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Born From Above

Born from Above: Finding the Right Conversation

Reading: John 3:1-10 (11-21)

Introduction: I’m honored to be with you this morning and participate in this series of lessons introduced by David last week that lead us into conversations that matter – those moments of critical dialogue in life when everything changes because of what is said and heard. We’re looking for models of such conversation in the life of Jesus and it’s no accident that David began last week in the Gospel of John, the account filled with familiar stories like the one between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. We back up one chapter this morning to John chapter 3 and the conversation between Jesus and the religious leader Nicodemus:

“Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, ‘Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him. In reply Jesus declared, I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born anothen.’ ‘How can a man be born when he is old?’ Nicodemus asked. ‘Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, “Ya’ll must be born anothen.” The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’ ‘How can this be?’ Nicodemus asked. ‘You are Israel's teacher,’ said Jesus, ‘and do you not understand these things?’” (John 3:1-10).

Conversations always have contexts, and that becomes difficult for us sometimes when we are reading what appear to be rather flat texts. The only emotions that we hear are the ones we read into these words. The setting may be described within the text, but our imaginations have to fill in the gaps. And in the case of stories like this one, we also must imagine conversation in language other than the one we are reading. And we must realize that in our efforts this morning to engage this story, we’re actually attempting to overhear 3 or 4 different conversations! There is the most obvious – a first century world encounter between Jesus and the Pharisee named Nicodemus. There is also the conversation going on between the writer and his original audience. This second conversation is critical to our understanding of the imbedded context for this night-time visit. John’s conversation with his audience includes words from chapter one about the images of darkness and light – truth and deception. It includes words from the previous narrative in the story about people believing in Jesus because of the signs that he perform, but Jesus not entrusting himself to anyone who believes only because of signs.

In John’s presentation of Jesus, there is a mysterious blending of the voice of John speaking to his audience and Jesus speaking inside the gospel account so that the Johannine Jesus is presented afresh to John’s audience. John writes in Greek – we usually assume that Jesus spoke throughout his ministry in Aramaic. But this story uses word plays that depend on a Greek word that has no equivalent in Aramaic. Some of you fixed the reading in your heads a few moments ago when we encountered the word anothen. It’s a Greek adverb that can mean more than one thing, depending on context. In fact in our English translation, we have to add another layer of dialogue among the translators. Did Jesus say to Nicodemus, “Unless one is born again, he cannot enter the Kingdom” or did he say, “Unless one is born from above, he cannot enter the Kingdom”? The translators make a decision, put the alternative in the footnote, and move on. The problem is that Jesus seems to intentionally use the ambiguity of double entendre to respond to Nicodemus. Apparently, Nicodemus hears Jesus suggest that one must be born “again.” In the larger context, Jesus seems to mean born “from above.”

That’s just the beginning of the multiple conversations we’re trying to overhear this morning that are difficult for us to follow. Nicodemus starts out saying “WE know.” It sounds like nothing more than an editorial self reference until you get to verse 7 when Jesus says, “You (singular) should not be surprised when I say, “Ya’ll must be born anothen!” So how many people are in the room? Or is ‘we’ and ya’ll more about John and his audience? And we’re stuck dealing with the translator who forgot to tell us that “you” was plural in verse 7. Or that the word translated “wind” is verse 8 is the same word translated spirit in verses 5 and 6 and the end of verse 8.

Then there is the conversation from our own time and context – all the language about “born again Christians.” Who is one and who isn’t one. Does this passage talk about water baptism or not? I can’t read this passage anymore without remembering being present at the Billy Graham Crusade here in Nashville a few years ago when the sermon that evening was on this text. There is all of the polemic I’ve heard over the years about who is born again and who isn’t, really. Being right about baptism, after all, is what makes this particular story in John’s Gospel so important. Or at least that’s the conversation that used to go on inside my head. Born again means baptism by immersion for the forgiveness of sins – end of discussion.

But then I awakened one day to the possibility that I might be listening to the wrong conversation. “Born again” might be one of the meanings of this word anothen that John intended his audience to overhear as a reference to baptism – born of water and Spirit would make sense to a Christian audience. But in the particular dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus, Nicodemus chose the wrong meaning. All of the explanation Jesus gives points to his being born from above. There is water birth from mother’s womb and then there is Spirit birth from above. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but Spirit gives birth to Spirit. As mysterious as being born in human flesh is, how much more mysterious is birth from above in the Spirit. It’s like the wind (remember, wind and spirit are the same word in Greek). You can’t control the wind, you can only experience it. Here is the power of the proclamation: A religious leader has come to Jesus trying to control all the circumstances of the moment. He initiated the visit at a time when he could remain anonymous from his peers. He initiated the conversation, but Jesus took it a direction he never anticipated. He tried to keep the conversation inside his own experiences of physical birth and life as a religious leader. Again and again, Jesus redirects the conversation and announces life outside the human control and understanding of earthly things and earthly ways.

The misunderstanding only grows, by the way, as you read through the rest of the story in verses 11-21. The layers of conversation continue to expand beyond Jesus and Nicodemus. There are more plural pronouns. Translators don’t know where to put quotation marks around the words of Jesus. Does Jesus make these self-references about the son of man being lifted up, “that whoever believe in him may have eternal life.” Is it Jesus speaking or John writing, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Seems early in the ministry of Jesus for Jesus to offer this cosmic reference to the meaning of his life, death, and resurrection. What about the words in verse 19 – “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness more than the light.” Is that Jesus talking to Nicodemus, or John talking to his audience? Both?
Who would you like to be in this story this morning? Which character, in which conversation? I have to confess I’ve spent the better part of my life unable to escape being Nicodemus – always hearing Jesus say, “born again,” always trying to maintain control of the meaning of the words and the meaning of encounter. Always believing I could harness the wind if I got all of the right answers!

Author and Pastor Timothy Keller has recently written a book entitled “The Prodigal God” (Dutton Adult, 2008). Keller explores the parable we often identify as the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15. The parable is told in the context of Pharisees rebuking Jesus because he eats with tax collectors and sinners. Keller asks his readers to consider the people who were so often drawn to Jesus and transformed by his teaching. Much like the lost son in the parable who returned home and was fully embraced by the loving father, it was the sinners and outcasts who were attracted to Jesus. Those who rejected Jesus were the religious leaders like Nicodemus – Pharisees who needed to control who was in and who was out, like the elder brother in the parable. Keller then asks this question: Why is it that the people who were most attracted to Jesus are never attracted to our churches? His answer is that our churches are filled with elder brothers who can only attract other elder brothers who look and sound and control the world just like they do!

The wind blows where it wills, you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it came from or where it is going. So it is with the Spirit. So it is with people who are born from above. Could it be that American Christianity, like Nicodemus, desperately needs disorentation, needs to lose the comfort and security of all that gives us our own set of right answers, our own control, our own loss of hospitality to the other – to all who don’t look just like us? That once more, we need the Spirit to descend from above that we might be born anothen?!
(Servers take their places)

The great news of this text is that v. 16 is spoken not just to Nicodemus then, but Nicodemus now. God so loves this Cosmos that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. By the end of the story in John’s Gospel, Nicodemus gets us. Perhaps by the end of our story we will get it as well! Each week we gather around bread and cup – to what purpose? To announce that we have participated in death and resurrection, we have been born anothen. So much more is at stake than eating someone’s homemade communion bread and drinking a sip of Welch’s grape juice. We announce his death until he comes. We announce the Wind is blowing and we are not in control. We become the living Christ animated by Spirit for the sake of the Cosmos.

Prayer for Bread and Cup

Delivered at Otter Creek, May 3, 2009

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