Sometimes I believe that the industry producing magic markers and poster paper would go out of business if it were not for the 3rd chapter of John’s gospel. Wherever large groups of people are gathered together, you nearly always see people waving signs that say “You must be born again” and “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” or just “John 3:16.” But people hardly ever try to figure out how the two verses fit together.
On the surface there is no apparent connection between the two verses. One is an invitation to new life, the other is a powerful statement about God’s love. But both give Episcopalians a lot of trouble.
First, what about this “born again” business? Why do we need to be born again? I think that Episcopalians probably have as much trouble with this as Nicodemus did. Imagine Nicodemus’ reaction when Jesus told him that he needed to be born again. Nicodemus was a Jew, and then as now Jewishness was a matter of birth not choice. Under normal circumstances one is born a Jew, one does not convert to Judaism, and there is certainly no such thing as a “born again Jew.” Nicodemus could probably trace his ancestry back generations. He certainly knew to which tribe of Israel he belonged. Paul certainly did. In Philippians he reminds his readers that he belonged to the tribe of Benjamin. But if he were born again, he would have to give up all of that. If he were born again, there’s no telling who he would be. And that’s the problem. If he were born again, he might be a nobody! But Nicodemus was important; he was SOMEbody. John says that he was a “ruler of the Jews.” So why would he want to be born again?
Episcopalians have much the same problem with being born again. Do you know how many Episcopalians it takes to change a light bulb? Why, my grandmother gave that light bulb to the church. That’s a perfectly good light bulb. Why do you want to change it? First, the prayer book, then women priests and bishops, and now the light bulb!
Like Nicodemus, many of us can probably trace our ancestry back generations. We know that we are descended from great-great-great grandmother so and so who left England or France or Poland in the 18th or 19th century and came to America and married so and so who made a great fortune selling hot chestnuts on the streets of Manhattan and then lost it all in the crash of 1891 but they were all good Episcopalians and I don’t care if I’m born again or not but by golly I will always be an Episcopalian.
Part of the problem with Nicodemus, I think, is that he didn’t really hear what Jesus was saying. Jesus said, “You must be born again,” and Nicodemus took it too literally. “Must I return to my mother’s womb?” Nicodemus said with wonder and confusion and maybe some repugnance.
And when we hear Jesus say, “You must be born again,” we seem to think that Jesus is giving us a chance to live our lives all over again. Sometimes there seems to be a whole industry devoted to movies that exploit this idea of getting the chance to living our lives all over again. Think of the “Back to the Future” movies. Michael J. Fox’s character, Marty McFly, doesn’t exactly get to live his life over again, but he gets to go back and fix the things that were wrong in his life. Or think of the movie “Groundhog Day,” in which Bill Murray lives the same day over and over again until he gets it right.
But Jesus is not talking about living your life all over again; he’s talking about living a new life. “The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit." In other words, being born all over again means new life, a life that God chooses for us, a life that we don’t expect, but a life that is better. It means trusting God, a God who is full of surprises, a God who does new things. It means that the new life to which God raises us will be surprising; it may even be uncomfortable; but we know that it will be good.
And that’s where the other verse comes in. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son that who ever believes in him might not perish but have everlasting life.”
This verse also gives Episcopalians a lot of trouble, and again part of the problem is caused by the way we read it or hear it. When we hear “perish,” we think that “hell.” We think Jesus is saying that whoever does NOT believe in him will be sent to eternal punishment. But that may not be what Jesus is saying. This is not the time or place to discuss the idea of eternal punishment. I may deal with that in another sermon. But then again, I may not!
The fact is, all of us perish. Every Ash Wednesday, I impose ashes on your forehead and say, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We are dust and we will return to the dust. But Jesus tells us that dust and ashes and death do not have to have the last word. Jesus promises that we can have everlasting life. And I would add that everlasting life is not just something that starts when we die; it starts right now. It is part of the promise of being born again. But I will come back to that.
Another problem that Episcopalians have with John 3.16 is with the idea of God giving “his only begotten Son.” This causes all kinds of problems for people who believe that God somehow sentenced his Son to an agonizing death by being nailed to the Cross. I have a problem with that. I believe that everyone with a heart has a problem with that. I do not believe that in some sense God sentenced Jesus to die or that Jesus was a payment, a sacrifice that God demanded for the propitiation and expiation of human sin.
Here’s what I believe: I believe that Jesus was God’s Son, that in Jesus God chose to live a fully human life and that Jesus lived a life that led to the Cross. His path led to the Cross so that he could experience everything that we experience – darkness, betrayal, abandonment, suffering, and finally death.
I DO believe that Jesus chose to give up his life. I believe that he freely released his life, and I also believe that the Cross represents some kind of mysterious cosmic exchange – life given that life might be received.
And here is where the two verses come together.
The verse that Nicodemus misunderstood – “You must be born again” – does NOT mean that we can go back and live life all over again and fix all the things that we got wrong the first time. It means that new life can start any time. It can start right now. It means that God gives us a second chance and a third chance and as many chances as we need. But this new life that God gives us will surprise us. It may not be at all what we expect. God will ask us to do all kinds of new and unexpected things, even difficult and uncomfortable things, such as loving our neighbor, especially the neighbor we dislike. God asks us to love our Muslim neighbor. God asks Democrats to love their Romney-supporting neighbor. And God asks Republicans to love their Obama-supporting neighbor.
It also means that the perfect and eternal life that Jesus released on the Cross can be ours, that we can have new life, a life that does not end when the priest at our funeral says “dust to dust and ashes to ashes.” Now, I think that’s good news, don’t you?