When children are born we are so excited to spread the news. We put balloons out on the mailbox out front of our houses, I’ve seen cardboard storks set-up, and cards are mailed out with an adorable picture including the name, birth weight and length. New babies make us over the moon excited.
Then these adorable bundles of innocence and light grow up and become toddlers. They run, yell, play, jump and begin to ask questions. There first is the incredulous “why?” We have to get ready to go…why? Put your shoes on…why? Stop chasing the dog…why?
Then after the “why?” phase comes the question and answer phase. The phases where the child believes they already know the answer. Such as: where do babies come from?...I know (the child exclaims). I am sure you parents, aunts and uncles have been witness to this question. I once heard a person tell their experience of this scenario as follows: My cousin was expecting her second child, and her three year old told me that she figured out how her sister was going to be born. Her mom looked at me with this, "Yeah... I have no idea what she's talking about because we didn't tell her anything about it" look on her face, and we waited to hear what she had to say, expecting it to be pure gold. And of course, she didn't disappoint:
"Well, when my mom gets so big she can't put on her pants anymore, she'll go to the hospital. Then the doctor will press on her button (as she pointed to my cousin's protruding, turkey-timer thermometer navel), and he'll keep pressing it until my mom get sick of it and throws my baby sister up."
Well that answer sounds good to me.
When children ask these “mature” questions it is like us or Nicodemus in the case of our scripture this morning asking God and Jesus questions.
Nicodemus comes to Christ in the cover of the night. Maybe because of his status as a Pharisee he does not want to be seen conversing with this controversial Jesus figure, who by the way is not following the Jewish law that Nicodemus is supposed to maintain. Jesus tells Nicodemus “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above (v.3) and again reiterates in verse 5, “Very truly, I tell you no one can enter the kin-dom of God without being born of water and spirit.” Nicodemus doesn’t understand and asks Jesus like a curious child asks how can this be?
These verses are the strong holds to some Christian traditions, particularly the born-again traditions like the one I was raised in. In verse 3, the Greek can be translated to how our scripture reads “born from above” or it can be translated as seen in the NIV and King James as: “born again.” Nicodemus is confused and asks how can one already on this earth and then be born from above? Or as the King James Version states: be born again?
Born again or born from above.
Born again traditions, like the one I grew up in do not baptize infants. Instead young adults or adults who have decided to give their lives to Christ are baptized (often through full immersion in water). When a person is immersed and brought back up out of the water it symbolizes a second birth (born-again) into the body of Christ.
In the church I grew up, a person also could not partake in communion until they had been baptized. I remember as a child I wanted to take communion as it was passed by me each Sunday and wanting to be baptized for that reason alone. Later when I was about 11, I chose to be baptized. My family was coming home on a Sunday afternoon after having been away and I remember my cousin was even with us. Instead of going right home we went to church that evening so I could be baptized.
The church of my childhood had the baptism basin/tub up on the second level. So when you sat in the sanctuary facing the front you would see the baptism basin up above the alter. For instance if it was here at Pilgrim it would be above the cross so everyone could see. After coming forward at the end of the service and proclaiming I wished to be baptized, myself the minister and a few women from the church went upstairs where I changed into a white robe for the immersion. While the whole congregation watched the minister said “I baptize you in the name of the Father” (immerse under once), “the son” (immersed again), and “the Holy Spirit” (final immersion). Then the congregation applauded and sang, and I finally got to take communion. I also remember a woman in the congregation saying now this is your second birth, always remember this date.
If we are to look at the scripture through the phase born from above, how might this shift our understanding?
Again we have Nicodemus not understanding “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?"” Yet Nicodemus seems to miss the second part of Jesus’ answer where he states: “what is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Or what is born of God is God’s.
This other birth Jesus is speaking of is our heavenly birth. Our birth from above. We are all born of the Spirit, just as our Psalm states: For it was you (God) who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. (Ps 139:13). Before we each are born on this earth God formed us. Yet just because we are born of the Spirit and formed by God does not mean that we have realized and have a relationship with God.
It is like our earthly birth. We can be born by a woman, yet if she does not raise us, we do not have a relationship with that specific earthly parent. Knowing our Heavenly Parent can be even more of a challenge because (as Jesus describes for us using the metaphor of the wind) the Spirit can be elusive. We can feel the wind and hear the sound of it yet no one knows where it comes from or where it is goes.
However, we can rest assured that we each are born of the Spirit and of Divine Love for as it states in the prophet Jeremiah 1:5, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you”.
We each have already been born of the Spirit and we each have been known and formed by our loving God before our earthly birth. God has loved us each so much so that God created us all and sent us forth. The challenge now is having already been born of the Spirit, how do we witness to God’s presence here on earth?
Sometimes it can be hard to put a finger on exactly where you have experienced God, or maybe you have specific time when you know that God was with you in a specific situation. Jesus was spot on when he used the wind metaphor for the Spirit. I know there have been times for me when I call on God or the Spirit all day long and the Spirit seems absent. Yet at other times when I am witness to the Spirit, I feel it as clear as the wind and I don’t know where or why it came. And like Christ said, I don’t know how long it will be around or where it came from but I know sure as day that the Spirit was there.
In Waltham, I encounter people in recovery who identify with the born again faith tradition. What always astonishes me is their ability to testify, witness or more simply put, share their faith/God experience. Think for a moment, if you were to share how God has or is working in your life what would you say?
My testimony to God’s presence these past two weeks would be that I have witnessed God in community. When Bill’s mother passed away this community surrounded him with love. Love through prayers, cards, showing up and checking in. And in the same way this week in Waltham, when a community member died suddenly the grief was palpable. Tears and emotions were flowing, walls were being punched, and questions were asked. “What the hell, God” was spoken, why such a nice man? And God took all the tears, took all the blame and responded with love. God sent the Spirit down to rest on the shoulders as people hugged one another, as consoling took place as tears were wiped away and memories were spoken. God was/is present in community.
So when we come together, whether it is one or two or twenty, our Spirits (which were loved into being by God) connect and strengthen. And this is one way that God is present.
We call ourselves Christians and say we wish to follow Christ so if this is true, we need to be better at providing testimony to our faith experience. Think for a minute, when you are looking to buy a car or maybe try a new restaurant how do you decided what car to purchase or where to eat? You ask a friend or read reviews, well after you look at the price tag of course. My point being we make so many decisions based on other people’s input. Don’t you think church and building a relationship with God might be the same? So how can we help our friends, family, neighbors come to know what we have here at Pilgrim and come to know the love of our God? By sharing our faith.
Now if you are like me immediately are thinking of how the right wing evangelicals have done a great job on capitalizing on sharing their faith. Sometimes when I hear someone’s testimony I can feel my chest tighten because it takes me back to a time and place where I did not feel God’s love. Yet this is not the only way to share your faith. It is the small comments even that let others know you are a faithful person. It is when a co-worker tells you about a hard time and at the end of the conversation you ask, can I put you on my church’s prayer list?
Sharing how God has worked in our individual lives creates a greater connection for everyone with one another and with God. This Lent during worship I am inviting you to share in just a minute or two how you have seen God at work in your life. It could be an experience from 20 years ago, it could be from yesterday, it could dramatic or just about a stranger who helped you change your tire.
I have a signup sheet, so each Sunday during Lent I am hopeful one person will share just a little on how they have experienced God with our church in this safe space. If you are nervous about speaking, you can write it down and I will share it.
We all know where babies come from, and just like a newborn they need to hear other people experiences to grow and become wiser. Let us share our stories to that we too can grow in the Spirit.