I realize we’re still getting to know one another, so it may come as a shock to some of you to learn that I tend to be contrary by nature.
Case in point:
Towards the end of my first semester at the University of Virginia, my freshman year, I was invited one Saturday night by my friend, Ben, to attend a Christmas party hosted by Campus Crusade for Christ.
Back then, I was still new in my faith. I’d only become a Christian a year or so earlier. Like a lot of new converts, I thought I had all the answers, but also didn’t know what I didn’t know.
As their former name implies, Campus Crusade was an aggressively evangelistic organization, and even that is putting it mildly.
Of course, I didn’t know that when I accepted the invitation.
An organization like Campus Crusade probably seemed so tame to Ben, having grown up in the mountains of Southwest Virginia, he hadn’t bothered to prepare me for this “party.”
Now I shouldn’t have to tell you that the word “party,” to a college student, conjures particular images and elicits very specific expectations— none of which were matched by the gathering Ben took me to that Saturday night.
In fact, in all my years of college and graduate school, this was the only party where a den mother asked me to take my shoes off at the front door.
As we walked through the cold darkness of the night on a thin layer of snow, to a neighborhood just off campus, we came to a short driveway to a small ranch home.
I could see through the big bay window in the living room a glimpse of the evening that lay ahead of me.
At first, I thought we must be at the wrong house.
This must be a Mary Kay or Tupperware party.
Maybe a bridge club going on.
Ben assured me it was the right address.
When Ben knocked on the door, this skinny guy with a soul patch under his lip and a guitar slung across his back answered the door.
When Ben introduced me, the guy— the student pastor— shook my hand with disproportionate enthusiasm and said, “Jason, yeah, Jason- Acts 17.7.”
And I replied, “What?”
This must have been his secret Christian greeting.
And because I didn’t know what he was talking about, because I didn’t even know my name was in the Bible, and because I didn’t reciprocate with “Michael, yeah, archangel of the Lord, Daniel 12.1,” he gave me a sad, pathetic sort of look and ushered me inside.
But first, his wife asked me to take off my shoes.
Everyone else must have drank the Kool-Aid before I arrived, because I didn’t fit in and couldn’t understand how people seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Once we were inside, Ben abandoned me.
He mingled around the house while I stood near the dining table in my threadbare socks eating chocolate covered pretzels and looking at my calculator watch between bites.
You can imagine how much my mood improved when Mike, the campus pastor, asked us all to circle up in the family room for a sing-along.
I ended up sitting shoulder to shoulder on a sofa with two other people.
On my left was a girl who began every sentence with “The Lord just put it on my heart to ________”, and who looked at me like I was as crazy as I thought she was.
On my right, with his arm resting uncomfortably behind me, was a 50-something man who worked in the dining hall.
He had a long, scraggly beard and was wearing a Star Trek sweatshirt.
Earlier, over chocolate covered pretzels, he asked me if I thought the incarnation was a violation of the Prime Directive.
“I’m sorry. I don’t watch Star Trek,” I lied.
We sang songs whose words I vaguely knew and whose tunes seemed unseasonably fast-paced.
Mike, the pastor, strummed his guitar and led us in a breathy, earnest voice while his wife accompanied him on a small plastic keyboard on her lap.
When the singing was over, Mike, assuming a serious tone of voice, asked us to open up our Bibles.
I felt like the music had stopped and I was the one without a chair.
Not only was I the only person who had failed to bring a Bible with them, I hadn’t a clue where a Bible reader could buy a carrying case for their Bible.
“You didn’t bring a Bible with you?” Mike asked chagrined.
“Uh, I’m a Methodist.”
And, to my surprise, everyone nodded like this was a perfectly reasonable explanation.
“Luke, chapter two,” Mike said.
Everyone but me read along as Mike read aloud, “In the days of King Herod…”
After he finished the reading, Mike started in on his Campus Crusade for Christ mandated “talk.”
“The promise of the Gospel,” he began, “is that God gives himself in Christ for the sin of the world— for your sins and my sins— but…” he said, “you have to do your part, too.”
“At Christmas God gives Christ to you, on the Cross Christ gives himself for you, but it’s not complete until you give yourself to Christ, too.”
And everyone around the room nodded their heads.
“In order to get saved, you’ve got to get born again,” Mike said, closing his Bible.
And for several long minutes, people around the room shared stories about the time they got saved— down to the date and the place and the crisis that occasioned it.
“What about you?” Mike asked me, “I’m sorry I forgot your name…you—the one who didn’t bring a Bible.”
“Me?” I asked and looked around, wishing I could be debating the Prime Directive.
“Well, I got baptized…”
And he shook his head, “But when did you get born again?”
“I started going to church against my will not that long ago,” I said. “And, I don’t know, I just suddenly realized one day that I trusted in Jesus.”
“I’m sorry, Jason, but that’s not good enough and, well, there’s eternal consequences to consider.”
And that’s right about the point when the contrarian in me came out.
“Excuse me?” I said, “Not good enough?”
He nodded in a patronizing way and explained, “In order to get saved, you’ve got to get born again. You’ve got to make a decision for Christ. You’ve got to invite Jesus into your heart to be your personal Lord and Savior.”
Little did this soul-patched pastor know, he was stepping with a recent Virginia State forensic-and-debate champion.
“Tell me, Mike,” I said. “You called it the promise of the Gospel.”
And he nodded his head, thinking he had me.
“But if there’s a condition, if there’s something I’ve got to do for it to be true for me, doesn’t that turn the promise into a demand?”
Ben blushed as red as the pastor’s wife’s corduroy dress.
“I mean— if you’re saved, because you give your heart to Jesus (and not saved until you do), doesn’t that mean you’re saving yourself, Mike? Not Jesus?”
The pastor’s wife was biting her lip, and where I had spent the first thirty minutes of the evening wondering how I could escape, she was now clearly wondering how she could get me out of her house.
NO ONE SEEMED TO APPRECIATE THE BUDDING THEOLOGIAN IN THEIR MIDST!
No one except for the bearded fifty-year old with the Star Trek shirt who said, “Dude, that’s deep,” which didn’t exactly help my case.
In fact, the girl sitting next to me had placed her large KJV Bible in the crack of the sofa cushions, erecting a barrier between us and making clear that she was not with me.
Still, I’ve always had thick skin, so I pressed into the point.
“Think about it, Mike,” I said. “If salvation isn’t real until my decision activates it, then isn’t my faith just another work? Isn’t salvation something I’ve earned for myself then?”
“Jesus says it plainly,” Mike rebutted, stroking his soul-patch. “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.”
“But isn’t it odd,” I said, starting to enjoy myself in a sado-masochistic sort of way, “to turn that verse into a requirement— something we must do, get born again— when the whole point of an image like being born is that it’s passive? I mean, I don’t know about you, Mike, but I didn’t contribute a single thing to my birth. In fact, my mom had to have a C-section my head was so big.”
“Sounds like you’ve still got a pretty big head,” Mike did not say to himself.
As if on cue, Ben summoned a fake “hahahahaha” from somewhere in his belly and nervously suggested we sing another song.
Mercifully, Mike swung his guitar around like Church Berry, said “Amen,” and started another song.
“I’ve seen the signs you do,” Nicodemus says to Jesus. “Tell me, who are you?”
And oddly, Jesus answers with that verse which tightens the sphincter of every good, liberal United Methodist: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.”
Apparently, Nicodemus knows what he doesn’t know.
Nicodemus must suspect his faith is somehow inadequate and lacking; otherwise, Nicodemus— a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin even— would not take the great risk of coming to Jesus under the cover of darkness.
Sure, it’s only chapter three, but here in John’s Gospel, Jesus has just thrown his temple tantrum and already he’s made himself public enemy Number One.
But Jesus, in typical Jesus fashion, doesn’t do anything at all to mitigate whatever spiritual crisis has led Nicodemus to Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t bother to comfort Nicodemus or reassure Nicodemus or do anything to relieve whatever existential tension has brought Nicodemus to Jesus.
Notice how Jesus tightens the screws.
Jesus doesn’t do what United Methodist pastors are trained to do.
Jesus doesn’t let Nicodemus off the hook with some blessed assurance like, “It’s okay. Don’t worry, Nicodemus, be happy. God loves you.”
Jesus doesn’t offer Nicodemus a non-anxious presence and say, “Your faith is fine just as it is, Nicodemus. We’re all on a journey. There are many paths to my Father.”
No, Jesus sticks his thumb in whatever ache Nicodemus is nursing and raises the stakes absolutely, “If you want to see the Kingdom of God, Nicodemus, you must be born again.”
Oh, and FYI, he’s not just talking to Nicodemus.
Jesus dials it up to DEFCON ETERNAL for all of us, because that “you” in “You must be born again,” is plural.
I know that the last thing you United Methodists want is to be considered among those kind of Christians, but, like it or not, we are swept up in that you.
It’s, “You all must be born anothen if you want to see the Kingdom of God.”
No loopholes for raking your neighbor’s yard or never missing a Sunday service.
That you— it’s all of us.
“You all must be born again.”
And Nicodemus, he’s a Pharisee.
He’s super religious, so he responds— like we religious types always respond— with what he’s supposed to do.
“How do I do that, Jesus…?
And then Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 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 all must be born again.”
Pay attention to the verbs Jesus uses on Nicodemus in verses three and five.
The verbs are what makes this passage that’s normally bad news for Christians like us good news for everybody.
Unless you all are born again, Jesus says, you will never see the Kingdom and you will never enter the Kingdom of God.
Apart from our being born again, we can neither see nor can we enter God’s Kingdom.
When it comes to God and God’s Kingdom, on our own, we’re powerless.
We are born— naturally— spiritually blind and spiritually paralyzed.
When it comes to God’s Kingdom, we are born dead.
Whatever Jesus means by you being born again, he’s not talking about something you do.
The dead don’t make decisions.
I waited until we walked to the end of pastor Mike’s driveway before I said to Ben, “Well gosh, that was an awesome party.”
And Ben laughed, “I don’t see what difference it makes.”
“Difference? It makes all the difference in the world. People like him turn that verse about being born again into a threshold you must cross— you’ve got to do it a certain way, pray a particular prayer— otherwise you’re not a genuine, real-deal Christian.”
Ben didn’t say anything else until we’d walked back onto campus, crossing the footbridge over Emmett Street when Ben said:
“Still, even if it’s a passive image— like with your mom and the C-section— you can still point to a date when it happened, right?
You can still name the time and the place when you were born. Shouldn’t you have to be able do that for when you were born again. Shouldn’t you be able to see when and where you got born again?”
Like I said, I had the trophies to prove it. I was a debate champ.
So, I knew when I’d been bested.
Let me make it plain—Being born again is not “making a decision for Jesus Christ.” The dead don’t make decisions. We are born anothen. Again. Or, the Greek can also be translated from above. It’s top down. You’ve got nothing to do it.
You don’t come to Jesus to get born again— corspes can’t get up and go anymore— Jesus must come to us and deliver us.
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.
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, 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.
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.
What Jesus says to Nicodemus here in the night is true.
The cosmically inclusive love God is exclusive through Jesus Christ.
You must be born again.
And yes, we are incorporated in that “you.”
You must be born again, Bill.
You must be born again, Bob.
Barbara, you must be born again.
Every last one of you— you’ve got be born from above, the Gospel says.
But what the Gospel shows, what the Gospel wants you to see, is that you have been.
You’ve been delivered.
Just as all of us were dead through Adam’s trespass, the Bible says, much more surely has the grace of God through Jesus Christ abounded for all, 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 comes to you on God’s terms not your own.
Back in college, a newly minted convert, I had a lot of answers, but I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
Turns out, my friend was right that dark winter night.
You should be able to name the day.
So, if someone ever asks you if you’ve been born again, then- like Venkman tells Ray- next time, “You say YES.” Say yes.
And give them the particulars, the where, and the when.
Tell them you were born again— you got saved— sometime between Good Friday and Resurrection morning, the year— 33 AD, on a hill outside of Jerusalem.
You got born again not when you chose Jesus Christ (Have you been watching the Impeachment Trial? Our choices aren’t trustworthy enough to stake a sandwich on let alone eternity.) but because God chose you in Jesus Christ.
In Jesus Christ, God chose you from before time for all time.
And by the doing and dying and rising of Jesus Christ, like a Mother, God delivered you from slavery to Sin and Death into newness of life— eternal life.
There’s alot of Bible Belt baggage that comes with this verse about being born again so if you haven’t been tracking with anything today, pay attention right here.
Alot of Christians turn this passage of the Gospel into the Law.
Into a demand you must fulfill, an expectation you must meet, into an ought that only accuses.
In order to be born again, you’ve got to make a decision. You’ve got to invite him into your heart in this way. You’ve got to pray this prayer. You’ve got to clean up your act and you have got do these things.
Alot of Christians turn this Gospel into the Law.
Jesus’ whole point to Nicodemus about the Kingdom of God and your admittance into it is that the bar COULD NOT BE LOWER.
Jesus doesn’t say anything about any steps or conditions or techniques.
There’s no earning or deserving.
There’s not even any adverbs like sincerely or contritely or genuinely.
Jesus doesn’t say a word about anything you need to take on or give up.
Your delivery is one-sided, God-sided.
And the only thing more impossibly miraculous is the means by which you access it. All you have to do— no, all you can do— is simply trust that it is so.
As Jesus says to Nicodemus, “God loved the world so much that he gave his One and Only Son so that every single individual who simply trusts into him would even now have eternal life.”
That’s good news. But that doesn’t loosen the scews Jesus tightened down on Nicodemus because in the end you’re left with the same choice Jesus leaves for Nicodemus. You can either believe OR not believe. There’s no other other way.