Sermon: You Must Be Born Again

John 3:1-17

“The pages around this passage are the ones where many Bibles show signs of most usage.” That’s how one Bible scholar referred to this passage we just heard from John 3, and I loved it for its understatement. For this passage contains the central sound bites of the Bible for many Christians. There is, of course, John 3:16, a verse forever linked to face-paint wearing people at sporting events waving a sign with this verse on it for the TV cameras. I’m wondering how many of you can say it by heart? For many Christians, it is the entire distillation of the Gospel message in a nutshell.  And then there is the central metaphor of the passage — that of being “born again.” Being born again is the central point of the Christian life for many Christians. In fact, a recent survey showed that almost 30% of Americans identify as “born again Christians” — more, actually, than identify as evangelicals.

What does being “born again” mean for these 30%?  Having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ — which usually means believing in Christ as your personal Lord and Savior. Which means believing a certain set of beliefs about Jesus — that he is God’s Son and his death on the cross has wiped out our sins, so we can now be right with God if we believe these things and have a personal and intimate experience of Jesus.

I’m here to say today that those Christians are right — being born again is the most important part of being a follower of Jesus. But (you knew there was going to be a but), let’s talk about how that metaphor could be meaningful and helpful for our journey.  I’m indebted to New Testament scholar Marcus Borg’s book The Heart of Christianity for these ideas.

Nicodemus, a wealthy, elite Jewish leader comes to Jesus at night, probably to avoid detection by his fellow elites. He wouldn’t want to be seen seeking the counsel of this radical Jesus fellow. He has seen the miracles Jesus has done — he refers to these miracles as “signs” in our passage — and he is intrigued. But Jesus immediately brushes aside these miracles as the most important thing about him and gets to the heart of the matter — “Very truly,” he says to Nicodemus, “I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 

As I’ve said roughly 1000 times, the “kingdom of God” is the central message of Jesus. He comes to announce and enact this vision of a world in which God and God’s way of justice, liberation and mercy “rules,” as opposed to a world in which the Roman Empire and its way rules. This kingdom metaphor is both personal and political. It speaks to a personal liberation from what holds us in bondage to a false identity, a false self-image; it’s about personal transformation. The kingdom of God metaphor is also political. It speaks to liberation from political, social and economic oppression. Jesus links the ability to see this kingdom of God with being born again or being born from above, as some translations say. 

Jesus is saying that to live in God’s kingdom, a reorientation is needed, one so radical it will be like a new birth. And he links this radical reorientation to the work of the Spirit, which he compares to wind. The word for wind in Greek is also the word for “Spirit” and “breath.” (I’ve probably said that about 500 times.) You may recall from last week that this is the wind that blows over the face of the waters at the beginning of the creation story in Genesis — it’s a wind, a Spirit, that creates new worlds. And it’s the same wind that blows into the room where the disciples had gathered for Pentecost, a Spirit that empowers them to boldly spread the message of this radical kingdom of God far and wide, to continue the work of Jesus.

This metaphor of rebirth that Jesus is using with Nicodemus is the same metaphor as that of dying and rising, which is utterly central to the New Testament. We could spend the next hour going over all the passages in the New Testament in which this metaphor is used. One example: As Paul says in Romans, “All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that , as Jesus Christ was raised from the dead… so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). As Borg says, “Dying and rising” and “being born again” are the same “root image” for the process of personal transformation at the center of the Christian life… It means dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being, dying to an old identity and being born into a new identity — (into) a way of being and an identity centered in Spirit, in Christ, in God.” 

But why do we need to be born again? Why do we need to die to an old way of being and an old identity and be born into a new way of being and a new identity? Borg tells a story in his book about a three-year-old – he knew her parents, he said – who was very excited when a baby brother was about to be born. Within a few hours of bringing the baby home, the girl made a request – she wanted to be alone with the brother in his room with the door shut. Understandably, the parents were uneasy, but they had a baby monitor in the room, and they knew they could keep track the situation. So they let the girl into the room, and they shut the door. They ran to the baby monitor — they heard their daughter’s footsteps moving across the floor — and then they heard her say to her three-day-old brother: “Tell me about God – I’ve almost forgotten.”

This is the thing: We all forget. We all come from God — from Spirit, from Oneness, from Unity — and we all forget that we do. It’s the price we pay for self-awareness, for self-consciousness, for having a sense of ourselves as separate from the world and others. Developmental psychologists don’t know exactly when this separate self starts to form, but they believe it’s somewhere in the preverbal stage. A good part of the journey of our earliest months is coming to understand that we are a separate self, and that others are also separate selves. When this happens, the natural and inevitable result is self-concern. The undifferentiated consciousness of the baby soon gives way to the willful cries of the 2-year-old: “No, you can’t have that. That’s mine. No, I don’t want carrots!” You can’t have self-consciousness without self-concern. 

Many believe this is one of the central meanings of the story of the Garden of Eden. (I was talking about this in my sermon from last week.) Adam and Eve are living in paradise, in what you might call an undifferentiated state. Not separate, or estranged, from God and the natural world. And then they eat of the tree of knowledge and become conscious of their separation. And with that, they are exiled from paradise, from that unitive state, and are now living “east of Eden.” But this “fall” had to happen. For us to be born into self-conscious humanity, we have to fall into this separation, this self-concern. 

This exile intensifies as we grow up. We call it socialization – that is, internalizing the messages of one’s society. Our identity and way of being become shaped by the world – by parents, yes, but increasingly as we age by our peer group, popular culture, by all those isms that afflict our society — racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, binaries about gender that pigeonhole everybody into compartments far too small for them, etc. We know all this. As Borg says, we feel okay or not okay about ourselves to the extent that we measure up to the messages that we have internalized. 

In our culture, from which none of us are immune, no  matter how counter-cultural we try to be, many of these messages center around the three As of appearance, achievement and affluence. Are we attractive enough? How closely do we conform to the ideal standard of what is deemed alluring, valuable? Have we achieved enough? Have we measured up to society’s standards of success? Are we smart enough? How do our grades stack up to those of our friends? Are we affluent enough? Do we make enough money, especially when we compare ourselves to others? We judge ourselves, finding some parts of ourselves worthy and others not. Thomas Merton calls this self created by our culture, “the false self.” And we each have one. We each are one. As a collective set of false selves, our fall into exile can be very deep. We become both victims of this system and also victimizers in it. We forget where we came from. We forget who we are.

And we need to be born again. We need to die to this false self and be born again into our true selves, into an identity centered in Spirit, in Christ, in God, in the Source from whom we come. Different religions will frame this “born againness” differently, but they all talk about this shift in consciousness in some way or another. Lao Tzu — in a foundational text for both Taoism and Zen Buddhism — sounds a lot like Jesus when he says, “If you want to become full, let yourself be empty; if you want to be reborn, let yourself die.” This process of being reborn can be sudden and dramatic – as it was with Paul on the road to Damascus – or, more likely, it can be a lifelong evolution. 

Being born again into a new identity and way of being takes intention and practice. Even if you have a dramatic experience, intention and practice is necessary to keep moving into this new identity, into this new way of being. I often say that beginning to meditate when I was in my early 30s rewired my brain. (In fact, science is showing that this is the case.) That, along with seeing a spiritual director, along with worshiping in this faith community, along with doing dreams work, changed my life. God was no longer an object I either did or did not believe in – God became a reality whom I could experience and thus, in some limited way, know. 

And I came to know myself as the beloved being. Not the person who hadn’t achieved enough by age 34, not the person who couldn’t figure out how to make it work as a writer, not the person who felt this sense of shame for seemingly no reason other than that I existed and took up space. That person died, and a new, truer, more authentic self arose. My mediation teacher used to tell us that we bowed to our cushion after each meditation , because we were honoring the sacredness of that space – the fact that it was our Golgatha, the place of death for us. This might sound harsh, but that was exactly how I was experiencing it. My false self was dying, and I had never felt such freedom, such release, such love. And though I experienced this conversion most dramatically in my 30s, I still, every day, need to die to that false self and rise into Divine freedom and love. I still need to be “born again” every day, to consciously turn toward gratitude and joy  and compassion. To turn toward mindfulness and presence. 

With all this in mind — and with a little help from Bible scholars who open up the translation of Greek words to us in new ways — I hear the infamous John 3:16 in a different way. For the Creator so loved humanity — a humanity so separated from each other and our true selves, so apt to forget who we really are — that the Creator gave the most precious thing in the world to us — Her child, a part of Herself, to take human form, so that She could experience this life with us. So that She could show us what the way of transformation looked like in human form. And all of us who believe in this way — who give our hearts to it — (for belief as used in this passage doesn’t mean intellectual belief but rather entrustment) — all of us who give our hearts to this way of transformation and trust in it will not be lost (another translation of the word perish) but we will have eternal life — which is not endless time but rather a quality of life in the present. A quality of life in which we life within this new identity, this new being grounded in Spirit. We just need to be born again. Every day. May it be so.