Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Spiritual Rebirth

Jesus answered, "I'm telling you the truth. No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."

 We departed for the summer and maybe for longer, it seems to be going well, from the lectionary that I'm accustomed to preaching on, to preach on spiritual landmarks that are actually just landmarks for my spiritual life, some of the landmark passages that have guided me and have meant a lot to many through the years. This, of course, is one for me, as it is probably for just about everyone. 

Transcript of the [audio for this sermon] preached extemporaneously
at Briensburg UMC on August 18, 2019.

One of the most famous passages in the world, where it tells about Nicodemus meeting with Jesus at night, and Jesus explaining to him that you must be born again, which in turn has become a phrase that's been interpreted many different ways through the centuries, sometimes in ways that are helpful and sometimes in ways that are hurtful.

But it's still there for us to grapple with, to try to understand and to live into, as are all the passages in the Bible. The idea of being born again is one of a new beginning, a new start, and so even with a lot of different theologies taking that in a lot of different directions, it still comes down to something that we experience, something that we decide, something that we're a part of, something that is a change taking place in our personal lives. And not only in our personal lives but our lives of our family and our friends, our relationships, our congregation, and our world.

Jesus reminds us in the description of the judgment picture that he paints, where he separates the sheep from the goats in Matthew 25, that we're not just being looked at as individuals. In that passage he calls it the judgment of the nations. We're looked at collectively. And so the promise of rebirth and renewal and regeneration and refreshing are for us as individuals and collectively. God is doing new things all the time, making new adjustments and new changes in our lives to bring us to the fullness and the completeness of all the glory that he had for us, as expressed in Charles Wesley's hymn Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, where it says, "Crowned and changed from glory unto glory til in heaven we take our place, til we cast our crowns before him, lost in wonder, love, and praise."

And so the concept of spiritual rebirth is a concept of constant change and renewal and new beginnings, day by day, even hour by hour, moment by moment, situation by situation. John, in his letter that he wrote later, one of his letters he wrote later, described more about what it means to be born again, born of the Spirit. When he wrote my favorite Bible verses, I don't know if he meant them to be my favorite Bible verses, but they are. 1 John 4:7 and 8, "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God, and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Those who do not love do not know God, for God is love."

Our scriptures are filled with all kinds of verses that are quoted for all kinds of things. Our hymns are filled with refreshing stanzas and poetry that applies in so many different ways. But the way that Jesus applied it every time was through the lens of love, and so if anything we understand in the Bible seems out of kilter with the command that God gives us to love one another, then something needs to be changed, but not that. That means that our understanding might be messed up. Something may be wrong with something else. But the law of love stands above all others, and Jesus gave it even as Moses gave it, the great command, and said, "On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." He gave us a basis for interpreting everything in scripture. If we don't understand something in that light, then we need to learn a little more about it.

One of our great hymns of our church, number 57 in the hymnal, like a theme song for Methodists all along, O for a Thousand Tongues To Sing, ends with a last stanza saying, "Anticipate your heaven below and own that love is heaven." And Charles Wesley, his hymns reflect that same, in many of the hymns that we sing, that we're called to love. And St. John here says that's what it means to be born again. To be a born-again Christian means now you look at everything through the lens of love. Now Christ's command, "Love one another as I have loved you," is paramount for you and for your life and for your soul and for anything else that you're in charge of, that you will love as Christ has loved.

Romans 12:2 kind of says this in the message, "God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you." We may be more familiar with the King James translation that says, "Be ye not conformed to the world but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind." We're called to be renewed in our minds, in our spirit, in our heart, to look at things in a new way and to discover new deeper meanings and ways and to dig a little deeper in wells, look and see what things really mean, look and see what God is really saying to us in the scripture, in the fellowship of the church, in the Bible, in the hymns, in nature, in our relationships and conversations. And let ourselves be renewed, constantly refreshed, constantly growing.

It's an invitation to constant change. It's an invitation to constant discovery and wonderment at all that God has given to us and made us to be. We're created in the image of God, the Bible tells us. In some theological traditions, that has all been tossed out as being just too bad to even consider. But in our theological heritage, the image of God is stamped in the development of the soul of every person. And so the way we look at things is that God is in everybody. Everybody reflects a piece of who God is, something of God. The more we see that, then the more we really see each other as we really are and look past some of the things that are difficult sometimes to look past, in ourselves and in other people, and see the image of God. Permanent, a part of the creation of humanity, in each and every person, regardless of what else may be swirling around and what other thoughts and feelings and beliefs and practices and ideas, for the better, for the worse. Each of us.

The person that stands out to me as really demonstrating that in her life and ministry is Mother Teresa in our generation, because she said that's what she did. She went, and no matter how high and mighty and haughty or how low and poor and impoverished, and everything in between, she said she saw Jesus. Each and every person. What a transforming way to think. Is that a transformation of our minds? Would that be a transformation of your mind if you saw Jesus in every person? You must be born again in that Word for that to even start happening. That's what it means.

So Christ helped us to that, and to where that kind of an attitude where we see each other the way Christ sees us, where we love each other the way Christ loves us, where we see God in each other, that transformation and renewal of our minds. And then when Peter went to see Cornelius, there is a whole story about that with the sheet that came down and the vision and all this, but when Peter went to see Cornelius, and he was talking to them about all these things, about the Gospel, about Jesus, about the Holy Spirit, he recognized they had the same spirit in them that he had in him and that his friends back home had in them. And he said, "These people have received the same Spirit, just as we also have."

I think that helps us to see that whatever differences we might see in each other or the people around us, around any issue, it's the same Spirit at work within us. What he was driving at was that that same Spirit working within us and demonstrating the power of the Gospel was the proof of the pudding. That's what made it apparent that these were of the same Spirit, when they were ministering the same kinds of gifts, doing the same kinds of things, loving as they were called to love.

And we have all these spiritual gifts that come with our faith, that come with our spiritual rebirth and renewal and growth, the gifts of the Holy Spirit. As we minister those to each other and the community around us, then that kind of overcomes any kind of a verbal argument that we could make. You know, a picture paints a thousand words and things like that. Our actions speak louder than our words. If you have in you the same Spirit that Christ has in him, then the same things will follow in your way. There will be people who are touched with love, people whose lives are being healed. There will be people who are being blessed. There will be people who are being nurtured in the faith.

And so let us minister those spiritual gifts if that's what's in us. If we're really born again of the Spirit, if we're walking after the Spirit and we're growing in the Spirit, then let's minister those spiritual gifts. Jesus went on in this passage, beyond this first part of this conversation, to tell Nicodemus an example from the Exodus. Nicodemus was familiar with that, but there are those who decided to take that story of the Exodus out of the Bible, along with the Revelation and with some other passages of scripture, in their ministry to the slaves in the 1900s, in order to remove hope from their faith.

Jesus went on then to tell about John 3:16. Let's say that together. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life."

That's a promise and an invitation for everyone. We can't be letting that be twisted and abused for oppressive purposes, but we have to stand up for it, the things that are right, and stand against the things that are wrong, stand against the things that are abusive and discriminatory and exclusive and cause suffering and division and pain.

Because then Jesus went right on in the next verse and said that God did not send him to condemn anyone, but to save everyone. And he went on to explain that none of what he was doing was condemning anybody. If there is any condemnation, it's the self-condemnation of those who see the light and choose the darkness. So the conversation with Nicodemus is quite a landmark there. It gives us a lot of food for thought, doesn't it? 

For our spiritual growth for ourselves and for our church and the community, you must be born again.