August 7- sermon- Rev. Brian Bagley-Bonner

Sermon Text...


Rev. Brian Bagley-Bonner

August 7, 2022


Being Born Again? John 3:1-17 On the occasion of her 8th birthday, my Great-Niece, Molly Grace Russell got on the school bus and informed the driver that it was her birthday. “Happy Birthday!” the driver said. Then after a brief pause she went on, “You can announce it over the loudspeaker,” which he did, and she got some high fives from the teenagers on the bus. It is hard to say no to this young lady. Our scripture this morning also talks about birth, but a different kind. It is among the most recognized readings in the Greek Testament: the meeting of the Pharisee, Nicodemus, and Jesus. Nicodemus has some positive things to say to Jesus, but given that he came at night, he and the colleagues do not want to be seen as too chummy with Jesus. The Gospel writer has Jesus use this opportunity to teach Nicodemus some basic truths. But the very first one confuses Nicodemus. “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again or from above.” The modifier for the word, born, is a word much like to/two/too in English. It can mean either “again” or “from above” and there is really no way to tell when you hear it. No wonder Nicodemus is confused. But Jesus clarifies this by talking about being born of the Spirit, a spiritual birth. This is not an encore performance of the physical birth. And Jesus goes on to say that the spiritual birth is mysterious: “the wind or spirit,” again an ambiguous word that means both in the language of the gospel... “the wind or spirit blows where it will.” Over the last ½ century or so, the phrase, “born –again” has come to mean something very specific – it describes a person who has, at a specific and identifiable time, accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior or agreed to the 4 spiritual laws, or came forward at an Some even suggest you have to have this experience to be a “true” Christian – Often this decision was linked to a very specific list of laws or beliefs. Having grown up in the Nazarene Church, I had such an experience, and renewed it more than once in my life. These experiences were very meaningful and important. But does that mean everyone has to have them just like I did in order to be a “true” follower of Jesus?. Absolutely not, Remember my niece, Molly Grace Russell – She was born about 3:00 am one early Saturday morning. She came via Cesarean Section because she was stuck after 2 hours of pushing. Apparently little Molly had her head at an odd angle which prevented her escape. (Hmmm. a precursor of that powerful stubbornness she sometimes exhibits)? Molly Grace Russell’s birth, like every birth, was totally unique. It will have its own story forever. It will be similar to many, but never exactly the same. In an interesting convergence, both Jude and I as hospice chaplains, came to see that the same kind of uniqueness occurs at the end of life as well. Each person’s leaving of this world and life, just like their entrance, is totally unique. So as we talk about Jesus’ words about a spiritual birth, we can say that just like all our physical transitions, each person’s spiritual birth and experience is unique. Our amazing and endlessly creative God made life that way. Jesus tells us that we must have a connection to God in our life, and how it happens is particular to you and God. The depth of this is revealed in Jesus’ words of explanation to Nicodemus – “The wind or Spirit blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” The spiritual experience is not about a certain belief system, or a particular action, or an ecclesial or familial affiliation. The spiritual birth each of us has is a mystery. Like the wind, we can see evidence of it, but we cannot nail it down and bottle it. In its wider history, the church has debated what being born from above means. Some suggest it is found in baptism, some suggest a radical point of decision, still others suggest it is found in being a part of a church dedicated to following Christ. Another way to see it is as an ongoing and growing relationship. There are examples of all these in the New Testament. The Gospel of John and many of the later books in the Bible emphasize baptism as a sign of faith. The story of Saul, the one who persecuted the church, who becomes Paul, the great evangelist to the Gentiles is one of radical conversion. Timothy comes to mind as I consider those of us who have grown up in the church. Both his Mother and Grand-Mother are followers of Christ, and Paul recognizes his faith by taking him on the Missionary journey with him. Finally, the 12 disciples come to mind as a perfect example of people in an on-going relationship with Jesus. His only call to them initially is “follow me.” There are no litmus tests for what they believe… no necessary rituals to seal the deal. Later they do make confessions of belief, and they participate in rituals like communion during their final Passover feast together. These are important points in their faith journey – but they take place in the context of an on-going relationship with Christ. One of the best and worst parts of my job as a clergyperson is helping people get married. It is the best when the couple understands that the wedding itself is only the beginning and they work with me to prepare for their on-going relationship. It is at its worst when I have worked with couples who don't put much effort into this part and think the wedding day is really what it is all about. Now and then I hear about one of the very few couples to whom I suggested waiting to marry to work on strengthening their relationship. As you can imagine, the accounts of the end of the marriages are tragic and deeply saddening. This difference between the wedding and the relationship is a perfect metaphor for our spiritual life. No matter how we enter into a relationship with God, our entry is only a beginning. A good start is important, but only because it can lead to a good on-going relationship. And yet the church over time has insisted that only certain paths are valid connections with God. Holding to the belief that we know the only “right” way to God has led to the Church's worst failures; the Inquisition, the Crusades, the Holocaust, violence against gay, lesbian and transgender people; destructive missionary activity, on-going religious violence. Granted, often these actions were political in nature, but the church allowed itself to be used in these atrocities. Sometimes it appears the church has been more interested in keeping people out than in welcoming people. We love to be “in the know.” To have the right answer of what someone needs to do to be a Christian. It is a common human failing, wanting to be “in-the-know.” But Jesus reminds us that the wind blows where it will and the untamed Spirit of God is not able to be understood and explained. The words of Jesus make it clear. It is not our job to keep people out of the church, or declare them out of relationship with God. God is not interested in keeping people away: ‘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. And we notice that it is belief in Jesus – not prescribed beliefs about Jesus that is the key. The word “believe” means someone you trust. It is not an idea, but rather an indication of relationship. We entrust our spiritual well-being to the Christ. That is what it means to be a Christian. If we look at the life of the Universe, the vast amount of time it has existed is huge compared to the teeny weeny short time of human thought and theology. The vastness of the universe is a great mystery. How could we possibly understand it, much less the God who created it? Our task as the church is to join God in saving the world by proclaiming a Gospel of love and welcome. We are not called to nail down the right theology so people can have correct beliefs in order to get to God. We can’t do that. We don’t have the power to understand everything or even explain the Spirit that blows where it will. So our Sundays and our studies and our service should all draw us closer experientially to God. – Oh not that we will dumb down our work, God can be reached through our intellect as well, but not to the exclusion of our heart and our body and our spirits. We never stop learning how to connect with God. One of the reasons we sing in church is that music is the language of the soul. We need to expand and widen our use of music. One of the reasons we greet each other every Sunday is that our connection with God is strengthened when we connect with one another. Our goal is to draw ever closer to God who loves us and wants to pull us into relationship. And so as the scripture God sends Jesus, to show us how to do that. We need to be born from above, not as a one time thing, but as an on-going, constantly being renewed relationship with God. Let us try to deepen this relationship as we recover from Covid-19 in this Lent. May God give us the strength to open our hearts more and more to the untamed Spirit as it blows through our lives. AMEN