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Born Again
A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Gale Davis on March 16, 2014

Lent 2A

Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17

“Born again.”

Have you been born again? This is a question that became popular in the last half of the last century. And still there are those who ask it expecting a particular answer -- ”yes” is not quite what they want to hear -- rather they seek a time stamp and dramatic telling of the exact moment when the rebirth took place.

Episcopalians for the most part eschew talk of “born again” not because we don't believe in it, we absolutely do, but because being born again is the work of the Spirit. And our faith would tell us that the Spirit works differently in each of us. For us there are no prescribed words to say, actions to be done -- not even baptism guarantees our “rebirth” though it does show God our intention and hope for an eternal relationship with the Trinity. Baptism is our part in a Holy Covenant, which is why Jesus told Nicodemus that one is born again by water and Spirit. The waters of baptism allow for a profound presence of God in the life of the one who is baptized. But by the same token, the Spirit blows where it will, and God’s grace is possible, indeed is enacted, no matter what we humans do to try to capture it.

Nicodemus came to Jesus in the dark of night, hidden from the world, compelled from deep inside of himself to talk with Jesus, compelled by Jesus’ charisma and truth telling, compelled to find the answers to his questions which seemed to him to be with Jesus. Nicodemus sought a way to insure his own righteousness. He was, after all, a man of authority, a Pharisee. He was establishment, he played by the rules. He was also a pious man whose authority was recognized by the Jews so he could not appear to be breaking any rules... 

The talk of “being born again” seemed a bit silly to his well-informed mind on the one hand. I think he knew that Jesus was not being literal, and what he sought was a way to make sure that he knew what needed to be done to insure that his authority and leadership position within his people continued. He did want to please God. He was in some ways trying to quantify and calculate and describe the process of pleasing God and still keep his authority -- or have Jesus do it, whatever “it” was -- so that he could then have control of it all.

And aren’t we all a bit like Nicodemus in that? Wouldn't we rather know what we need to do and the outcome of doing it and the consequences of not doing it? No matter where in our lives we find ourselves in such a pickle? Better to know what we are dealing with and the steps necessary to remedy any miscalculation. Nicodemus knew as we all do the physical reality of being born. It hasn't changed -- one enters the world by way of the womb, in a rush of water and sudden intake of air, the jolt of which causes the newborn to cry out, to make themselves known.

The rebirth of faith is, of course, metaphorical -- Nicodemus knew that despite his questions. We know that. When reborn by water (of baptism!) and the Spirit -- who blows where she will -- we are as changed in our souls, in our hearts, in our world view, in our very being, we are changed as radically as we are when we were born from the womb. It is as if we take in air for the first time and are stunned to discover that the air we breathe is as essential to our being as being itself. The shock of that air, or the shock of suddenly knowing -- of seeing -- of recognizing the power of God within us truly is akin to taking that first breath.

Or at least that sudden rebirth can be that, for some, but not for everyone. For others that rebirth is like a 25-hour labor that never seems to end, and one is left wondering if it will. For others that rebirth is like a whole series of births, one glimpse at a time. ”Ah ha” moments that string together over days or weeks or years until finally one says, in quiet contemplation, ”I see, I believe. I am breathing the breath of God.”

No, Episcopalians do not talk about there being one way to be born again. We simply trust that the Spirit does blow as she will and that we will be born again -- and likely again and again.  Each time the Spirit entering into our being more and more deeply, boring into our souls to be the very life and essence of who we are. The Spirit taking hold of us -- sometimes as gently as a mother's arms around us when she first holds us and sometimes as powerfully as a hurricane rushing around us and trying to shake us from the place we are too deeply rooted so that we may be displaced into our true home.

We need to be self reflective enough that we do not become like Nicodemus, one who focuses on the mechanics of it all. We cannot delude ourselves that what we do, or that our faithfulness is what establishes our relationship with God. We cannot establish that relationship by amassing a record number of good works and charitable actions. NO! Christian faith is not about ticking off our of obligations from God, like a grocery list.

We cannot earn faith or rebirth or even a relationship with God by doing anything at all. It is not about US, it is about God. All we can do, MUST do, is BE ourselves. Then God’s Spirit will touch us, maybe when we don’t expect it, maybe when we are doing one of those good works, not because the work earned that touch for us but because being touched by the Spirit encourages us to get outside ourselves and serve others. And in those serving others moments, we often meet Jesus. We often get uprooted by the Spirit. We often let go of our need to control the outcome and instead trust the journey toward the One who created us.

And maybe it will be that one of the disciplines we take on for Lent will slam us face to face with the Spirit who will push us into a birth place of seeing what we never imagined, and we will gasp the Breath of God into our souls -- or not. Maybe it will only be for us a passing moment when we slowed down to do something we do not usually do. Or maybe 3 years or 5 years or 10 months from now something we encounter this Lent will have been moving around in our subconscious and will rise to our consciousness and we will know God anew and our faith will be on fire as it never has before.

I wonder if that happened with Nicodemus? He leaves the encounter we read of in today’s gospel without us knowing how he responded to Jesus telling him he must be born again. But at the end of the gospel we learn that it is Nicodemus who brings the spices to the tomb to honor Jesus when he is to be buried. This time Nicodemus came in the daylight. He was willing to be seen with the dead, a real “contamination” for faithful Jews, and a far cry from meeting Jesus in the dark, hiding his questions and his association. 

We can perhaps assume by that, that Nicodemus was indeed touched by the Spirit and moved to a new place, a new understanding of his faith, uprooted from what had been a major understanding and practice of his life. Somehow the Spirit blew on him, interacted, and he was born again -- in God’s time.

My hope for all of us this Lent is that we will not get hung up on the mechanics of faith or actions of faith that we think are required of us, but rather that we will practice our faith in ways new to us, not for the sake of getting God to recognize our merits and goodness but for getting out of the way so God can reach us. That what we do comes out of joy and gratitude for all that God already has done in our lives and not because we want to be recognized and rewarded with a extra dose of Spirit breathing on us.

I pray that each of you is touched again and again by the Spirit, in ways you do not plan or ask for but are able to recognize, because what you do as your Lenten discipline or piety practices, prayer and worship and community together, that all this has prepared you to be able to see God, to recognize the wind of the Spirit and to know that you are indeed born again and again and again from above because each of you is so loved by God. May it be so! Amen. 
Last Published: March 19, 2014 4:24 PM