls away. The division between us and them is replaced with a big ‘us.’ The dualism at the heart of all violence, “Us-vs-Them” is replaced with love for all. God called Abraham and Sarah to be born again. God turned their hearts away from the culture of “us” to wander as a perpetual “them.”
The call of Abraham and Sarah might be the oldest story in the bible. About 4,000 years ago a family of nomads left Ur of the Chaldeans, perhaps in southeastern Iraq near the modern city of Nasariyah, and settled in Haran, Turkey, near the Syrian border. “Leave your country,” God told Abraham. ‘Leave your people and your family. Leave all that you hold dear and familiar. Go to the land I will show you.” At the age of 75, Abraham and Sarah, dared to obey.
Abraham’s departure from Haran is a story about more than a change of geography –it is a story of what happens when we are born again in God. In leaving Haran for Canaan, Abraham and Sarah journeyed from what they had to what they did not have, from the known to the unknown, from everything that was familiar to all things strange.
Judged by worldly standards, what Abraham and Sarah gained, was next to nothing. The epitaph on Abraham’s tombstone could have read ‘here lies a great fool.’ Promised to be the Father of Nations the only land Abraham owned upon his death was the small plot of land in which he was buried (Genesis 23:16-20). But to those with eyes of faith, Abraham and Sarah are a blessing to all the families of the earth. They call us to join with them to become a family of the big “us” where there is no “them.” (Paul Nuechterlein)
Jesus is trying to teach Nicodemus this non-dual thinking born of water and spirit. When we are born from above, we are re-born to the perspective of the oneness of God and humanity. “Being born again,” suggests to us the image of the mother. Historically, the church as faith community, described itself as this mother and the font as the womb from which birth in God arises. What God is bringing to life in us is a new mind and new heart, new eyes, new ears, new hands, and voices. See all has become new. Anyone in Christ is born a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). But birth is not easy, and Lent allows us these forty days to re-envision that birth and the life to which we have been claimed and called through baptism.
We see but do not see. We hear but do not listen. The way to abundant life comes by way of a new way of seeing and living in the culture of God in Christ. The story of Nicodemus is the first of four intimate portraits of followers of Jesus that we will read from John’s Gospel in coming Sundays this Lent. They are the stories which the ancient church chose for those preparing for baptism at the Vigil of Easter. (With joy, we prepare with six of our siblings here at Immanuel who are On The Way and will affirm their baptism at the Easter Vigil—Saturday April 8th, at 7:30 PM.)
Like curious children, science of the past three hundred years, tried to take everything apart to see how things work. Today, thank God, science has begun trying to put the pieces back together and to see that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. They are starting to see the forest for the trees. Intelligence and wisdom are everywhere and in everything. We were blind but now we see.
Today, now, in Christ Jesus, we encounter the voice of the Ancient of Days, which called Abraham and Sarah, and which challenged Nicodemus to be born again in water and spirit. In baptism you were clothed in Christ and reborn as children of a new humanity. The born-again life in God is foolishness according to the ways of the world. Martin Luther once wrote, “faith is a free surrender and a joyous wager on the unseen, untried and unknown goodness of God.” We are that people who must daily crawl back to the font, to be renewed in the promises of this second birth. The Holy Spirit, through the light of Christ, calls us out from the shadows, exposes us to the brilliance of God’s love—and meets our questioning hearts with an amazing miraculous surprising invitation to nothing less than life eternal.