I am sure that many of you will have heard the phrase ‘born again Christian’. I can remember sermons asking the question, ‘Are you born again?’ Many of these sermons were addressed to people who regularly attended Church and who certainly considered themselves Christian.
The phrase itself came to represent a certain type of Christianity - a Christianity that saw itself opposed to what it believed was the formality and emptiness of established religion.
I can only speak of the UK where I grew up, but I imagine it was true in other countries and places where the Church had been around for a period of time as well. People went to Church for a variety of reasons not all of them, should we say, to do with God. Often going to Church was little more than a middle class habit – something you did on a Sunday without necessarily having much clue about what went on. Amongst many churchgoers – hard though it maybe to believe – talking about God outside of church was considered embarrassing and vulgar. In the UK, the Anglican Church was often described as the Tory party at prayer – a description that certainly does not fit today in the UK at least.
In the same way that there was a challenge to traditional beliefs and values in society in the 1960s and the years following, so too within the Church there was a questioning of the status quo. This came from 2 directions: firstly, from those who questioned the truth of traditional beliefs. (Bishop Robinson and his book ‘Honest to God’ are associated with those who took this position.)
Secondly, from the opposite direction, came those who held to and asserted the truth of traditional beliefs and values, but made the claim, startling to many Christians, Anglicans especially, that we should actually believe them and, what is more, experience them. Christianity they argued wasn’t just for Sunday.
Billy Graham was particularly associated with those who took this approach and he held mass rallies at which many came forward to accept Christ. Many of those coming forward weren’t people who had never heard of Christ, but regular church-goers who were hearing of him in a new way. Billy Graham wrote a book, ‘How to be Born Again’ which is still in print.
The phrase itself came from this morning’s reading and at long last it is to it that we now turn. In John 3:3 Jesus says, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.’ Then in John 3:7: ‘Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born again.”’
Let’s turn to the passage: Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Passover. In John’s Gospel it is his first visit since his baptism by John the Baptist and just after his first miracle in Cana of Galilee. He has already made quite an impression not least because he has engaged in an act of violence in the Temple: driving the merchants and money-changers from the Temple and pouring out their coins and over-turning their tables.
People don’t quite know at this stage what to make of him. And so a Pharisee named Nicodemus decides to find out for himself. The Pharisees, we know: they were people dedicated to God’s Law. This Pharisee, however, is also ‘a leader of the Jews’. We know that he was also very rich!
Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. Some think that this means that he comes secretly, however that is unlikely. In the first place opposition to Jesus hasn’t hardened at this stage and there is no reason why Nicodemus shouldn’t come. And night time was a perfectly normal time to meet people after the day’s work.
But it is significant that he comes ‘by night’ in the context of St John’s Gospel. In St John’s Gospel night is symbolic of unbelief and darkness. Nicodemus not only comes at night. He himself is in the darkness.
This is illustrated by his response to what Jesus tells him, ‘How can these things be?’ he asks. Jesus answers him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”
What is it that he does not understand? His conversation with Jesus began well enough. He is an important man, but approaches Jesus respectfully: ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.’ Jesus, however, dispenses with the niceties and says simply the words I have already quoted: ‘Very truly, I tell you, no-one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.’
Or does he? The Greek word can mean either ‘anew’ hence again, or ‘from above’. Now Nicodemus responds, ‘Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ This suggests ‘again’ is the right understanding.
But what Jesus goes on to say suggests that what he has in mind is not so much how many times you are born, but how you are born. Now if you are born from above, you will be born anew or again, but the emphasis is on where the birth comes from. And the birth Jesus has in mind is the birth of the Spirit:
‘The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ (John 3:8)
When Jesus says we must be born ‘from above’ or born anew or again. What he is saying is that we must be born of the Spirit. As far as Jesus is concerned this is fundamental: you cannot be a Christian without being born ‘from above’. When we are born as babies, we are born into the world as physical beings. We now need to be born spiritually, not in some vague new age sense of the word, but born of God’s Spirit. This is not an optional extra.
The truth is that we all do come to Church for a variety of reasons, and let me say at once, that there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I do believe that the Church is a place where people should be welcomed and feel at home. But there has to be more to it than that.
It should, of course, be a place where having come to it, we join together to worship God. We should have fellowship with one another. Study the Bible and the Christian faith together and together seek to serve as we reach out to those in need.
But even this is not enough. The Church should be all these things, but as well as being a place where people worship God, it should be a place where they encounter God. Where we see God’s Spirit at work.
Frankly, we can have excellent worship and fellowship, be a church known for giving and supporting those in need, we can be open and welcoming, but if people don’t meet God personally for themselves when they come to Church, then we are failing.
The Church, if we take Jesus’ words seriously, is to be a ‘spiritual maternity hospital’, a place where people can come to be born from above, that is, to be born spiritually. The job of the clergy first and foremost is to act as a spiritual midwife to help people be ‘born from above.’ And then to help them to grow spiritually.
But I would just say this in closing: every birth is different. This is true in the physical world and it is true too in the spiritual world. Very often, those who use the language of ‘being born again’ tend to suggest that it must be immediate and dramatic. St Paul’s experience, for example, was like this. But for others, labour is a protracted experience! As it was for Nicodemus himself.
First, he came by night: he was questioning, but not understanding. He was, at least, open to hearing what Jesus had to say for himself.
Secondly, then later, when his fellow Pharisees wanted to have Jesus killed, he questioned their right to do so (John 7: 45-52). He was beginning openly to confront his doubt.
Thirdly, immediately after Jesus had been crucified, he went with Joseph of Arimithea, who is described as a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, to remove the body and bury it (John 19:38-39). Nicodemus himself is described as the one ‘who had first come to Jesus by night’. Now, however, he has stepped out of the darkness into the light of commitment. A ‘leader of the Jews’ and a ‘secret disciple’ are the two to make sure Jesus is buried with dignity.
Nicodemus gives us an example as we seek to be ‘born from above’:
You may be interested in Jesus: ask questions!
You may be unsure: confront your doubts!
You may be on brink of a decision: make it!
We are born in this world to physical life, which is mortal and will end, but the birth from above is to spiritual life, which is eternal and will never end.
‘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.’ (John 3:16)
‘What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’’ (John 3:6)