“Born Anew” Colchester Federated Church, March 5, 2023, (John 3:1-17) Second Sunday in Lent

On this Second Sunday in Lent, we turn to the Gospel according to John.  We’ll be contemplating stories from John’s Gospel every Sunday in March (and some of them are long and complicated, so you are officially warned!)  Today we hear the story of Jesus and Nicodemus.  Now Nicodemus is a Pharisee and a Jewish leader.  Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, most likely to speak freely and ask the questions on his heart without fear of judgment from others.  Jesus and Nicodemus have this interesting dialogue about being “born anew,” and that it is in being born anew that one can see the Kingdom of God.

The CEB Study Bible helpfully shares that the phrase “born anew” is hard to translate into English.[1]  Though it can remind us of Jesus’ teaching when he called a little child to sit among the disciples to talk to them about God’s kingdom.  In the presence of the child, Jesus said to his disciples, “I assure you that if you don’t turn your lives around and become like this little child, you will definitely not enter the kingdom of heaven.”[2]  Jesus loved children and the way children saw the world.  Being “born anew” could get to this idea of child-like wonder. 

In all our infinite wisdom, adult can become overly worried or cynical.  Sometimes adults become pessimistic and act like the sky is always falling (in moments when we’re not facing an actual crisis if we’re honest about it).  However, spend some time with children and it can change one’s whole perspective.  That is a gift of intergenerational relationships because it’s not just about children learning from adults, but adults learning from children.  Jesus understood the gift of children when he brought that child to be front and center to teach the disciples a thing or two.  We will not enter the kingdom of heaven unless we (adults) become like little children, that’s what Jesus taught.

Now getting back to this “born anew” concept—some translations of John 3:3 will read that one must be “born from above” and other translations say “born again.”[3]  For those Christians who identify as “born again Christians” that phrase comes from the story of Jesus and Nicodemus.  It typically means that someone has had a distinct (sometimes dramatic) conversion to Christianity.  Though the truth is that people have different stories about how we come to identify as Christian.  For some of us, Christianity is an inherited faith (speaking of children and the invitation to learn from one another in community).  Learning, experiencing, and practicing the Christian faith could be how someone grows up.  Hopefully there comes a time when you make the faith your own—our Discipleship program comes to mind.  Though making the faith your own is sometimes a quiet internal experience.  When I was once challenged about “acceptable” Christian conversion (that is a whole ‘nother story) I quoted a helpful bumper sticker—that I was “born okay the first time, thank you very much!” 

Because why do we have to be judgmental about how someone comes to Christianity?  For some, it is a dramatic experience—an experience of conversion from another faith or no faith at all.  For others, it’s the quiet still small voice of God in their hearts all along.  Or it’s a moment when you look around a church you attend and move from “this is the church I go to” or “this is my family’s church” to “this is my church.” 

All these expressions of making the faith your own are good and holy.  Just like Nicodemus needed to come to Jesus at night with the questions on his heart in order to become a follower of Jesus in time.  Eventually John tells us in Chapter 19 that it was Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus who go to Pilate and ask permission to bury Jesus after his crucifixion, securing for Jesus a new tomb in which his body was laid.  We only hear mention of Nicodemus a few times, but he goes from visiting Jesus at night in secret to appearing before Pilate himself to ensure that Jesus received a proper burial.

Sometimes the story of Nicodemus and Jesus gets used to be exclusionary—you’re either in or you’re out.  You’re “born anew” or not.  The exclusionary usage of this text gets me all riled up.  Because notice how our story ends, “God didn’t send [God’s] Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”[4]  And what motivated God to send God’s Son into the world?  Love.  “For God so loved the world that [God] gave [God’s] only Son.”[5]

Love is the motivation here.  Not fear, and not judgment.  God did not send Jesus into the world to judge the world.  We can read that in John 3:17.  Funny how that verse never ends up painted on signs held up during football games.  Maybe because it’s not as catchy.  Though let’s not forget John 3:17 (which also deserves to be a Bible verse that Christians know by heart): “God didn’t send [God’s] Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”[6]  Love is God’s motivation.  Love is the point.  The love that God has for this good world, the love that God has for us.

William Sloane Coffin once preached at Riverside Church, “It is in being loved and in loving that we find life’s deepest meaning, a meaning we can affirm in the face of tragedies we cannot fathom and in the face of human stupidities we can understand all too well.  Love, and you are a success whether or not the world thinks so.  The highest purpose of Christianity—which is primarily a way of life, not a system of belief—is to help people love one another.”[7] 

Speaking of getting people all riled up, William Sloane Coffin excelled at that.  One of many reasons I admire him, and he’s spot on.  Christianity is not primarily a system of belief, it’s a way of life.  You can believe all the “right things” about Jesus, but if those beliefs don’t change how you live, if those beliefs don’t make you a more loving and compassionate person—what’s the point?  Remember the first words Jesus used to call his disciples were “follow me” not “believe all the right things about me.”  Follow me.

The highest purpose of Christianity—the reason we gather here and worship God is to help us love one another.  Again, with that idea of love being the motivation and the whole point of why we can claim “Christian” as part of our identities.  For God so loved the world that God sent us Jesus.  Jesus came not to judge the world, but to save it.  Let us learn and remember, and learn again and remember again that the highest purpose of our Christian faith is to help us love one another.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] John 3:3 Footnote, The CEB Study Bible, pg. 176 NT.
[2] Matthew 18:3, CEB.
[3] John 3:3, CEB, NRSV and NIV.
[4] John 3:17, CEB.
[5] John 3:16.
[6] John 3:17, CEB.
[7] William Sloane Coffin, The Collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin: The Riverside Years, Volume 2, pgs. 343-344.

Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash