Isaiah 6: 1-8; John 3: 1-17
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
May 31, 2015
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Jesus said to Nicodemus that we must be born from above, or what has become a Christian idiom, born again. We keep using that phrase, but I don’t think it means what we think it means. When I was planning worship with Terri and EJ and Lisa and MT, EJ said that an idiom is a phrase that means something other than the literal meaning of the words. Both she and MT said that they learned this in school, that when we say “It’s raining cats and dogs”, it’s not literally raining mewing kitties and howling dogs. Rather, we know it’s a heavy, soaking downpour.
So when Jesus says we must be born from above or born again, it’s as if Nicodemus declares “Inconceivable! Jesus, you keep using that phrase ‘born from above’.” And Jesus replies, “Nicodemus, it doesn’t mean what you think it means. Don’t take me so literally.”
Don’t take Jesus so literally. Sometimes I think we’ve translated that into “don’t take Jesus so seriously”. Because if we did, that phrase “born from above” or “born again” wouldn’t just rankle us but rattle us down to our bones.
The Greek phrase that the gospel writer uses means “to bring forth or to conceive from the source or beginning”. In order for something to be reborn, born again, born from heaven or from its source or beginning, it first has to die. This isn’t just the center of the Christian faith; it’s the whole of the natural world. Every spring we witness the earth return to life, but every winter we witness a death. Seeds fall into the earth and die before they sprout a tender green shoot.
Even though we are people of faith who live in hope of the resurrection, we avoid death—talking about it, planning for it—like the plague. Our culture desensitizes us to death, but still we glorify it in war and violent entertainment. We do not make friends with death. Yet St. Francis of Assisi went so far as to call death his sister. Acknowledging and accepting death as his daily companion allowed Francis to discern what was essential to living and freed him from fear.
Today is a day for celebrating our teachers, our graduates, and our third graders receiving their Bibles. Why on earth am I talking about death? Couldn’t it wait for another Sunday? Because the Church doesn’t have that kind of time. Because this message has been pressing on my heart for a few years now, and I love church too much to wait.
If the Church is to be born from above, if Church is to be renewed, reborn, then first it must die. The Church echoes the life of Jesus in most ways except this one. This past week one of the devotionals from the United Church of Christ asked the question, why anyone would want to lead a dying church. And I could not believe the naiveté of the response: “I don’t believe that God will let the church die.”
God let Jesus die on the cross. God lets every single one of us and every living thing die. We believe, we trust, we hope that death does not have the last word, but it does have the second-to-last word. We suffer loss through death and yet it is also a portal, a transition, from one form of life to another.
In the often-quoted John 3: 16 Jesus says that we will not perish but have eternal life—another Christian idiom. The Greek word for perish means utterly destroyed, something different from death. If we believe in Jesus, that is, if we trust Jesus, follow him and his way of compassion, justice, and love, then we need not fear death. We will not fear death because Jesus teaches us how to live. We will not be utterly destroyed in death. Rather, life will continue eternally.
We know this now from science. Quantum physics tells us that energy can never be destroyed; it can only change form. Everything we know, everything that exists is made of the same energy, is made up of different combinations of atoms. The energy or the content continues to exist—it’s the form that changes.
Church as it currently exists has been coming to the end of its life for some time now. And just we treat our own death by using more resources at the end of our lives and forestalling the inevitable, we have been doing the same with the Church, the Body of Christ. We’ve reformed and split the Body into different versions of itself. We invest resources and time and energy to keep it viable. We institute programs and activities and attend workshops on how to do church so others will come and join us. We even have a church renewal organization with the acronym CPR. And much of our motivation has been fear and the survival of the Church rather than inviting people into a relationship that will change their lives. (Which, when you think about it, is a lot of what’s wrong with our healthcare system.)
The question we need to be asking ourselves is, “How has the church changed my life? How could the church change my life?” And I can only tell you how the church has changed my life, and I don’t just mean by giving me a vocation. Church reveals to me the way of compassion and forgiveness. Church teaches me how to be not just generous but open-hearted. Church informs me that I’m not the center of the universe. Church is where I begin to recognize that everything is sacred and that God is present everywhere. Church is home, the place where they take you in, no matter what. Church is where justice begins, the workshop for the kingdom of God. Church is how I learn to love and work with people who are different from me—which is everyone. Church is where I discover that I am a whole person—body, mind, and spirit—made in God’s image, and that God calls the whole person, the gifts and the flaws, to be God’s hands and feet in the world. Church is the place, the people where I don’t do all this perfectly but only with God’s help. Church introduced me to the vulnerable heart of God, to Jesus and to resurrection, when my old life, the one that wasn’t working, died and a new life rose in its place.
God will do what God will do. The Church is in the midst of an evolution. Other institutions formed by covenants—family and marriage—have changed and continue to change over time. And yet life and love persist. John’s gospel was written 30-50 years after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem—what in effect looked like the destruction of Judaism. And yet, inconceivably, Judaism and the burgeoning movement called the Way—what would eventually be called Christianity—evolved and continued.
Church is not about its own survival. It’s about changed lives and a changed world. It’s about being compelled by the image of God within us and recognizing that image in everyone else and lifting it up. It’s about accepting the reality of life which includes death and life that goes on. It’s about conceiving how to live as faithful people in this time, in this place, not for ourselves but for the last, the least, and the lost. It’s about taking risks for the sake of the gospel. It’s about taking Jesus seriously.
Church is about being born again. Inconceivable? I do not think that word means what we think it means.