On Being Born Again
Have you ever wondered what it is like to be born?
The experience is shrouded in mystery, since none of us remember it,
But scientific research yields some insights into what it might be like for the infant being born.
The first thing that is apparent is that birth is a drastic experience of change.
The baby leaves the dark safety of the womb into the outer world
And for the first time encounters light, air, and temperature.
What must it be like to see light for the first time?
To feel the blast of cool air?
To sense all that openness of space, no longer confined in the womb?
It is also the first experience of separation.
Up til this point, the baby has been housed, protected, and provided for through its mother’s body
The baby has received everything it needed through the umbilical cord.
Upon emerging from the birth canal, the baby’s nervous system
reacts to the sudden change of environment with the baby’s first independent act –
the gasp of first breath.
Then in quick succession, the baby undergoes a number of changes to adapt to life outside the womb
All the bodily systems have to get up and running
as the baby readies itself to eat, breathe, and discard waste on its own.
At this point, the baby is separate, but far from being independent.
Babies have limited vision and can see only 8 to 12 inches.
The brain of a newborn is not fully formed
Newborns live by instincts tuned for survival—
rooting, suckling for food, cuddling for warmth, crying for needs.
Being born is an experience of dependence and growth.
The newborn metaphor sets us up to consider Nicodemus.
He was about as far from a newborn as you could get among Jews of Jesus’ day
He was a leader of the Pharisees, a brand of Judaism
that took seriously the responsibility to live out God’s law on a daily basis.
He not only knew all 613 Jewish laws, but taught others how to fulfill them.
And yet he came to Jesus at night.
Like a baby awaiting birth, Nicodemus approached Jesus looking for life.
He had seen the signs, the miracles Jesus performed, and understood that God was acting in Jesus.
But that is as far as his understanding went.
In order to see the kingdom of God, he had to start over, and go back to square one.
He had to submit to being a beginner, re-learning how to live,
getting his systems up and running in a new way.
He needed to be dependent on Jesus.
He had to be born again.
I had some fun with Nicodemus’ confusion in the children’s sermon,
but this phrase ‘born again’ has caused us Lutherans some confusion, too.
We hear brothers and sisters from evangelical traditions talk about being born again
Sometimes we are even asked if we have been born again, and we don’t know what to say.
They seem to be expecting a dramatic experience of the Holy Spirit
A moment when a believer accepts Jesus into her heart, and her whole life changes.
I was instructed to answer the question, have you been born again? With the response:
Yes—at my baptism!
That’s a good reflection of Lutheran theology,
which acknowledges our assent to the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives
but emphasizes God’s work in the process.
God is the first actor in Holy Baptism
The font is the womb from which we emerge.
The gift of the Holy Spirit is given to us in baptism,
And we spend the rest of our lives unwrapping that gift.
That’s why Martin Luther taught to cross yourself at morning and night and remember your baptism
Being born again is a life long process
One in which we deepen our understanding of our dependence on God
One in which we learn and re-learn the life of grace
One in which we experience God’s faithfulness and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
In many ways this seems to be how it was for Nicodemus
Though Jesus spoke to him in a metaphor of the dramatic change of birth
Nicodemus didn’t not immediately accept Jesus’ teaching.
He turns up twice more in the story, however—
Once, as a questioning voice among the Jewish leaders when someone stated
No one in authority believes in Jesus’
And again at Jesus death, when Nicodemus takes the risk to bury Jesus’ body.
It seems that being born again for Nicodemus meant a gradual learning and accepting process
An unpacking of the truth that Jesus shared with him that first night.
For Nicodemus, that process began with Jesus and continued with Jesus.
It is the same with us.
Being born again, being born of the Spirit, is all about learning
Being open to change
It’s about acknowledging our utter dependence on God
and the power of the Holy Spirit that dwells inside each one of us.
This Lent, let us go back to square one with Nicodemus.
Ask Jesus your questions in prayer
Allow yourself to be a beginner
Immerse yourself in the care of God, which is like a mother’s care of a newborn
And give thanks for the Spirit’s growth in power and strength in you.