Sunday, March 16, 2014

You Must Be Born Again

Sermon on John 3:1-17
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
March 16, 2014 (Second Sunday in Lent)

“How can a man be born when he is old?  Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”  It seems like a relevant question.  What Jesus had just said to Nicodemus was completely unreasonable.  One must be born again.  How can you do that?  What kind of teaching is that?  How does it help us to know what we should do to live a Godly life, to tell us something physically impossible like that?  Nicodemus had come to Jesus to find out more about him, to find out what wise thing He might tell him about how he can improve his life, how he can better follow God’s Law, how he can become a better Nicodemus.  And what does Jesus tell him?  To be born again.  What does that even mean?

Our old selves want to do something, to be active, to be in charge.  That’s true whether the temptation is to do something explicitly against God’s law, or whether the temptation is to try to please God by our own reason or strength and thus refuse to give Him the glory.  That’s why the Pharisees were so intent on their little rules and regulations.  They wanted the relationship they had with God to be on their own terms.  They wanted to be in charge of it.  They wanted to be the ones who were doing the doing when it came to spiritual and religious things.  That’s also why medieval monasticism came about: because people wanted to do something to be closer to God.  They wanted to devote themselves to being more holy than everyone else, to following the commandments better than everyone else, to setting themselves apart from the distractions and temptations that were to be found “out there.”

The old Adam hasn’t changed, of course, even in our own day.  Countless Christians are confused by what Jesus says here, thinking that He really is commanding that we do something.  That’s the reason why so many Christian groups focus on being “born again” as something we do, a choice we make, the decision to “invite Jesus into my life,” or the supposedly spiritual experience in which a convert feels led to come forward and devote himself to God.  (Actually, by the way, these sorts of things are emotional experiences, carefully brought forth by careful choreography, the talents of the preacher, the mood of the music playing in the background, and so on.  But then, that’s where most of American Christianity thinks the Spirit is at work in the believer’s life: in his emotions, which is why emotional and spiritual end up meaning pretty much the same thing to most Christians in our country.)  Even the very words of Jesus which describe something that is literally impossible to do by and for oneself, are taken and used as if they were describing an experience or a decision that a person is able to bring forth in himself (with the aid of the right emotional manipulation, of course).  In fact, that’s how the Methodists historically got their name, because they pioneered the “methods” used to manipulate people to ask Jesus into their hearts.

Now, it’s easy to point the finger at the American Evangelical movement in its many and various forms, and even to gloat because we Lutherans know that the word “spiritual” refers to what God the Holy Spirit does in the tangible and audible means of the rightly preached Word and rightly administered Sacraments, and not to any emotional experience that may or may not follow on that.  But what we don’t like to admit, is that we’ve got the same Old Adam that everyone else has.  We are just as likely to try to make our relationship with God something that we control rather than something God controls.

The Church is currently observing a season called Lent.  The most central theme of Lent is repentance, especially in the context of recognizing that it was our sin which put Jesus on the cross.  And it really is meet, right, and salutary that we should realize how serious our sin is and what it cost our Lord save us from the hell we earned by it.  But repentance isn’t the same as feeling mournful or sorry.  It isn’t the same as mentally whipping ourselves and feeling properly sad and sober over it, to the point that we Lutherans have gotten the reputation of always being sour and serious (actually, that’s just because most of us are Germans).  These are still things that we do, that we manipulate ourselves into.  As Luther puts it in the very first of the 95 theses, when our Lord said to repent, He meant that the entire life of believers should be one of repentance.  That doesn’t mean we go around mournful or ashamed all the time, it simply means that we realize that we cannot do anything that improves our situation before God by our own reason or strength, and that because we are helpless to be anything but sinners we have no choice but to simply rely on what God has given in order to strengthen our faith in Him and love towards one another.

Jesus’ whole point here is that being born is not something a person chooses to do or bring forth in himself.  It’s something that happens to a person.  Which is why, by the way, when Nicodemus asks how it’s possible to be born again, Jesus gets rather impatient about his lack of understanding, and starts to lecture him about how he, a supposed teacher of God’s Word, doesn’t even understand one of the most basic points taught in that Word.  Being put to death and then being raised to new life as a citizen of the new creation is not something that a person can choose to do, any more than he can choose to be born into this world.  It’s something that is done to a person, rather than being done by a person.  Which is why we baptize infants while certain other Christians don’t, by the way.  Because being made a believer is something God does to a person rather than something a person does to himself, it is precisely those who had no hand in their being brought into this world who remind us that we also have no hand in being brought to the next.

It’s precisely what God does from the outside of the world, and from the outside of ourselves, that makes us citizens of heaven, sons and daughters of a new mother, namely Christ’s bride the Church.  Infants are helpless.  They cannot even feed themselves.  They must rely on their parents, especially their mothers, to provide them with what they need.  What feeds and nourishes the Christian is the Word and the Sacrament of the Altar.  These are objective things that are brought to us and given to us from outside ourselves.  If I look at myself for reassurance that I’m going to heaven, I’ll only find doubt and confusion.  How we know we will live forever with Him in His kingdom, is precisely because He tells us so in real words, printed on a real page, spoken by a real mouth into real ears, and by real bread and wine, declared out loud to be the Body and Blood of Christ, given to us.  (By the way, that’s the historical reason why traditionally Christians used to receive the bread not in the hand but directly in the mouth, and not with cups picked up with our own hands but from a cup tipped up to our lips by someone else.  That’s how someone who is helpless is fed.  There’s nothing wrong with the individual cups or with receiving the bread in your hand, of course; I’m just pointing out how the older practice happens to illustrate Jesus’ point in this lesson).  That’s how we become and remain Christians: Someone else did, and does, it for us.  And that someone is no less than our Creator and Savior Himself.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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