We are going to play a little game today. First, I need a volunteer to come up front. Full disclosure, you will need a little drawing talent . . . just a little.
I'm going to ask a variety of people to give a short definition of a word, and I want the volunteer to draw that word as defined. So if I say, “Light,” a person might say, “Something that eliminates darkness;” and our artist might draw a light bulb. Got it? Okay, here we go:
Bark ... Bat ... Crane ... Horn ... Glass ... Second ... Spring
Bark is the noise a dog makes; it's also what covers a tree. Bat is a flying animal, as well as what is used in baseball games. Crane is a type of bird, and a very large piece of construction equipment. Horn is what may male animals have on their heads, but also what people use to tell the driver in front of them that the light is green. Glass is what you drink from, in addition to being used to cover holes in walls for visibility. Second is a period of time, but it is also not first. And spring is a season as well as a piece of curved metal that bounces.
The point of all this is that, as Led Zeppelin once sang, “sometimes words have two meanings.” If you aren't careful, you just might not quite grasp what someone else is saying. That's why context is so important. It's why sometimes we misunderstand what someone else is saying, because the two of us are not connecting on a meaningful level.
And this is exactly what is going on in today's gospel episode between Jesus and Nicodemus.
This starts off in the very beginning, and it sets the tone for the entire conversation. Jesus says that in order to see the kingdom of God a person needs to be born from above. The Greek word for “from above” is like those seven words we looked at a few minutes ago. That is, it has multiple meanings. Besides “from above,” it can also mean, “anew” or “again.”
John's gospel is full of metaphor and imagination. John is concerned with the overall Truth of the gospel, not necessarily a literal account based on nothing but the facts, ma'am. You can see this in the cleansing of the Temple, which John places in Chapter 2, while the synoptics have it occurring closer to Jesus' death in Holy Week. And you can see it here with Nicodemus.
Nicodemus hears this word and automatically goes to a literal meaning, questioning the method of a person's rebirth. Jesus, however, is talking about a new birth from above, a birth generated by the Creator of all things, God. If Nicodemus, and us, were able to make this jump to a metaphorical understanding of what Jesus is getting at, then we would all be better off.
But Nicodemus, and others, are hung up on the literal meaning of being born again.
Nicodemus focuses on the physical event. Some of our brothers and sisters in Christ tend to focus on a one-time holy, ecstatic experience in which they are born again as children of God. I would guess that all of us have encountered some form of the Born Again movement. When that is our focus, however, we miss the depth and beauty of what Jesus is trying to get across. We miss the light that shines in the darkness.
We need to change our focus from a one-time event, being born anew or born again, to a deeper understanding of what it means to be born from above. To be born from above means to be overshadowed by the Spirit, to become attuned to the vision of God, and to allow that same Spirit to lead you on a God-directed journey.
The wind blows where it wills, and we know not from where it comes or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.
Like the wind, the Spirit is invisible, quiet, roaring, comforting, and terrifying all at the same time. Through our baptism by water and the Spirit, we are given the gift of being born from above. We are given the gift of seeing creation through the eyes of God, if we only take the time to do so.
As I said, being born again is often a label given and used to recall a one-time event. Being born from above, however, allows us to be born anew every time the wind blows or every time the Spirit moves, if we open our eyes.
Being born from above invites us to see God in every day places and events, and to challenge those places where God isn't. The kingdom of God is present when we help care for, feed, and respect the dignity of the people who make use of the Reach Cold Weather Shelter, or our own Community Cafe. But we shouldn't be afraid to challenge a social system that not only makes those things necessary, but sees those things as proof that certain people have no value.
I opened this sermon by pointing out the different meanings of a few words in order to demonstrate how Jesus and Nicodemus were talking past each other. What Nicodemus was trying to do was to demand an exact, factual, accounting of the signs Jesus did in terms he understood. What Jesus was trying to do was to open Nicodemus' eyes to the light and infinite possibilities of God moving beyond facts and into Truth, moving beyond a one-time event and into an ever-changing way of being.
To be born anew is an attempt to put into words what is beyond words. To be born anew is to let the Spirit overshadow you each and every day. To be born anew is to let God mold you in such a way that not only is your life changed, but to have your eyes, heart, and mind opened to the reshaping of everyday events in ways that reflect the kingdom of God in the here and now.
To be born anew is akin to hearing any of those seven words again in the future and automatically think of alternative meanings. To be born anew is to see a situation and automatically think of alternative ways of being.