Coming to Believe
Almost everything about today’s gospel text from John is not only well-known, but has also been reduced to one-dimensional slogans in popular culture. Let’s begin with the phrase “born again,” which you’ll notice does not actually occur in today’s translation of the text, but which is another way to translate what in our text says “born from above.” What do you think of when you hear the phrase “born again”? Some of us associate that phrase exclusively with evangelical Christianity, or with the politically religious right, or with the Jesus People. Then there’s Nicodemus, who is usually portrayed as a kind of literal-minded Pharisee who just doesn’t get it. And finally there is the whole notion of believing in doctrines about Jesus in order to get into heaven after you die, because eternal life is automatically equated only with the afterlife. And, popular perception goes, you have to be 1000 percent convinced of the truth of church doctrine and have no doubts about it.
The great tragedy is that none of these cultural associations explores the real depths of this text. In fact, this text is actually one of the richest, most mystical scriptures of Christian spirituality. I am going to put all my cards on the table and say that I think we should reclaim this beautiful text for all its richness and nuance, because it describes a spiritual reality that is worth our whole lives to explore. I think it is the very people who probably are most turned off by the slogans this text has been reduced to—those good folks who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”—who might find the greatest treasure in this text.
Let’s start with Nicodemus. I love Nicodemus. He always gets a bad rap, at least in the sermons I grew up with, but I love him because he shows us the ambiguities of a life of faith. In fact I would even say he is the closest thing to a modern day Episcopalian that I’ve found in scripture. He is an honest, well-meaning, respectful, spiritual seeker with a great pedigree in religious tradition. He is more practical than mystical. When Jesus tells him he must be born from above, or born again, he just says, what, I’m supposed to get back into my mother’s womb?
But you know, in John’s Gospel, Nicodemus shows up a few more times. He defends Jesus to the other Pharisees later by at least saying that they ought to refrain from judging him until they give him a hearing, and then he is the one who goes and asks Pontius Pilate for Jesus’ body after Jesus has been crucified, so that he can be properly buried. Nicodemus remains an enigma—we never do hear whether or not he has a “born again” conversion experience—but he stays associated with Jesus. We don’t know what Nicodemus believes. But we do see him engaging in dialogue with Jesus.
Nicodemus models for us the beginning of a life of faith, which in John’s gospel is always a verb, not a noun. The Greek word for believing is exactly the same word as trusting, and is even used to describe “entrusting oneself” to someone else. In today’s text it is clear that this believing, this trusting in Christ is the key to having life—a life that begins now, in being born of God’s Spirit. But as all of us know, trust is a process that takes time. It comes in stages. It is less about intellectual certainty and more about a profound knowing that enables us to take risks on the basis of it.
As you all know I grew up in a different version of Christianity, and I had an experience, not of being born again, but of losing all faith in organized religion when I went to the Middle East as a twenty year old and saw people doing violence to one another in the name of God. I stayed “spiritual but not religious” for ten years or more, and then found myself attending Al-Anon, which is a 12 step program for the families and friends of alcoholics. I had a close family member who was an alcoholic, and someone recommended Al-Anon to me, so I went.
Well, as part of the program, I had to work the steps. The steps helped us to realize that we, as those who loved alcoholics, had become as insane as the alcoholics because we kept trying to fix them, even though it was patently obvious that this was impossible. We found out we needed help as much as the alcoholics did. Step two says this. “We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Well, as I told you, I had lost faith in organized religion long ago, and I was really suspicious of any idea of God because I knew how badly ideas of God could be used and abused. But there I was, being given the opportunity to “come to believe that a power greater than myself could restore me to sanity.” With the 12 steps you get to pick any notion of God or a higher power that sounds reasonable to you, so I eventually came to the idea that the only power greater than myself that I thought I could trust were the seasons. I could trust that no matter what anyone did or said, even if there were nuclear holocaust, that I could trust the seasons to turn. Winter always follows fall, and thanks be to God, spring always follows winter. So I had identified the power that I thought I could trust. Step Three of the 12 steps says, “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.” Once I had identified a power I thought I could trust, I was then invited to actually go ahead and my life and my will to that Power. And I did.
Now that was a long time ago, and my capacity to trust a Higher Power has evolved a great deal since then. I have since come to understand that although the seasons themselves could not restore me to sanity, the God who made the seasons could, and God was willing to work with me wherever I was at. That initial process of identifying something greater than myself that I could trust, and then making the choice to turn my life over to that power, was a process that did not end when I stopped needing to go to Al-Anon. It is a life-long process that is full of change and ambiguity. I think when John’s gospel talks about believing in Jesus, it means exactly this process of learning to trust, and then choosing to trust, over and over again. And then—the beauty of this kind of trust in Christ—is that it does in fact lead to newness of life. There is something that is radically new about this kind of living. It makes us born again, born from above, born of God’s Spirit. In John’s gospel eternal life is not associated only with the afterlife. Jesus says that this is eternal life: to know God and the one God has sent. Believing—trusting—opens us to the life of God’s Spirit, which blows life and vitality and love to us and through us.
And here’s the thing. Jesus in today’s text really sounds like a Zen Master because he says things that are full of paradox and impossibility. He tells Nicodemus that he “must be born from above.” Well as most of us know, although we can choose to trust, we can’t really choose to be born. Being born isn’t a choice that any of us make. It just happens to us by a miracle that none of us fully understands. One minute we’re snug and warm and maybe really cramped in our mother’s wombs; then we go through a long painful messy process and we see the light of day. One minute we are infants held in our parents’ arms; the next minute Blair is sprinkling water on our heads and anointing our foreheads with holy oil, marking us as Christ’s own, forever, in the sacrament of baptism. One minute we can’t imagine trusting God enough to take risks in following the way of Jesus; then we find, one day, that we as a St. Matthews community are doing things we couldn’t have imagined a few years ago, because God is calling us to journey into new and uncomfortable places like Youthlink, just like God called Abram to leave his father’s house and his own people and journey to an unknown place. A journey like that takes trust. It takes the trust of allowing our faith to see the light of day.
So I want to invite us to reclaim the notion of believing in Jesus as entrusting our individual and communal lives to Christ, enough that we are willing to take risks in his name. I don’t know where in your own life you find it most difficult to trust God. Maybe you’re about to go to college and you don’t know if you’ve got what it takes to support yourself financially and study alone and navigate college dynamics, and you’re not sure how trust in God could help you with that process. Maybe you’re looking at some difficult health issues and they scare the heck out of you, and trust is the last thing you can imagine feeling when your own mortality is staring you in the face. Maybe you have lost someone you loved and you can’t imagine trusting a God who could let something like that happen. Maybe the weight of the world is too heavy for you and you can’t imagine trusting that the whole cosmos could be born from above, a new heaven and earth that is restored to wholeness and an endless life rooted in the presence God.
Where do you find it difficult to trust, especially to trust in God? What would it take for you to imagine that trusting God need not involve blind faith, but a process of slowly following a way that leads to life, step by step? What if you dared to imagine that you could experience genuinely new life—a life that is not meant only for individuals but is inherent in God’s promise to make everything new?
This trust is rooted in God’s love. God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, that whoever entrusts themselves to him will not perish, but have eternal life. I invite you to allow these words to linger in your consciousness, to meet them as if for the first time. Allow these words to be liberated from whatever cultural associations you have had with them in the past. Allow these words to liberate you to come to believe in a power greater than yourself, the power of Christ crucified and risen, which can restore you to life. Amen