Born Again or Transformed for What Ought to Be
Indianapolis First Friends Quaker Meeting
Pastor Bob Henry
May 12, 2019
This morning as we center down, I would like us to reflect on a verse from Rumi. I have come back to this verse on multiple occasions this week and in many of my conversations I found myself afterwards reflecting on these words. So, I will give some time for silence to calm our hearts, bodies and minds, and then I will read the verse and allow us to reflect.
“You were born with potential. You were born with goodness and trust. You were born with ideals and dreams. You were born with greatness. You were born with wings. You are not meant for crawling, so don’t. You have wings. Learn to use them and fly.”
“You sit here for days saying, this is strange business. You’re the strange business. You have the energy of the sun in you, but you keep knotting it up at the base of your spine. You’re some weird kind of gold that wants to stay melted in the furnace, so you won’t have to become coins.”
“Why should I stay at the bottom of a well when a strong rope is in my hand?”
“Become the sky. Take an axe to the prison wall. Escape.”
“Do you know what you are? You are a manuscript of a divine letter. You are a mirror reflecting a noble face. This universe is not outside of you. Look inside yourself; everything that you want, you are already that.”
This morning, we are going to look at what some people consider one of the most important conversations in scripture – a conversation between Jesus and the Pharisee leader, Nicodemus. Also, it may seem a bit ironic that on Mothers Days, of all days, we would be looking at the theological concept of being “born again.” Literally, that may be a nightmare for some mothers.
Our scriptures for this morning will include some of the most quoted scriptures and concepts in Christianity. Not only does it talk about one of the most controversial terms in Christianity – the concept of being “born again” it also closes with the most quoted verse from the New or Second Testament – John 3:16.
To lay a foundation, I would like to read our familiar text this morning from the Message translation. Eugene Peterson titled this section of John 3 “Born from Above.” That title is more than simply a title. It is actually a correction. Most modern texts translate the words “born again” but the reality is that John actually said something more in line with being “born from above” or “born of the Spirit from above.” This is key to our understanding and helps us manage these verses in light of the whole of scripture. Let me read the text from John 3:1-18 this morning.
John 3:1-18 (MSG) Born from Above
3 1-2 There was a man of the Pharisee sect, Nicodemus, a prominent leader among the Jews. Late one night he visited Jesus and said, “Rabbi, we all know you’re a teacher straight from God. No one could do all the God-pointing, God-revealing acts you do if God weren’t in on it.”
3 Jesus said, “You’re absolutely right. Take it from me: Unless a person is born from above, it’s not possible to see what I’m pointing to—to God’s kingdom.”
4 “How can anyone,” said Nicodemus, “be born who has already been born and grown up? You can’t re-enter your mother’s womb and be born again. What are you saying with this ‘born-from-above’ talk?”
5-6 Jesus said, “You’re not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to this original creation—the ‘wind-hovering-over-the-water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. When you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can’t see and touch—the Spirit—and becomes a living spirit.
7-8 “So don’t be so surprised when I tell you that you have to be ‘born from above’—out of this world, so to speak. You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by the wind of God, the Spirit of God.”
9 Nicodemus asked, “What do you mean by this? How does this happen?”
10-12 Jesus said, “You’re a respected teacher of Israel and you don’t know these basics? Listen carefully. I’m speaking sober truth to you. I speak only of what I know by experience; I give witness only to what I have seen with my own eyes. There is nothing secondhand here, no hearsay. Yet instead of facing the evidence and accepting it, you procrastinate with questions. If I tell you things that are plain as the hand before your face and you don’t believe me, what use is there in telling you of things you can’t see, the things of God?
13-15 “No one has ever gone up into the presence of God except the One who came down from that Presence, the Son of Man. In the same way that Moses lifted the serpent in the desert so people could have something to see and then believe, it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up—and everyone who looks up to him, trusting and expectant, will gain a real life, eternal life.
16-18 “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under the death sentence without knowing it. And why? Because of that person’s failure to believe in the one-of-a-kind Son of God when introduced to him.
Now, I don’t know if you have noticed how the term “born again” has evolved over the last 20 or so years, but when I was young, everything seemed to be about being “born again.” People used the term to describe an event or process in which they “gave themselves to Jesus,” which caused a change in their lives and even gave them a sense of meaning. Many of you in this room, may have this part of your spiritual journey. For some it may be comforting and for others it could hold a lot of baggage.
Today, in the world we live in, being “born again” or using that tern is primarily negative. Actually, I have dropped it from my vernacular as a pastor – especially with people in the public sector. The term is often associated with an extreme Christian perspective. It also carries with it a specific set of beliefs or theologies, a political stance, even a legality that gives us a way to divide people, groups, beliefs, and thoughts.
I believe this is also one of the dividing lines among church denominations and Yearly Meetings, and I am pretty sure if we took time to diagnose, it would be among our Yearly Meeting as well. It may not be called being “born again” or not, but it could be labeled conservative or progressive.
Being “born again” has always been linked with a “Conservative Christianity.” Yet that might be a bit misleading. Let me explain:
In “Speaking Christian,” Marcus Borg says,
“A conservative is one who seeks to conserve the wisdom of the past. But much of “conservative” Christianity in our time is a modern creation, not a conservation of the riches of the Christian past.”
By this definition, Quakers by their very nature are “conservative” in their desire to return to the way and teachings of Christ. What I find interesting is that there are “progressive Quakers” that could be described in this way as well.
I would say that one of the aspects that has confused or convoluted this way is our obsession with heaven and the afterlife, and its connection to escaping this place. For many people being “born again” has been linked simply to going to heaven, (what some label) “fire insurance”, or a way out of this messed-up world’s hurt and pain.
But this leads to another problem. In the text for today, many people throughout history have turned the phrase or even translated the “kingdom of God” into simply heaven and then claim that unless one has a new birth experience, which they usually associate with believing the right doctrines, one cannot enter heaven or sometimes even know God in a personal way.
Chuck Queen shed some light on this in his reflection on this text. He says,
“Actually, to “see the kingdom of God” is just another way of talking about experiencing and participating in the dynamic reality of God’s life and will. John also calls this “eternal life,” which he contends is the present possession of disciples of Christ. (3:15-16). Scholars of John call this “realized eschatology,” which is just a fancy way of saying that John puts the emphasis on interacting and engaging in God’s life and work right now – in this world – rather than in the afterlife. John by no means denies the afterlife, but the emphasis is on being in relationship and partnership with God in the present.”
Like many Christians today, Nicodemus is a literalist. He evens struggles with ACTUAL RE-ENTRY into his mother’s womb (that is about as literal as you can get.) He doesn’t get the symbolic nature of the language Jesus uses – and I would say many of us struggle with this as well.
Remember Jesus’ response to Nicodemus, though?
“You’re a respected teacher of Israel and you don’t know these basics?”
I may be a bit bold in saying this, but I wonder if God is asking us this morning and maybe even our Yearly Meeting something similar. As Quakers we are all about being “born of the Spirit” or being born from above.” Have we forgotten our basics?
Being “born of the Spirit” is obviously the work and revelation of the Holy Spirit or the Inner Light in our life. Here is what we actually say in our Western Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice about this working:
“It…inspires him or her to live, struggle, and suffer for the achievement of what ought to be…It is the spiritual endowment that enables one to advance beyond the narrow bounds of self toward the Christian ideals of goodness and love, and to respond to the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. George Fox often called this principle the “Seed of God,” “That of God in you,” or “the Light Within.” William Penn called it “The Great principle of God in man, the root and spring of divine substance.” Robert Barclay described it as “a real, spiritual substance,” or “a divine bestowal.” It is “that something we cannot call less than divine and universal, for it links us with the eternal realities, and with our fellow women and men of whatever race or creed. It may be hidden or warped by ignorance or pride or self-will or prejudice, but it cannot be wholly lost, for it is part of that which makes us essentially women and men, made in the divine image, and having within us boundless possibilities of life in God.”
Being “born of the Spirit” is about being inspired to live, struggle, and suffer for the achievement of what ought to be…it links us to the eternal and to our neighbor…and even though at times we may get in the way…with God there are boundless possibilities of life.
Or as Chuck Queen articulated,
“One can think of being born again as a clearing away of all the debris and obstacles so that the dynamic energy, love, compassion, and nonviolent power of God (the Spirit) can flow unhindered in us and through us into the world.”
I don’t know about you, but I think we need to reclaim this language and teach it in the right way. Instead of spending so much time trying to figure out who is in or out in this world or the next, what if we actually worked on being personally or corporately “transformed”?
Isn’t that the message Jesus is giving to the “rule-obsessed Pharisee, Nicodemus?
Being “born of the Spirit” implies that we are transformed from the inside by the work of our Inner Light or Spirit of God – so that we will be able to in turn transform the world around us – to demonstrate the Jesus life – to share in the work of our creator…unhindered, with dynamic energy, love, compassion, nonviolent and transforming power.
I love Eugene Peterson’s translations of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus after he shared John 3:16…just listen once again…
“God’s didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.”
And that is exactly what God is calling us to this morning.
You and I are to be transformed. Born from above. Born of the Spirit. Transformed to help put the world right again. Not with accusing fingers or by telling others how bad they are – but by joining God in living, struggling, and suffering for the achievement of what ought to be!
And living, struggling, and suffering is going to take…as Chuck Queen says,
“…getting rid of the clutter that dams up the flow of living water. So, if we want to know and share in the aliveness of God then our pride, prejudice, resentment, hate, and lack of forgiveness will have to go. We can’t keep replaying our painful grievance stories over and over. We will need to turn from our selfish preoccupations and interests because the Kingdom (read as kin-dom) of God, as we use to sing in Sunday School, is deep and wide.”
Queries to Ponder:
How am I demonstrating the Jesus-life and sharing in the world of the creator?
What is getting in my way of experiencing the deepness and wideness of God in this world? (pride, prejudice, resentment, hate, lack of forgiveness, etc.)
How do I/First Friends/WYM need to be “born from above” or transformed anew?