Do you have to be born again to be a Christian? Here’s my sermon from this weekend on John 3.1-15.
Jesus answered Nicodemus: “Truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.”
Let’s be honest, shall we, and just get it out of the way. Let’s just admit what you’re all thinking:
If anyone, after having grown old, could reenter his mother’s womb and be born a second time, then that person would have to be Chuck Norris.
No? Well, then you were certainly thinking this: You don’t know what to do with this passage. Do you?
If you did know what to do with Jesus telling us we need to get born again, then you’d be someplace else this morning.
You’d be giving your utmost for his highest down at First Baptist, or you’d have your hands raised up in the air, singing some Jesus in My Pants song, at a non-denominational church. Or maybe you’d be out shopping for a gown to this week’s inauguration. After all, our thick-skinned, orange-hued President-Elect won born agains by over 80%.
But you’re not those kinds of Christians. If you were, then you wouldn’t be here.
If you knew what to do with this scripture, you’d be in some other church this morning or shopping for a tux for Friday or maybe you’d be at home watching Walker: Texas Ranger or Delta Force. According to the Daily Beast, Chuck Norris is the world’s most famous born again Christian.
Which begs an obvious question born of today’s text:
Does the wind blow where it chooses only because Chuck Norris gives it permission?
It’s a good question. Don’t forget how, in the very beginning, when God said “Let there be light” Chuck Norris said: “Say please.”
We all know, don’t we, how after Jesus turned water into wine Chuck Norris turned that wine into beer.
And surely you already know how Jesus can walk on water but only Church Norris can swim through dry land, and how Jesus sweats blood but Chuck Norris’ tears can cure cancer, which is unfortunate (for me) because Chuck Norris has never shed any tears. You know, don’t you- how even Jesus on his way to save humanity on the cross was overheard to have said: “Well, I’m no Chuck Norris but I’ll do the best I can.”
So it’s worth wondering if the wind blows where it chooses only because Chuck Norris allows it.
But I wouldn’t want to distract from my point, which is this:
You’re not like Chuck Norris. You’re not that kind of Christian.
If you took Jesus that seriously, then you wouldn’t be here this morning. Most of you chose a church like this one because you never have to worry we’re going to exhort you to get born again.
You chose a church like this one because here you can feel safe that we’re not going to invite you to close your eyes, raise your hand, and welcome Jesus into your heart.
According to our last church-wide survey, nearly half of you came here from a Roman Catholic background. If I asked you to say “Jesus” out loud as something other than a four-letter word, your sphincter would twist up tighter than a drum.
You don’t want a preacher who’s going to altar call you forward and compel you to commit your life to Jesus, to get born anothen.
If that’s what you wanted, you wouldn’t be here. That born again stuff- it isn’t us. We’re not those kinds of Christians.
Sure, we lust in our hearts (now that FX is on basic cable who hasn’t lusted in their heart?) but we’re not the same sort as those born again kind.
We may give Almighty God thanks that Born Again Christianity has given us Megan Fox as well as the South Park song “I Wasn’t Born Again Yesterday” but that doesn’t change the fact that those are not the kinds of Christians we are.
We’re the kind of Christians who don’t know what to do with what Jesus says to Nicodemus anymore than Nicodemus knows what to do with it.
Having stumbled upon Jesus here, curious and questioning, we’d like to slip away, under the cover of night, and pretend Jesus never said what Jesus so clearly said: ‘If you want to see the Kingdom of God, you must be born anothen.’
You must be born again.
You must be born from above.
Either way you translate it doesn’t really make it easier on people like us. We’re not those kinds of Christians.
But right there- there’s the question, right?
Not- Has Death ever had a near-Chuck Norris experience?
Not that question.
And not- Is Helen Keller’s favorite color Chuck Norris?
Can we really be Christian at all and not be the Chuck Norris kind?
Just taking Jesus’ red letter words straight up, can we really be Christian at all and not be born anothen?
We could point out how Jesus only ever says “You must be born anothen” to Nicodemus. No one else.
When Jesus happens upon some fishermen, he doesn’t say “You must be born anothen.” He says: “Come. Follow me.”
And when a rich, brown-nosing son-of-helicopter-parents asks Jesus about eternal life, Jesus doesn’t talk about wind and water. He talks about camels and needles. Jesus doesn’t tell him to get born again; Jesus tells him to give up everything he’s got.
When Jesus encounters a woman caught in her sin- exactly the sort of situation where you’d expect him to whip out that word, anothen, Jesus instead keeps it in his pocket and just says to her: ‘I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more.’
Jesus only says ‘You must be born anothen’ to Nicodemus.
So, we could argue, this applies only to Nicodemus, and to make being born again an over the counter prescription for everyone, is to make of it something Jesus does not do.
We could argue that Jesus is just talking to Nicodemus, not us.
That you in “You must be born again” is plural.
It’s “You all must be born again.”
Nicodemus comes to Jesus not as a seeker but as a representative. Of his people. Nicodemus approaches Jesus armed with the plural. “Teacher, we know…” he says.
And Jesus answers with “You all…”
Like it or not, we are in that you.
Even if we do need to be born again, maybe it’s not as urgent and eternal a matter as so many make it.
After all, Jesus’ own preaching never ends with altar call invitations for his hearers to get born again.
Jesus doesn’t stand on the mountaintop and preach “Blessed are those are born anothen, only they will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.” No, Jesus preaches “Blessed are the peacemakers for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
And for his very first sermon, Jesus doesn’t choose to preach about anothen or eternal salvation. He preaches about good news to the poor and release to the captives.
When Jesus preaches about judgment even, he warns that one day, God will separate us as sheep from goats not on the basis of who’s been born again but on the basis of who has done for the least.
Even if we all are included in that you all directed at Nicodemus maybe it’s not as urgent and eternal a matter as those other Christians so often make it because Jesus doesn’t talk about our needing to be born again every time he speaks of the Kingdom.
Here with Nicodemus, it’s the only scene in all of John’s Gospel where Jesus mentions the Kingdom of God.
So maybe it’s every bit as urgent and eternal as we’ve been told. Which isn’t surprising, I suppose, because all know that the only time Chuck Norris was wrong about something the truth got so scared it reconsidered itself.
But where’s that leave us Nicodemus Christians?
Christians like us pushed back? Not on Chuck Norris but on this passage.
Take it back.
From those other kind of Christians.
Point out that to turn Jesus’ words to Nicodemus into an every Sunday altar call expectation, to make it the threshold every “genuine” Christian must cross contradicts Jesus’ entire point.
Being born anothen–
It’s something God does; it’s not something we do.
Jesus couldn’t have put it plainer: “The wind- the Holy Spirit- blows where it chooses to blow. You can’t know where it comes from or where it goes.”
Being born anothen, Jesus says, it isn’t something we can control or manipulate or plan. It cannot be achieved by people like you or orchestrated by preachers like me.
You didn’t contribute anything to your first birth from your mother’s womb, so why would you think you could contribute anything to your new birth?
That’s what Jesus means by “What is born of flesh is flesh…”
Flesh in John’s Gospel is shorthand for our INCAPACITY for God.
What is flesh, i.e. you and me, is incapable of coming to God. Only God can connect us with God. We’re not on a spiritual journey to God; God the Holy Spirit is always journeying to us. It’s always grace. It’s always a gift.
You can’t get born again; it’s something you’re given.
Being born again, it’s not something we do. It’s something God does.
We could push back.
And we’d be right.
But that doesn’t change the fact that Jesus says it’s something that must happen to us. Even if God is responsible for our being born again, Jesus says it black and white in red letters: It’s required if we’re to see the Kingdom of God.
So again- What do Christians like us do with what Jesus says about being born again?
Maybe the problem is that we pay too much attention to what Jesus says.
We get so hung up on what Jesus says to Nicodemus in the dark of night that we close our eyes to what John tries to show us.
We all know that Chuck Norris doesn’t read books he just stares them down until he gets the information he wants, but even a Christian like Chuck Norris misses what John tries to show us in his Gospel.
Just think about how John begins his Gospel, not with a nativity story but with an intentional echo of the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things came into being through him and not one thing came into being without him.”
In other words, this Gospel of Jesus Christ, says John, is about the arrival of a New Creation.
And next, right here in John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus and you all that in order to see the Kingdom of God you’re going to have to become a new creation too. You’re going to have to be born anothen. Again. From above. By water and the spirit.
To Good Friday, the sixth day of the week, the day of that first week in Genesis when God declares “Behold, mankind made in our image.”
And what does John show you?
Jesus, beaten and flogged and spat upon, wearing a crown of thorns twisted into his scalp and arrayed with a purple robe, next to Pontius Pilate.
And what does Pilate say?
“Behold, the man.”
And later on that sixth day, as Jesus dies on a cross, what does John show you?
Jesus giving up his spirit, commending his holy spirit.
And then, John shows you Jesus’ executioners, attempting to hasten his death they spear Jesus in his side and what does John show you?
Water rushing out of Jesus’ wounded side. Water pouring out onto those executioners and betraying bystanders, pouring out- in other words- onto sinful humanity.
Water and the spirit, the sixth day.
And then Saturday, the seventh day of the week, the day of that first week in Genesis when God rests in the Garden from his creative work- what does John show you?
Jesus being laid to rest in a garden tomb.
Then Easter, the first day of the week.
And having been raised from the grave, John shows you a tear-stained Mary mistaking Jesus, as naked and unashamed as Adam before the Fall, for the what?
For the gardener, what Adam was always intended to be.
Later that Easter day, John shows you the disciples hiding behind locked doors. This New Adam comes to them from the garden grave and like a mighty, rushing wind he breathes on them. “Receive the Holy Spirit” he says to them.
Water, Spirit, Wind blowing where the Spirit wills, the first day.
He breathes on them.
Just as God in the first garden takes the adamah, the soil of the earth, breathes into it the breath of life and brings forth Adam, brings forth life, this New Adam takes the grime of these disciples’ fear and failure, their sin and sorrow, and he breathes upon them the Holy Spirit, the breath of life.
They’re made new again.
And on that same first day John shows you Jesus telling these disciples for the very first time, in his Gospel, that his Father in Heaven, is their Father too. They’re now the Father’s children in their own right.
The Father’s Kingdom is theirs to enter and inherit.
Chuck Norris is right. What Jesus says to Nicodemus here in the night is true. You must be born again. You have to be born again. There’s no other way around it. You’re a creature, a sinner even. You’re flesh- you’re incapacitated from coming to God on your own. You could never see the Kingdom of God apart from being born again. It’s true.
We get so hung up on what Jesus says in this part of John about being born again that we shut our eyes to what John shows us with his whole Gospel.
That we are.
Born again. Born from above.
All of us.
Every one of us.
Even you all.
It’s true that when Chuck Norris looks in the mirror he sees nothing because there can be only one Chuck Norris, but when it comes to God we’re all the same, even Chuck Norris.
There is no distinction.
All of us, in our sin, were in Adam.
And all of us, in the Second Adam, have been restored.
What God does in Christ through cradle and cross transforms all of humanity. Just as all fell through Adam’s trespass, much more surely has the grace of God through Jesus Christ abounded for all, Paul says.
In him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through him God was was pleased to reconcile all things to himself, Paul says.
There is therefore now no condemnation because of Christ Jesus.
Because of him, nothing can separate us from the love of God, Paul says.
The death he died he died to Sin, once for all, so you all can consider yourselves dead to Sin and alive to God.
Consider yourselves anothened.
Being born again–
It’s not a hurdle you need to muster up enough faith in order to cross.
It’s a hurdle that in his faithfulness he already has crossed for you.
It’s not that you must believe to a certain degree in order to get born again.
It’s that you’ve already been born again through his belief for you.
It’s not that you need to make a personal decision for God and then get born again.
It’s that you’ve been born again through his personal decision in your place.
Whether or not you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, in the person of Jesus Christ, our Lord, you have already been accepted by God.
It’s his work, not ours, that saves.
It’s his faith, not ours, that gives us life.
What Christ accomplishes for us is not what might be true one day if.
If we have enough faith. If we do enough good deeds.
If we get born again.
What Christ accomplishes for us is what’s true now and always, for us.
For all of us.
So the next time someone asks you- even Christians like you all-
The next time someone asks you if you’ve been born again, then next time you say YES.
Because we’re all Chuck Norris Christians. We’ve all been born again
And if that same someone asks you for a when-
When were you born again? When were you saved?
You just say sometime between Good Friday and Easter morning.
John’s title gives it away- that’s Good News.
It’s Good News.
But it’s not easy.
What Jesus says here to Nicodemus about the Kingdom of God is true. For us born agains, the Kingdom is mainly about sight.
Chuck Norris may be able to sneeze with his eyes open, but for us born agains and the Kingdom of God a different sort of seeing is required.
You’ve got to see the prodigals in your life, the people who’d just as soon use you up and turn their backs on you. You’ve got to see them and trust that they’ll never stop being worth throwing a party over.
You’ve got to see your spouse and trust that you can, in fact, love your enemy. You’ve got to look your children in their insolent eyes and trust that you’ve got to become more like them.
You’ve got to see the crooks on Capitol Hill and trust that they’ll be first into paradise. You’ve got to see the poor and see in them Jesus Christ.
You’ve got to see the people in your life who’ve hurt you one too many times, and you’ve got to trust that you can forgive them as many as 70 multiplied by 7.
You’ve got to see your anger and addiction, your impatience and bitterness, your cynicism and self-righteousness, your sadness and shame.
And you’ve got to trust that having been born again of water and spirit that same Spirit can sow in you joy and peace and kindness and goodness and gentleness and self-control.
You’ve got to see.
See yourself- whether you’re old, fat, or ugly; whether you’re a failure, a freak, a loser, a slut, a disappointment, a whatever- you’ve got to see yourself and trust that because of Jesus Christ you are as pure and perfect as a born again baby.
It’s about sight.
Seeing your doubts and your questions, your shaky faith and your crappy character- it’s about seeing and trusting that the only measure God takes of faith is Jesus Christ’s own.
To be born again is to be given new eyes.
Chuck Norris claims he can do the impossible- even cut a knife with hot butter.
He should know-
Even that’s easier than to be born again
To become who you already are in Jesus Christ
To see with new, anotheno-ed eyes.