Born again (revised)

Lent 2 2011

John 3:1-17

Marian Free

In the name of God who asks that we find our true nature only in and through him. Amen.

Recently, a great many Brisbanites went to see an exhibition of lifelike sculptures by the artist Ron Mueck. The exhibition featured incredibly realistic representations of people – some life–size, some miniature and some gigantic. They were all amazing in their detail and their poignancy.  The image that most struck me was that of a giant baby. It was seventeen foot long and even lying down it would have been nearly twice my height. Yet – despite its size – there was no denying that it was a newborn child – the umbilical cord was still attached, there were still signs of blood smeared on it and the face was distorted from the birth. The sculpture is so confronting that the Transit Authority of Calgary (Canada) refused to have a poster of it on display on its buses.

It certainly is a challenging image – which is no doubt the intention of the artist. The baby girl is also compelling and strangely touching. I found something unbelievably moving in the juxtaposition of the enormity of the sculpture and the attendant vulnerability of the subject. That something so huge could be so utterly defenseless did not compute with my normal view of the world – a view in which bigger is usually stronger and less able to be hurt or destroyed. In the case of the sculpture, it wouldn’t have mattered how big it was, the subject would still be utterly dependent on the goodness of those around it for life itself.

No matter whether is it nine inches long or seventeen feet long, a human baby it completely dependent – unable to feed itself, dress itself or even to adequately communicate its needs. Ron Mueck’s baby is even more vulnerable because it is alone.

In today’s gospel, Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. Even though he is one of the Pharisees – a member of the opposition – he has sensed that Jesus is no ordinary person and that his teachings have a power that is more than human. 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.’ You and I might think that Nicodemus deserved acknowledgement of his courage in coming forward, when his fellow Pharisees dared not, or we might believe that at least he had earned recognition of his faith.

We are surprised then, that instead of commending Nicodemus for his wisdom and insight, Jesus responds with a challenge: ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus, understandably, is confused. How can one be born from above? How can one who is now an adult be born a second time? Must one do the absurd, if not impossible, and enter into their mother’s womb and be born again? The image is ludicrous – even for us. It is hard enough to imagine that a baby can safely exit the womb, let alone imagine that an adult can return and be born a second time.

Like Ron Mueck’s baby, Jesus’ statement is intended to challenge and confront his hearers. Just as the life-like baby forces observers to re-think their notions of size and power, so Jesus demands that Nicodemus re-consider his ideas of reality and his practice of his faith. Jesus wants him to see that entering the kingdom of heaven is not a matter of Pharisaic adherence to the law, but a way of life that expresses complete trust in and dependence on God.

By presenting Nicodemus with an impossibility, Jesus is trying to force Nicodemus into a new way of seeing things. He is encouraging him to think outside the frame of reference that he has as a member of the Pharisees – to understand that righteousness is not a matter of law, but of grace. Jesus wants Nicodemus to understand that what is required is more than mere intellectual assent to who he is. What is required, Jesus knows, is a suspension of rational thought, a willingness to be dependent on God and reliant on the Holy Spirit. It is, as Jesus suggests, a re-birth into a different dimension of existence which enables one to enter the kingdom of heaven.

The riddle about being born again is intended to free Nicodemus from his previous way of thinking and to open him to a new way of seeing things. Jesus wants to help Nicodemus to understand the new economy – to grasp that salvation is not so much something to be earned, but something to be received. Righteousness is not a matter of works but of faith. Nicodemus needs to learn that nothing he can do – even recognizing that Jesus is from God – will earn him salvation. On the other hand, if Nicodemus can learn to place his trust in God and not in himself, if Nicodemus can learn dependence instead of self-reliance, he will be on his way to understanding how it is that one enters the kingdom of heaven. Then he will be born into a new reality – a reality in which God’s grace, not human striving leads to salvation.

In the wilderness, Jesus had to face the test of whether he would rely on his own resources or whether he would place his trust in the goodness of God. Jesus chose dependence on God over self-reliance. By rejecting the temptation to go it alone, Jesus reversed the action of Adam and Eve who chose to turn their backs on God and to go their own way.

Jesus wants the Pharisee Nicodemus to know that grace, not the law has the power to save. Jesus wants Nicodemus, and therefore us, to know that only God and not our own endeavours can save us. This means letting go of all the striving, attention seeking and self-reliant ways of the world and becoming as vulnerable and dependent as a newborn child – utterly dependent on God’s goodness and grace. It means relying on God and not on our own ability to be or to do good. It means being born again as a child of God, allowing oneself to be led by the Spirit, and understanding that the economy of the kingdom is vastly different from the economy of the world.

Nicodemus thought that he understood the way to salvation. Jesus turns Nicodemus’ ideas on their head, asks him to suspend his intellect and his notions of reality and to trust God with his life instead of trying to enter the kingdom of heaven on his own (dubious) merits.

Through baptism, we are born again by water and the spirit, we are called to live our baptism reality day by day – living not according to the values of the world, but by the values of the kingdom. We are called to a relationship with God in which we are as dependent on God as a new born baby and totally reliant on God for our salvation.

{Original ending}

At our baptism we are born again by water and the spirit, but like Nicodemus, we continue to believe that it is what we do, not what God does that matters. Over and over again, we are called to die to ourselves and our own efforts at self-determination and to be born again into that spirit filled life which leads to the kingdom of heaven. Let us then live our baptism promises, place our trust wholly in God, knowing that then and only then, will we enter the kingdom of heaven.





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