2015-05-31 by George Kaplan
Preacher: Michael Nimz
31st May 2015
Reading: John 3:1-17
John 3:1-17 (NIV)
1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council.
2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.
6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.
7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’
8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?
11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.
12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?
13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.
14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,
15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
I have titled this message, don’t be a gherkin. The idea comes from an old television program that focused on the New Wave and Punk scene in Los Angeles in the early eighties. The program’s host was rather pretentious, yet rather endearing and creative. He was quite concerned with the meaning of life in relation to the political climate at the height of the Cold War. He referred to the politicians and those in corporate power as gherkins. They were old, stuck in their ways of thinking and acting, and not likely to change in the future. They were pickled and their ideas had a long shelf life that was a little too acidic for his tastes. Sometimes our ideas about faith and life can get pickled as well.
I am going to start off with a bit of insight into me. Since I have moved to the U.K., I have had the opportunity to re-examine much of what I know about life and faith. I have had the opportunity to hear different theological approaches to understanding portions of the Christian faith. Some of these have been very good an others have not. I have had the opportunity to listen people who have taken a long and serious look at Anabaptist thought without the North American evangelical influence.
I have also been introduced to some different philosophers and to people who have taken the time to read and discuss some of the ideas that these philosophers represent. They raise questions about how we understand life and truth. They open up the discussion about how we have viewed these in the past and what that means for today and tomorrow.
I was not raised in a church that placed an emphasis on being born again. I had a brief encounter with it in my teens, but didn’t really hear the phrase used much until I was in seminary. It was there that I needed to share a “born again experience”. This was one of the ways used to prove to the that I was a “true” Christian.
Being born again is usually synonymous with making the decision for Christ. It is supposed to happen with an emotional outpouring of that comes with the recognition of our sinful nature and simultaneously accepting that we have been forgiven for our sinful ways when we don’t deserve it. Apparently, one can’t be born again without the emotional outpouring that can be placed in a specific place in time.
For me, and for a number of other people, being born again seems to have something missing, or something the causes a disconnect in our understanding of faith and life in Christ. The concept of being born again seems to separate Jesus as Saviour from Jesus as Lord It separates salvation from sanctification and can lead to the very real and probably more true than not, “saved atheist”. One who has made the decision to ask Jesus to be Saviour without ever having to do anything that Jesus said we are to do.
Some of us believe that Jesus cannot be Saviour without being Lord. The confession needs to be shown through a life that is lived in a way that is consistent with the teachings of Jesus. Jesus even challenged those who claimed to follow him when he said, “Why do you call me Lord and then don’t do what I say?”
David Fitch points out how this separation of salvation and sanctification through a young celebrity. He uses the term decision instead of being born again. “Jessica Simpson, the MTV celebrity early in the first decades of the 2000s, represents what it looks like when someone over-identifies with the evangelical signifier, “the decision”. She was a music-performer of significant celebrity. She attained enormous television exposure on her own MTV reality show The Newlyweds. Part of her novelty was that she presented herself as a Christian on her show (“Jesus is my homeboy”) and declared her commitment to remain a virgin until married (a signpost of an evangelical youth in the nineties). When she exploited (or was exploited for) her sexuality on both TV and film, evangelicals proved their cynicism and largely ignored her. For many evangelicals, she was just another “backslider,” someone who didn’t ‘get’ what it means to be a Christian. When she was criticized, however, by evangelicals for appearing provocatively in the music video for the song These Boots Were Made For Walking, she defended herself by saying, “I was criticized for my looks in the Christian world. They said I was too sexy to sing Christian music…I think if they were really good Christians judgement wouldn’t be there.” She in essence told all evangelicals, with the bravado of her larger-than-life public persona, “You have missed the point! If you were really saved, you would accept me for who I am. For we who have been forgiven (Made the decision!) are free now to do anything we desire, and you should quit resenting it! In a classic way, Simpson the television persona carried the logic of “the decision” to its extreme, exposing its emptiness. “It is not about works.” In terms of real life, therefore, it means nothing.
Jessica famously complained that “they would never let me sing solos in church, because they said I made the men in the congregation lust.” Here Jessica exemplified for evangelicals the quality that makes “the decision” an empty signifier: “the decision” enables salvation to completely bypass the body as a relevant salvation. As a result, in heinous fashion, we see Jessica as a church-going teenager singing on Sunday morning, testifying to God’s grace while being leered at by men in the pews who have been saved but have nowhere to go with their desire. In so testifying, Jessica reveals for the evangelical church itself the horror of ‘the decision‘. We’re saved – but it’s still not safe for a shapely teenage girl to sing in church on Sunday! She reveals the lack that lies behind the evangelical belief and practice of salvation.” (Fitch, David E., The End of Evangelicalism?, Cascade Book, Eugene Oregon, 2011, pp. 89-90)
In all of this we see the way the ideology of “the decision” has shaped us for duplicity as evangelicals in the world. It is a belief and practice that distances us from our bodies and everyday lives. Salvation becomes our own personal “assurance of heaven”, not a way of life. The belief and practice of “the decision” then sets us up over against others who threaten our structures for morality. This tragically leads to a hypocrisy before the world, not just because we will inevitably be saying one thing and doing another – this is common to all people – but because we make demands upon others so that we can “enjoy” feeling better about ourselves. In so doing, “the decision” sets us over and against those who would challenge our morality. We resent them and then preach against them while they do the very same things we end up doing ourselves. We, however, are already forgiven for doing it, yet our lives show no difference. This is the brand of duplicity we live that so enrages the world. (Fitch, David E., The End of Evangelicalism?, Cascade Book, Eugene Oregon, 2011, pg. 98)
So, what needs to happen to change this? Will a different understanding of this particular passage help us?
Bart Ehrman points to an Aramaic conversation happening between Jesus and Nicodemus. It would make sense that the original conversation would nave taken place in a language other than Greek version we translate from. This would lead to a little different translation of what was said and could give us another approach and possibly a more clear understanding of the whole passage. There is an Aramaic version of the Gospel of John in the Syriac Peshitta. In this the wording of the conversation could not be translated as born a second time. It must be translated as born from above, but a more literal interpretation, however, would read as born from the head.
The only way the conversation can take place as we read it is in Greek. It is in the Greek that this can be translated as either born from above or born a second time. When we see it in this light, it is almost as though Nicodemus is trying be a bit cheeky with Jesus in the conversation. I would suggest that reading it in this fashion takes out some of the disjointed nature of the conversation. I feel it puts Jesus’ reply to Nicodemus in a context that expands on the idea of being born from above.
Throughout the Gospel, John uses the term that is translated in this passage as born again in a different way. Overwhelmingly, term used in this passage is translated as born from above everywhere else in John. It is possible that the two different uses were intended, but it would create an inconsistency in the theme of the Gospel.
What happens when we keep this discussion in line with the opening of the Gospel? In the beginning was the Word, or in the Greek context, in the beginning was the Logos. The cultural understanding of logos at that time would have been strongly influenced by Stoic philosophy that would use it more with the understanding that identified the idea with the divine animating principle pervading the Universe. It represented a knowledge or wisdom that ordered and created the universe as it is known. A knowledge that would not come from humans, but from somewhere beyond the human realm.
Jesus challenges Nicodemus on his approach to understanding what he knows. He accuses Nicodemus, and probably the Pharisees of not being able to understand what they can see here on earth. If they can’t even grasp that, how are they going to understand those ideas that they can’t see directly presented in an earthly context? Nicodemus’ opening statement, about the Pharisees knowing that Jesus is a teacher that comes from God needs to be brought in to this discussion. They can see that what Jesus is doing can only come from the help or direct action of God. Yet, it would appear that they don’t believe that what they are seeing is actually coming from God.
What is this idea of being born from above? Is it a change in the way we think? Is being more deliberate to try and live out what Jesus taught? Does it mean that we try to follow God regardless of how ridiculous it appears to the rest of the world? Can we understand it through intellectual pursuit? Or, do we need to live it out what Jesus has said in order to begin to comprehend?
I think one of the areas that this may play out in could be in the debate over pacifism and “just war theory”. Human nature plays out that we sometimes need to over come evil with force. Jesus tells us to do something different. The peace stance seems to be absolutely ridiculous. But, as we begin to put various aspects of the peace practice into our lives, we something begin to happen. We see a change in ourselves and even more importantly, in our relationships. We start to comprehend what this kind of action can do on ever increasing scales.
But, it also starts to impact other parts of our lives. We start to look at ways to limit the need for confrontation with others and not just ways of creating peace where there isn’t any. It is a process of growth that seems to start with following an idea, putting some aspects in practice and then building on that.
I think, for me at least, being born from above is changing the way of thinking that I was brought up with to a way of thinking that tries to follow Jesus. It means that I have to be willing to accept that what I have been taught by my family or my culture may not be something that is consistent with what I am called to do as a disciple of Christ. It also means that I may not understand what I am called to do until after I try to do it. It means that I claim God as the parent, I am born from above. Amen.