The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Second Sunday in Lent
March 12, 2017
Last Sunday was my birthday. Thank you all for the kind wishes, the hugs, the cards. The 7:45 service even sang me “Happy Birthday.” I’m not sure why you all were slacking off.
On Sunday evening I went through all of my birthday cards. They’re all so sweet. They said, “you deserve to celebrate on this special day.” Or, “enjoy your day and may it be filled with happiness.” Okay, so I appreciate the sentiment. But, these cards made it sound like I accomplished something. I mean, all I did was sit on the planet Earth as it made another lap around the sun.
And, it made me think about my actual birthday, the day I was born. I didn’t do anything on that day either. I just kind of showed up. And then, somebody else fed me, put clothes on me, held me. Sure, I was born that day, but I cannot claim any responsibility for my own birth. Nobody even asked me if I wanted to be born. It just happened to me. So, thank you for all the birthday wishes. They were all undeserved.
Jesus and Nicodemus, they’ve also been thinking about birthdays, about being born. Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, comes to Jesus by night. Nicodemus sneaks up to Jesus because Nicodemus doesn’t want everybody to know that he’s visiting with Jesus. Nicodemus is inspired, he’s awe-struck, he’s amazed by the signs that Jesus has been doing. Jesus says to Nicodemus, “very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Now, there’s a pun here. That word “above” in ancient Greek can also mean “again.” But Nicodemus is incredulous. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” The logical answer is, of course, “no. Duh.”
But Jesus, I think Jesus loves Nicodemus. Even though Nicodemus isn’t getting it, Jesus goes on. Jesus talks about being born of water and Spirit. Jesus talks about how the wind blows where it chooses, and that itself is a sign of how the Spirit blows through the world. Jesus talks about being born again, being born anew, being born by the Holy Spirit and the water of baptism.
Now, this passage has been used again and again to talk about “being born again.” Being a “born again Christian” is a thing, like a category. And this, this is where things can go off the rails.
Nicodemus thinks that Jesus is talking about entering our mother’s wombs again. We know the silliness of that assumption. But we have made an equally dangerous assumption, an assumption that we can choose to be born again by the Spirit. That being born again is our doing. It’s the old American way – we think that we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. If we want to be born again, then we can make it happen.
This is a major problem. It’s a problem because it reveals how distorted our relationship with God is. Like God is just some talisman up in the sky, waiting for us to say the rights words. That God is passive, sitting back and watching this whole thing play out from his heavenly vantage point. We think that we can cajole and convince God to give us new life. As if God aloof deity who needs to be swayed by our little efforts on earth.
Saying that we’re born again is also a grammatical problem. Think about it – “I’ve been born again.” The subject of that sentence is, “I.” That’s all backwards. Think about your own birth. It was much more about your mother, your father, the doctor, the nurses in the room. You didn’t do anything on your birthday. You were not the subject of that sentence.
So, think of it this way instead – “God gave me new birth.” Now we’re getting somewhere. Now that’s a theological sentence. God is the subject, we are the predicate. God gave me new birth. God is the one doing the work. It is Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit, doing a new thing in our lives. We are the passive ones; God always takes the initiative. God does not sit on his heavenly throne and wait for us. God reaches out to us day by day to move in our hearts.
In other words, the grace from God, it is all gift. All gift. God simply gives it. And there is nothing that you can do to earn it. There is no magic prayer to say that will make you born again. There is no checklist. You are not born again by your own will. God has given you new birth. You cannot do anything in your Christian life by yourself. Your very life, it must come from God.
The Church, actually, embodies this. No one in the Church can do anything by themselves. For instance, no one can make themselves a priest or a deacon. It takes a bishop to do that to us; to make us priests and deacons. Or think about baptism, you cannot baptize yourself. It takes someone else to do the baptizing. Even the Holy Eucharist, Communion, I, as a priest, cannot do Communion by myself. If no one showed up at 7:45/9:00/11:00, I would not have Communion. Because Communion is fellowship – it must be given as well as received. The church is a body, a group of people, with give and take. There is no such thing as a Lone Ranger Christian.
You cannot be born again by your own will. God gives you new birth. It takes two to tango.
This shift in our thinking about God is crucial. We have to make God the subject of the sentence. When we do that, that’s when things really get interesting. That’s what makes John 3:16 intelligible. “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.” Because God is the subject of that sentence. God is the one doing the loving. God is the active one in the sentence. God loves the world. All we do is believe, accept. Like being born, all we do is show up.
And if we know that God can give us that love, if God can give us new birth, if God, by Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit can bring us, even us to new life, that God can do that for the whole world. Notice it says, “God so loved the world.” The word there is “cosmos.” Everything. God loves everything. The universe. The rocks, the trees, the dogs, the cats, the mosquitoes, the scorpions. The terrorists, the criminals. The saints, the priests, the people. God so loved the world.
This is also what makes Christianity different from the other religions of the world. Christianity believes that God loves and will redeem the whole world. Not just me, not just you. Christianity is not a religion of individual salvation, it is a religion of cosmic salvation. “No object is sufficient for the love of God short of the world itself.”
This message of a cosmic God, a God who loves you, me, the whole world, this is a radical message. Indeed, for our day and age, the idea of a cosmos loving God is actually quite subversive. It seems that, more often than not, we hear a message that says you must be good enough for God to love you. All too often we hear leaders deciding who can be born again, and who cannot. We hear talking heads dictating who can receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, and who cannot. About who is loved by God, and who is not. Be wary of those who say that God will only love you if you fit their expectation. We cannot put human qualifications onto God’s gift of rebirth. God so loved the world.
So twist it on its head. Rather than following Jesus in order to get God to love us, we follow Jesus because God already loves us. Our Christian lives are the way we say thank you to the God who has given us new birth.
Kind of like a birthday present. I did not do anything to earn your sweet notes and gifts for my birthday. So all I will say is, “thank you.” And now, live your life as a thank you to God. Live your life so that everything you do and say is thanking God for this undeserved, unearned love. Rid yourselves of bitterness, of small-mindedness, of anger. Of pretending to put your qualifications onto God. God has given you new birth, and the only way we can possibly thank God for this infinite love, is to give this love in return.