The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Second Sunday in Lent (Year A)
March 12, 2017
I wonder how you’re doing on your Lenten journey. How your fast is coming, or the thing that you decided to take on instead of giving up something—how’s that going? Several friends this week have mentioned to me that they’ve just not done as well as they’d hoped. That the plan to give up wine at dinner was over by Thursday. That the intention to hit the gym each morning was, well, not happening each morning. That chocolate seemed just too irresistible to keep from having just one little bite.
I don’t want to make light of Lenten fasts. They are important ways that the Church keeps a holy Lent—that we keep turning our attention towards God. Fasting—or even taking on a new discipline—can help us become more aware of how we’re relating to the world, to God, to one another; it can help us repent—change—be the people God has created us to be. And that’s a good thing. If your Lenten fast is going well, keep it up.
But a Lenten fast can also be used as a way for us to try and grab control of our own salvation. If I can just get this fasting thing down right, God will be pleased with me, and I’ll be a better person, a better Christian. I’ll finally get it right! Have you ever had any of those feelings?
Today in our gospel reading we hear the story of Nicodemus, a leader of the Jewish people, a Pharisee, a scholar of the law. He comes to Jesus secretly, under cover of night even, to talk with him. Is Nicodemus testing Jesus? Investigating him? Is he flattering him when he says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” (John 3.2b) Or is he truly interested in learning what Jesus is there to teach? It seems as though he’s being earnest, because he makes a fundamental mistake—he misunderstands what Jesus is telling him.
Jesus replies, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (3.3) What I grew up hearing, though, and what is probably what you remember hearing, is a bit different. The Authorized version renders Jesus’s response to Nicodemus like this: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (3.3)
There it is, that phrase “born again.”
When I hear that phrase used in our popular understanding of Christianity, I think of “born again Christians.” Folks who have had a life-changing encounter with the living God. People that can point to a mountaintop experience, often an emotional encounter, something like Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus where he was struck down by the blinding light of God’s presence—where he was changed. Something maybe like John Wesley’s experience at Aldersgate, when he felt his heart strangely warmed. A particular moment that folks can point to and say, there it is. On this date I encountered the living God. I was born again. I became a Christian.
In divinity school I was in a class with a broad range of students from Catholic and evangelical traditions. A guest lecturer, a Roman Catholic nun, was telling us about her experiences in the base communities in Latin America and her work there with liberation theology. As she was telling us her story, as she invited questions, a young woman, a classmate, raised her hand and asked, “But Sister, when did you become a Christian? When were you born again?”
The nun smiled and replied, very seriously, “Well, I suppose I’ve always been a Christian. I was born to Christian parents. I was baptized as an infant. I have always been part of the Church, the body of Christ.”
It was as though they were speaking two different languages—the two languages of the Church, catholic and reformed, two different traditions, talking about the same thing. The young woman wanted to know when the nun had found Jesus; but the nun had never lost Jesus! She’d always walked with him.
This idea of being born again can be used to draw lines, to exclude, to determine who’s a good Christian, who’s really Christian, and who’s just culturally identifying, walking alongside, talking the talk. Who’s in and who’s out. Who’s saved, and who’s not.
If the idea of being “born again” seems strange to you, take heart, for it seems strange to Nicodemus as well, and trying to understand what Jesus means, he presses the question. How can anyone be born a second time? Nicodemus recognizes the linguistic turn in Jesus’s speech; the Greek word anothen can be translated as again, from the beginning, or, in the sense that the NRSV uses, from above, from on high, from heaven. The sense that Jesus is trying to impart, and that Jesus clarifies, is that Nicodemus must be reborn from God. That Nicodemus must re-orient his world view towards the kingdom of God. He must learn to see differently, to be born of water and the spirit.
This Lent a group of us are reading Archbishop Justin Welby’s book Dethroning Mammon: Making Money Serve Grace (London: Bloomsbury, 2016). The book is about how we distinguish between the kingdom of God, the values of Jesus, and the priorities and organization of the world—mammon. In short, who is it that we look to rule the world—is it money, economic systems, the flow of goods and services? Or is the love of Jesus the first organizing principle? Is it the love of God, revealed in Christ, that rules our lives, and the way we behave in the world?
The first thing that the Archbishop says is that we must learn to see differently. That we value what it is we see, so we must begin to see the world differently—through the eyes of Jesus. He gives as an example Lazarus. Mary and Martha are busy hosting parties; they are productive. But we don’t know anything about Lazarus—what is his worth? What can he produce? Taking a page from Jean Varnier’s L’Arche communities, communities where people with and without disabilities live side by side in community and companionship, Welby wonders if perhaps Lazarus was different in some way—whether he had a disability—and if that might account for why we don’t hear much of his story in the gospels—why we don’t hear about his value to the community he inhabits. But he has value to Jesus, who sees differently. And whatever Lazarus’s story, Jesus raises him from the dead. Jesus sees him, wants to be in relationship with him, and brings him back from death into life, community, and relationship.
Welby invites us to see differently—to see as Jesus sees. To take the risk on valuing even what the world doesn’t value. To believe that there is more than the world offers. To believe that, in truth, God so desires to be with us that he sends his own son to save the whole world. “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. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (3.16-17)
Welby invites us to see differently. To see through the eyes of Jesus. Jesus invites Nicodemus to see differently. Not to be born for a second time, which Nicodemus realizes is physically impossible, but to die to sin and self, just as we do in our baptism, and to rise to new life—to live as God teaches us to live—in the hope of new life, complete love, abundance, and joy. Nicodemus, you must be born from above, Jesus tells him. You must be born by water and the spirit. You must see the world differently—through the eyes of God’s great love.
John Wesley knew that way of seeing. Not just intellectually. He had a moment when he felt it, in his very being, there at Aldersgate, when his heart was strangely warmed. While in a bible study hearing Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans, Wesley writes that “while [the speaker] was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
It was that realization for Wesley that warmed his heart: that “…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. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3.16-17)
That’s what Jesus is inviting Nicodemus to see. His new life, his being born from above, is to see with those eyes that see differently—that see that the greatest gift, the greatest thing of value, is God’s own love. That God has given God’s very self to secure that relationship. To draw us to him.
And when we realize the value that we have to God, when we realize how God values us, we can begin to value the world around us differently. To love one another as he loves us.
That’s the work we’re called to do this Lent. Our fasting, our prayer, our study of scripture—our taking on and our giving up—all of these things we do so that we cansee more clearly. So that we can see the world through God’s eyes. So that we can see one another through Jesus’s eyes of mercy and love. So that we can see ourselves as loved and redeemed.
That’s what it is to be born from above. To see the world differently. My friends in Christ, I pray that, this Lent, we may be born of water and the spirit—born from above. That we may see differently. I pray for us a holy Lent.
 Jerome Neyrey, SJ, in notes for vv 3-5 in the gospel of John, The New Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV with Apocrypha, 4th ed, Michael Coogan, ed. Oxford: OUP 2010, p NT 1886.