Our Wednesday Bible studies are currently reading through the Gospel of John. A few weeks ago, when we were reading through chapter 3, which is what we heard this morning, someone remarked that in John’s gospel, Jesus sounds like Yoda; he’s always speaking in these weird and inaccessible riddles and redundancies. I thought that was a great way to describe John’s Jesus. The Gospel of John is a lot like good poetry, or a great symphony: it rewards spending a lot of time with it, chewing it over, coming back to it again and again, just sitting with it, more than it rewards analysis and explanation. The trick to appreciating John’s gospel is to hone in on one idea or phrase, or image, and just sort of sit with it, rather than trying to take in too much of it at once.
Today’s lesson contains a concept that has become a bit of a lightning rod in contemporary Christianity: the idea of being born again, or born from above. For a certain segment of Christianity, this has become a kind of litmus test: have you been born again becomes another way of asking, are you legit? In this context, being “born again” usually means having a one-time, permanent, emotional conversation experience. For those of us whose faith hasn’t worked like this, listening to Jesus talk about being born again becomes a stumbling block that is easy to dismiss.
I’ve known a lot of people who have had dramatic experiences of God’s love and, and who have had their lives turned around on a dime. But of course, not everyone’s faith works in quite that way. I think we miss something really important if we limit being born again to a dramatic conversion experience. So it seems to me that there are at least three important things to take from Jesus’ words this morning.
First, to be born from above is to have a life which is pointed toward God, and oriented around God’s love. There’s a story of a navy warship that is sailing on a foggy night and sees a light coming toward it in the distance. The captain walked to the helm and heard a voice come over the radio saying, “Attention, adjust your course thirty degrees immediately.” The captain got on the radio and responded, “No, you adjust. I am an admiral in the U.S. Navy. Who am I speaking to?”
“I am an ensign in the U.S. Coast Guard.”
“Then I suggest you adjust your course.”
“No, sir, you adjust yours.”
The two argued back and forth about who was going to adjust, until finally the admiral shouted:
“We are a U.S. Navy warship. You adjust.”
And the ensign replied, “Well, sir, we are a lighthouse.”
Everyone is willing to adjust the course of their heart, and mind, and life for something. If it’s money, you’ll spend all your time arranging your life so that you have money. If it’s popularity, you’ll do everything you do so that people will like you. If it’s career, you’ll spend all your time and energy pursuing that. If it’s another person, your whole life will be about making that spouse or child or parent or whoever happy. To be born from above means that we become willing to adjust our course and be driven in our thinking and acting by God’s love, God’s justice, God’s mercy. It means that those things are the lighthouse that we have to adjust for and shape ourselves around. Those are the things which drive us most and guide what we do. Life can be hard. Life can sometimes feel like a series of annoyances and crises. Keeping our eyes fixed on God, letting him be the lighthouse, helps us keep the daily struggles we face in perspective.
The fact that Jesus gives us the possibility of being born from above also means that we always have the possibility to turn around, to point our lives in another direction. No matter how bad things have become, we can always start again. We can always turn to God, and have his help in turning from bitterness to forgiveness, from vengeance to mercy, from sadness to joy. With God, it is never too late. We can always turn around, adjust course, and begin again. Always.
And the third thing that being born from above means is that this turning around is from above, not from ourselves, and not from anyone or anything else. In some ways the whole point of this dense and complex passage is that Jesus is the Savior, and no one else. Not me, not you, not money, not a nice house, not your spouse, not your children, but Jesus.
Everybody’s looking for a savior. Every single one of us has experienced pain in our lives, and we are all searching for something or someone to help us know love, and peace, and joy. We all try to get that from lots of things and lots of people. But we are never truly, deeply joyful or peaceful until we seek that salvation in the only one who can give it: in Jesus. The one whom God has sent.
Today is Trinity Sunday, and so I hope at the very least you’re happy that I’ve spared you from a long explanation of a complex doctrine. I haven’t even used the word “perichoresis.” But I will say this: if you think that the doctrine of the Trinity is hard to believe, that it is weird and irrational, then you’re thinking about it correctly, because in some ways that’s the whole point. The whole point of concocting a dense, and irrational, and complicated way of describing God is to remind us that can’t be limited by our ideas and formulas. Faith isn’t something we do by our intellectual might and understanding; faith is a gift we receive from God. Faith itself is part of being born from above. The crazy, irrational, dense doctrine of the Trinity forces us to remember that.
Since we’re talking about being born again, we should also have an altar call. As Episcopalians, we often don’t know what to make of the altar calls that happen in some churches, where people are invited forward after a long sermon to have one of those emotional conversion experiences, but we too have an altar call. Every week, every-one is invited to this altar, no matter who you are, or where you are. And when you come and hold out your hands to receive the bread, your also invited to hold out your spirit, to re-orient your life to God. You’re invited to reconnect with what is most important, to adjust your course in the midst of all that life is throwing at you, toward the lighthouse that is God. Jesus said, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Come to this table, and be reborn each day, each week, and each moment, from God’s power, and God’s love, and know the kingdom in the midst of your life. Amen.