Born of Spirit

May 30, 2021

Series: May 2021

Category: So-called Christian Values

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Today's Scripture: John 3:1-8

Today's Sermon


"Born of Spirit"


John 3:1-8

          1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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.”3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind 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.”  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD.

“Born of Spirit”

            Throughout this whole time since the pandemic began, I have detected and experienced two competing impulses.  The first was get back to normal.  Normal never sounded so enticing.  I would just like to go here or do this.   I would just like not to have to wear a mask.  I would just like to see my family or travel.  The second is to do anything but return to the way it was.  We have had some revelations about how things were, or weren’t working.  What may have started for many as a time to binge watch Netflix or cute animal videos on social media, has turned into a protracted examination of our lives and priorities.  All throughout, we’ve been swimming rather vulnerably in these unfamiliar currents, looking for signs of hope.

            There’s something right about each of these impulses.  While some have the luxury of pontificating about what should change, others have been floundering or worse.  They would give anything to go back to the way it was, as flawed as that may have been. I hope it’s a while before we take for granted the gifted of being with people face to face, of having relationships not exclusively mediated through screens.  Maybe the old-fashioned shared meal starts to feel sacramental again, as does the simple visit.  Might we cultivate gratitude practices, treasuring the gifts and opportunities we have as we start to have them again as we readjust to a more normal life? 

            And, of course, some things need to change.  It’s not lost on me that this week was the anniversary of George Floyd’s killing.  Some things need to change.  From the sublime to the mundane, think of the change that’s come to so many areas of our lives–how we work, where we’ll live—will we consider staying closer together as families now?  I noticed something about the way we go to the doctor over video conference. Now, rather than sitting in the doctor’s office, sometimes stripped down to a gown, now we meet face to face and just as much as I’m in their office, they’re in my study and feels to me as though we meet far more as equals.  We may look at how this time has exposed things we want to change, the inequity in education, healthcare, childcare, or wages.  Martin Luther King was said there are certain things we should be glad to be maladjusted to—bigotry, poverty in the midst of affluence, violence.[1]  There are parts of normal with which we don’t want to grow comfortable.

            It’s complex.  I was reading this week about how going back to school has not been a welcome change for many in the disabled community, because during the pandemic for the first time they were on a truly level playing field.  For others, the home was anything but a stable and conducive learning environment. 

          In light of this, I wonder what you are thinking.  What do you want less of and what do you want more of in order to better align with your values?  From time to time next year, when it’s easier to congregate, we’re going to hold small group conversations about themes raised in the service.  Today would have been a perfect occasion.  What do you want less of and what more in its place? Maybe it’s time to build your list.

            The story about Nicodemus is rich for those of us who want to consider what we want life to be moving forward.  First, Nicodemus, like all of us, carries with him a past.  He was a Pharisee, a religious leader from a storied tradition.  This doesn’t make him antagonistic toward Jesus, though it might be the reason he comes to see Jesus under the cover of night.  He calls Jesus “a teacher who has come from God” (Jn. 3: 2).  What he can’t quite do is fully see the picture Jesus is painting of the kingdom of God, because he is stuck seeing things from a human point of view.  How can someone enter the womb of their mother a second time?  Jesus is talking about another kind of birth, birthing a new way of being and being in relationship.

            Jesus says this divine new birth comes from water and Spirit, water, we presume, meaning the human ritual of baptism, turning from sin and harmfulness, ways that are strong in the world.  Spirit is the way of God.  This is where we, as Christians, often get it wrong, and to no real fault.  We are just living into what we’ve been taught.  Both Jesus and Paul contrast the Spirit and flesh, and we have been taught that means our bodies, and by extension the physical world, is bad, while the Spirit only exists in the disembodied and invisible. As a result, the church has spent generations layering people with shame and guilt for having the desires and needs bodies have.  Yes, Scripture speaks of self-control or bodily body, but to equate our bodies with bad or fallen or profane is not only too simple; it’s plain wrong.

            For Jesus, and even for Paul, though we wouldn’t quite equate their terminologies, the contrast between flesh and spirit is not between material and immaterial, but between the sort of superficial human way of seeing things and the godly way, a set of self-serving values and wider-serving servant values, at least that is how New Testament scholar Francis Maloney describes it in part.[2]  Marianne Borg says, “It’s like Jesus saw things from the inside out.”[3]  I love that. Jesus wants Nicodemus not to view things so superficially, but get to the heart of things because that totally shifts the way one interacts with the world around. 

            Coming out of the pandemic is a little like being born again, which is how some of your translations renders Jesus’ statement.  This leads me to a couple observations.  The first, most obvious, observation is that being born is a tender experience.  Growing from a few cells to a complex human body is hard work, and so the womb is this incredibly supportive environment.  It’s safe and warm, small and confined, where every nourishment is provided.  Then, the baby is born in to a world that big and scary, loud, cold, and unfamiliar.  I wonder if we could cultivate a little tenderness as we experience our newborn lives, and the different ways people are emerging.

            The second observation is, like Nicodemus, we get have some choice over the nature of the life that emerges.  Will we stay stuck in some of the superficial or sinful (hurtful) ways of being, or will we be born from above, of Spirit?  Really, it’s not one big choice, but 1,000 choices a day, made in ordinary moments.  Just as Jesus teaches through the illustration of being born, so can we learn from considering how we shape children.  You know I have been at my fair share of little league games recently.  The other day before one child went up to bat, a parent, a woman working the dugout got in his face and said, “see that kid” pointing to the pitcher, “he broke into your home and took all your stuff.  Now go up there and hit it down his throat.” Eight years old.  Born of flesh, the worst of the world’s values. Contrast that to, “Hey, are you ready? I believe in you.  I’m cheering for you.  You can do this.”  And, afterwards, regardless of outcome.  “Hey, you did it.  I’m proud of you.”  If it didn’t go well, “I’m here to help.  You’ll get it.  I believe in you.”  Born of Spirit.

            Sometimes, it is the flesh’s inadequacy makes it easier to see the heart of things.  Here I mean that literally.  Returning to the image of binge-watching videos, I came across one about a little freshwater turtle someone rescued.  The turtle was teeny, the size of a coin.  The rescuer took her home because he believed she had much of a chance to survive.  You see the turtle had a hole over her entire heart.  There was nothing but perhaps a thin membrane protecting her, and so as she swam against the glass of her tank, you could see her heart beating.

            The rescuer named her Hope, and there couldn’t be a more perfect name.  My hope is that as we emerge from this pandemic, we might show our hearts to the world, knowing there is risk in that.  We can’t be all exposed, but we also can’t be all shell. We need to show our love.  My hope also emerges from the fact we can recognize others showing their vulnerabilities, voluntarily or all too often involuntarily, and cultivate the capacity and commitment to care for them individually and systemically. 

            Wouldn’t that make for a decidedly and delightfully new normal?



[2]Francis Maloney, The Gospel of JohnSacra Pagina Series Vol. 4 (Collegeville:  The Liturgical Press, 1998), p. 99.