It can turn into an ‘Oh no’ moment.

The text: John 3:1-17

It can be a really nice thing to be comfortable in the presence of another person, perhaps a new friend or acquaintance, and to have them enthusiastically ask you whether you are a Christian. It gives you a sense of encouragement and confidence to answer truthfully, whole-heartedly and without any reservations, particularly if you think they are going to respond in turn by smiling, enthusiastically nodding and saying ‘me too.’ Sometimes, in less comfortable environments, we can feel the need to add a few gentle disclaimers about our faith or perhaps apologise for any indiscretions done in the name of the Christian faith that might somehow tarnish us. But when someone asks you with enthusiasm if you are a Christian, and you get the sense that they also are a Christian, it’s quite a good thing. I’m sure you have experienced that.

It can turn into an ‘Oh no’ moment however, when, having put your faith out there on the line and received an enthusiastic smile and nod in return from the other person, that they then ask you, ‘So, have you been born again?’ Perhaps you’ve experienced what I’m talking about. You thought you were about to deepen your relationship with this individual by sharing something very personal with them – your faith. You expected that you were about to feel closer to this person because you thought you were going to have something very important in common – your faith. But it turns into an ‘Oh no’ moment when they ask if you have been born again because it is clear that they see some distinctions between your Christian faith and theirs. Without unfairly caricaturing people like this, should you ever be in this situation, you can probably expect a long and drawn out theological discussion to follow about these distinctions between your faith and theirs and about what makes a real Christian. Inevitably it is bound to include things like adult baptism and a disregard for the baptism that you received as a child. You will probably be told that that baptism didn’t count. You’ll need to do it again as a consenting adult and there will probably be some other conditions on your new type of Christianity, perhaps extra evidence of your true faith by showing that you have the gift of speaking in tongues or something else like that. The message is: it’s time to move on from just being a Christian. That’s not enough. It’s time to be a born-again Christian.

I call these ‘Oh no’ moments because of course there’s no such thing as a born-again Christian. Or if there is, we are all born-again Christians. But really, if we wanted to get technical, we could say that there aren’t actually born-again Christians; there are only born-from-above Christians and I’ll let you know what I mean by that in a moment. Trying to explain this in pleasant company with a person who is determined to prove you wrong is hard work. Try it sometime, if you don’t believe me.

When the Apostle John recorded Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus he used a Greek word that can have two meanings. It can be translated as ‘again’, as in one is born ‘again’; or it can be translated as ‘from above’ as in, one is born ‘from above’. It is a word superbly chosen by John to create a sense of the confusion between Jesus and Nicodemus. They seem to be talking about the same thing but really they are not. In fact, for quite a while they are talking past each other, a bit like us when someone asks us if we are a Christian and then takes us on the path I mentioned before.

A good comparison for Jesus and Nicodemus’ conversation is the old skit done by Abbot and Costello in the 50’s called ‘Who’s on First?’ One of the characters asks the other ‘Who’s on first?’, wanting to know the name of the player on first base in a baseball game. But the man who answers just says ‘Yes.’ It’s a strange answer because it doesn’t answer the question – ‘Who’s on first?’ ‘Yes’. As the skit goes on, however, you discover that the name of the man on first base is Who. ‘Who’s on first?’ ‘Yes’. But it gets more and more maddening for the person asking the questions because he doesn’t get it. He’s just confused. So then he asks, ‘What is the name of the player on second base?’ and the man who answers again says ‘Yes!’ This is extra frustrating for the person asking the questions because he doesn’t know but the name of the person on second base is, of course, Watt. And so the skit goes on and on with two people having a conversation both thinking that they know what they’re talking about but finding out that they are totally talking past each other.

So it was with Jesus and Nicodemus. Jesus says, ‘No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born from above’ and a confused Nicodemus asks, ‘Born again? How can a grown person enter into their mother’s womb for a second time?’ Who’s on first Jesus? Yes.

I must admit I’ve got quite a soft spot for Nicodemus. He was considered to be a great teacher – Jesus even called him Israel’s teacher – so he was well-renowned and well-respected. He was a Pharisee, which meant that he really knew his stuff and would have studied the Old Testament in great detail for decades. He was a member of the Jewish ruling council so people looked to him for leadership and direction and he had the trust of the people. He was a man of great standing and stature, of enviable knowledge, age and wisdom. And there he is in the dark, coming to visit Jesus, a thirty-something, new kid on the block who doesn’t seem to have studied anywhere. Nicodemus, the great leader, needs some answers and he goes to Jesus. That’s a dangerous move – most of the other Pharisees and the Jewish ruling council are not on board at all, in fact, they reject Jesus outright and make plans to bring him down. But Nicodemus can see something in Jesus, something from God, yet at the same time things just don’t quite add up. Maybe these thoughts had been keeping him up at night. Whatever it was, he came to see Jesus one night to try and sort out his confusion. It’s long been speculated that by meeting Jesus in the dark Nicodemus was trying to keep his affiliation with Jesus a secret so that he wouldn’t lose his standing in the community.

During the week some of the people attending the meditation sessions put themselves in this story and also found it quite confusing. I don’t want people to find Scripture confusing forever but a sense of confusion or disorientation in this text is not necessarily a bad thing. Nicodemus, the teacher of Israel, didn’t get it, so don’t worry if you also need some further explanation.

Jesus makes a simple comparison: Flesh gives birth to flesh – all people are born as people of the flesh. We are born from down here. But Spirit gives birth to Spirit. If we are to be people of the Spirit we need to be born of the Spirit. We need to be born from above. Without being born from above we won’t even see the kingdom of God and so Jesus tells Nicodemus that while he may think he’s seeing the work of God in the works that Jesus does, he needs to be totally reborn to really see the work of God in the world.

What Jesus is talking about is baptism. ‘No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born from above; no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.’ That’s why to be called a born-again Christian or even a born-from-above Christian doesn’t really make sense. When we were baptised we were born from above, born of water and the Spirit and we were brought into the kingdom of God. Did you consent to being born of the flesh? Did you do anything to influence your parents so that they gave birth to you? Of course not. Being born in the flesh is a passive act, requiring no effort on your part. It’s a gift and so is being born from above. In baptism God adopts us as his children and gives us the gift of his Holy Spirit.

Some people disown their parents and some people disown their baptism. But it doesn’t change the promise of the parents and in the case of baptism Jesus made the promise that whoever believes and is baptised will be saved.

Nicodemus may have been confused but what Jesus said to him must have taken effect. When the Pharisees declared that Jesus should be put to death Nicodemus calmly reminded them that their law did not condemn anyone without first giving them a fair hearing. After Jesus was put to death, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea – another closet follower of Jesus – took Jesus’ body and laid it in the tomb. Perhaps it was Jesus’ most famous words that stuck with Nicodemus even when he preferred to stay in the dark: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. What great hopes we can have for Christians who maybe, like Nicodemus, are not quite ready to make a bold confession of faith.

And what great hope we have. We are Christians – that means we are born from above, born of water and the Spirit. God’s promise to you in your baptism, whatever your age at the time, is unconditional: Jesus came to bring light into the world and in baptism he brought you into his light. Jesus came not to condemn the world but to save it and in baptism you have been saved – born of the Spirit, born from above. Amen