This past Sunday we celebrated the baptism of two young people in our community. It was a very meaningful time as we got to witness them affirm their longing to continue their walk with Christ. As they shared their stories, I was able to hear about their encounters with Jesus that made them take this important step, following in the tradition of billions who also chose a relationship with God over everything else.
We learn a lot from our encounters with Jesus and the stories we share about our journeys of faith. The Bible gives several accounts of people who, willingly or not, came into relationship with this man who lived 2,000 years ago. Some left those encounters healed, inspired, confused, angry, sad, hopeful, or excited; in every case, their lives were forever changed.
All kinds of people came to Jesus. He encountered Jews, Samaritans, foreigners, men, women, children, prostitutes, cheaters, outcasts, rulers, soldiers, and leaders. Most of the time we remember the Pharisees, Israel's religious elite, as being against Jesus, plotting to have Him killed. However, there were some who were curious about this man from Nazareth, risking their reputations to see if He really was the promised Messiah for whom they had been waiting.
One of these Pharisees was Nicodemus, who is recorded in John 3 as seeking out Jesus under the cover of night. Nicodemus was part of the religious elite, a member of the Jewish ruling council. Usually, when we see Jesus confronted by groups of people like Nicodemus, their goal is to discount and accuse Him. But Nicodemus came at night, which is often interpreted to mean that he didn’t want others to see him talking with this “troublemaker.”
There was something about Jesus that Nicodemus simply couldn’t ignore. He admits to Jesus that the signs He performed prove that He is from God. So Nicodemus decides to find out more, and right away Jesus starts talking about the kingdom of God. It is the first thing Jesus says in John 3:3:
“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
Of course, like so many times, Jesus succeeds in confusing the people He encountered. What on earth was Jesus talking about? Nicodemus digs further, I’m sure with a trace of sarcasm and smugness. Is Jesus suggesting that we return into our mother’s wombs and try to be born again?
Was Jesus going to talk about being Jewish, observing Jewish law, practicing Jewish spirituality? He doesn’t mention any aspect of religious tradition of which Nicodemus would have been an expert. Instead, Jesus goes further into this analogy. There is the physical birth, but there is also a spiritual birth. If we want to live in the kingdom of God, we must be born of the Spirit.
Okay. Awesome. We need to be born again - born of the Spirit. Let’s do it! How? Easy. We need to accept Jesus into our hearts as ruler of our lives and believe in Him. Bam! We’re born again. In fact, that’s an awesome name. Let’s add that to our title. Not only are we Protestants, part of the Believer’s Church, Anabaptists, Mennonites, but we are Born-Again Christians!
And therein lies the same mistake that Nicodemus and the religious elite repeated in their day. So often we focus on what we need to do to enter the kingdom of God. If we need to be born again, then we will get it done. But Jesus never suggested that it is our job, that it is something we can do on our own. In His conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus was emphasizing that, yes, we need to be born again, but the spiritual birth can only come from the Spirit. It’s not our project and it’s not within our power to make make it happen. We are only ever born again because God has willed it so.
Think about your birth for a moment. Of course you can’t. No one can. We did absolutely nothing to get us into this world. Our parents came together in order to start our lives. Our mother carried us in her womb for up to nine months. And when the big day actually came, we were totally, 100% dependant on our mothers and the people around her in order to be born.
I think that’s what Jesus was trying to get at with Nicodemus. How do we enter the kingdom of God? We can’t. There’s nothing we can do to make our spiritual birth happen. We are totally dependant on God’s act of giving us new life and filling us with His Spirit so that we might be able to live in God’s kingdom. God, like a spiritual mother, births us into being when we literally have nothing to offer in the process. What’s left for us is only to believe, to have faith … maybe cry and wine a bit as we adjust to a new life, new air, new food, new everything. It may at first seem more comfortable in the darkness, but we won’t experience true life while stuck inside the womb.
Nadia Bolz-Weber, in her book Pastrix, explores the many different encounters in her life that have brought her to confess Jesus as Lord. Her stories are stories of resurrection, receiving new life at the end of one’s rope, finding healing when no hope was in store. In writing about baptism and being adopted into the family of God, she says, “It’s always God’s first move. Before we do anything wrong or before we do anything right, God has named and claimed us as God’s own.”
How does this work? Why would God do this? It doesn’t seem to make sense. It doesn’t follow any other religious system. In the context of answering these kinds of questions, Jesus continues His conversation with Nicodemus with the two most well known verses in the whole Bible.
“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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” - John 3:16-17
That’s the key. Because God loves the world so much, He wasn’t going to give up on His creation. So He sent His Son, Jesus, that we might encounter and believe in God. And when we believe in God, He is so ready to give us new life that we might not only be birthed physically, but spiritually. This was God’s plan. It was God’s act. It was God’s will.
Christians have been marking this new birth through the waters of baptism since to time of Jesus. As we accept this gift of life from God, we too are invited to mark that change with water as a symbol of our new life, dead to sin and alive in Christ. It’s an invitation to dig deeper, go further, continuing the journey in Christian community. It truly is a celebration, and one of which I, a markedly unworthy pastor, am always honoured to be a part.