Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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Ever since the sermon title went up on our sign outside, people have been asking. “Well,” they say, “yes or no?”


“Do we really need to be born again?” Forgive me if you find this disappointing, but the answer is: it depends. Stay with me.


Once upon a time, there was a woman who set out to discover the meaning of life. She read everything she could get her hands on—history, philosophy, psychology, religion. While she became a very smart person, nothing she read gave her the answer she was looking for. She found other smart people and asked them about the meaning of life, but while the discussions were long and lively, no two of them agreed on the same thing. Finally, she put all her belongings in storage and set off. Everywhere she went, people told her they did not know the meaning of life, but they had heard of a man who did—only they weren’t sure where he lived. She asked about him in every country she visited, until finally, deep in the Himalayas, someone told her how to reach his house—a tiny hut perched on the side of a mountain just below the tree line.


She climbed and climbed to reach his front door. When she finally got there, with knuckles so cold she could not feel them, she knocked. “Yes?” said the kind-looking old man who opened the door. The woman thought she would die of happiness. “I have come halfway around the world to ask you one question,” she said, gasping for breath. “What is the meaning of life?”


“Please come in and have some tea,” the old man said.


“No,” she said. “I mean, no thank you. I didn’t come all this way for tea. I came for an answer. Won’t you please tell me, what is the meaning of life?”


“We shall have tea,” the old man said, so she gave up and went inside.


While he was brewing the tea, she caught her breath and began telling him about all the books she had read, the people she had met, all the places she had been. The old man listened, which was all he could do, as the woman did not pause to allow him any time to speak. As she talked, he placed a fragile tea cup in her hand. Then he began to pour the tea.


She was so busy talking that she did not notice when the tea cup was full, so the old man just kept pouring until the tea ran over the sides of the cup and spilled to the floor in a steaming waterfall.


“What are you doing?!” she yelled when the tea burned her hand. “It’s full! Can’t you see that? Stop! There’s no more room!”


“Just so,” the old man said to her. “You come here wanting something from me, but what am I to do? There is no more room in your cup. Come back when it is empty, and then we will talk.”[1]


It was several centuries earlier and several thousand miles to the west, a ruler of the Jews, a very learned man, a member of the Sanhedrin council, named Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. He, too, was looking for answers. But instead of asking a question, he offered a declaration.


“Rabbi,” he said, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do the things you can do outside the presence of God.”

As a general rule, Jesus tends not to like it when someone else takes it upon themselves to tell him who he is and what he can do, but I think he recognizes a spark of genuine curiosity, genuine longing, in this old man.


Jesus replied, “If you want to follow me, if you want to see the kingdom of God, you must be born anothen. That’s the Greek: anothen. Born anothen. We have no English translation that adequately captures the word. In Greek, the word means, at the same time, “from above,” and “again.” You must be born from above, we read just moments ago. Other translations make the alternate choice, “You must be born again.” Both are right…in part. So, the most faithful translation is probably to say, “You must be born again, from above.” However we phrase it, though, Nicodemus is still perplexed. Presented with Jesus’ response, the logical, literal-minded man gets stuck on the idea of entering his mother’s womb a second time, going back in to be pushed back out,…born again. He’s so focused on what he knows and understands about that process—and how it is impossible—he’s not able to receive what Jesus is trying to give him, what Jesus is trying to tell him. Much like the woman searching for the meaning of life, Nicodemus has to let go of everything he thinks he knows.


I wonder if the same isn’t true for us, in a way. Most Presbyterians I know are pretty quick to set aside “born again” language, first, because, like some others we’ve heard about today, we tend to be a pretty educated lot, pretty knowledgeable, pretty logical. I once heard someone reply, when asked if she had been born again, if she had been saved, answer, “Yes, a little over two thousand years ago.” But beyond that theological quip, we tend to shy away from “born again” language, because it has caused no small amount of pain.


One of my old colleagues from Kansas City, Meg, once told me what happened when she visited one of our beloved church members in the hospital. The woman’s name was Dottye, and Dottye was dying. Meg asked her what she’d like her to pray for, and Dottye said, “I want the Lord to make me better quick, or just let me die now.” Meg sat by her bed, and Dottye’s longtime caregiver was there. Dottye told Meg all about how she was the church’s first woman trustee. They talked about the work she did in mission, the hours she spent in worship and meetings and prayer. They talked about how much her faith meant to her throughout her life, and about the hopes and dreams she had for the church of the future. She was a faithful woman, a follower of Jesus Christ, it was clear to anyone who knew her or who overheard that conversation. As the visit drew to a close, Dottye, her caregiver, and Meg held hands and Meg prayed.


Dottye closed her eyes to rest. The caregiver pulled Meg over to the doorway.

“She didn’t say it,” she whispered to Meg.


“Say what?” Meg asked, confused.


“She didn’t say the sinner’s prayer. She didn’t say out loud that she accepted the Lord Jesus Christ into her heart. She’s dying, and she didn’t say the words.”[2]


Dottye’s caregiver was in great distress, and Meg was caught in a delicate place—wanting to comfort this woman who clearly cared deeply, and not wanting to belittle or betray Dottye’s entire life of faith.


At its best, this divide over being “born again” turns into humorous anecdotes after we’re approached unexpectedly by someone on the subway or in a dorm room. At its worst, however, this divide can cause genuine rifts among families and friends. This all comes from a place of love, I genuinely believe that—love compels us to look out for the people we care about. But when the divide proves insurmountable, well, I do not believe that is what God, or John, intends by offering us this story.


You see, to say that no one can enter the kingdom of God without voicing a particular prayer or believing a particular piece of doctrine. . .I want to say this delicately and gently, but to believe that those things are what gain us entrance into heaven, is to believe that our choices in this world, our decisions to change, are stronger than God. It insists that the very love of God, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the fellowship and communion of the Holy Spirit can be held hostage by me or you or any one of us. And if Scripture shows us anything, it shows us that God is going to be who God is going to be, and God is going to do what God is going to do, whether we agree with God or not.


Peter Gomes, of Harvard University, puts this succinctly: Being born again is not a threat. It is a promise. It is a gift. And he goes on to say, Faith is not about dead certainty. Faith is about living hope.[3]


Because one last thing—if being born again, if having faith, is an insurance policy for what happens to us after death, well, that suggests that what happens to us during our lives, here on earth, doesn’t matter very much. And this scripture itself suggests otherwise—“For God so loved the world…” The world. This world. This world, right now.


God loves this world, and God’s love never gives up on anything or anyone. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved. “You must be born again,” Jesus says to Nicodemus. “Born again, born from above, born of the Spirit.”


“How can these things be?” Nicodemus asks, plaintively.


And Jesus responds, “If you don’t believe what I say about earthly things, how are you to believe what I say about heavenly things?”


I wonder if part of the problem was the difference between what Jesus meant when he said “believe,” and what Nicodemus meant by the same word. Barbara Brown Taylor, a preacher and teacher of preachers in the Atlanta area, says it this way: “On one level, to believe someone means simply to accept what that person says as true, usually based on some sort of evidence. A friend shows you a picture of himself climbing the face of a mountain and tells you it can be done. You say, “I believe you,” because you accept the proposition. You give your intellectual assent, but it does not make any difference with the way you live your life, because this belief is all in your head.


On another level, belief is much more visceral. Instead of simply showing you the picture, your friend invites you to go rock climbing with him. You accept. As you arrive at the climb site, your friend properly outfits you with all the harnesses and straps for the climb. Then, just before you start out, your knowledgeable rock-climbing friend re-checks all the contraptions. The final step in the preparation involves your friend running a safety line from you through the carabiner around his own waist. As he does, he notices your distress. Your friend assures you that everything will be all right. Your proper response at that point is not “I believe you,” but “I believe in you,” because you are way past anything like intellectual assent. Believing now is visceral. It involves all of you, lock, stock, and body. You have set yourself in relationship with this person, and you are trusting him. And up the rock face you go—believing in this person to whom you have tied your life.”[4]


I said earlier that most Presbyterians tend to set aside all this “born again” language. I understand why—as a whole, Christians have tortured the phrase. But if we can do what Jesus urges Nicodemus to do, and set aside what we think we know about it, life rushes in like wind that blows where it will.


So, if to be born again means subscribing to a certain doctrine, or saying a certain prayer—no. I don’t think we need that at all. But, if being born again means setting ourselves free to climb through this life tied to Jesus, climbing high enough to feel the wind, the Spirit, whipping around our faces—yes. Yes, I think we all need that, desperately.


Being born again, born from above, born of the Spirit, asks us to let go of what we think we know. To release what we think to be certain and follow where God will lead us next. You may be thinking that it’s easy to talk about giving up certainty from up here in this pulpit, but that it’s mighty hard out there in real life. And you’re absolutely right. But I am becoming increasingly convinced that it is not just for our own sake, but for the sake of the world, that we give it our best effort.


You all know by now that less than ten days ago there was a shooting at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas. An article appeared about this in the most recent issue of TIME magazine. The reporter interviewed a student, Paige Curry. The reporter asked, “Was there a part of you that was like, ‘This isn’t real. This could not happen at my school?’”


Curry looked up at the reporter and almost laughed. “No,” she said. “It didn’t feel unreal at all. It’s been happening everywhere. I’ve felt that eventually it would happen here, too. We don’t know where it will happen next. All we know for certain is that it will happen again.”[5]


And before that issue of TIME had even made it to my mailbox, it had happened again, this time in Indiana.


Let me be clear. I do not have the answers here. All I know is this: Paige Curry is right. All we know for certain night now is that it will happen again.


And so, I wonder—if we let go of our pre-determined certainty about what God would want or would not want, if we let go of our presumed knowledge of what God would or would not do, if we let go of our feeble and failed attempts to control the situation, and listened anew, again, from above, to what God is whispering to us through the wind even now, perhaps we would find a new way forward. Perhaps we would hear the Spirit’s voice, and feel the Spirit leading us toward a new day, a new kingdom, a new earth, where swords are beaten into ploughshares, where weapons are set down and there is no more hurt or destruction upon God’s holy land.

Where the Spirit of the Lord rests upon us all.


That sounds like a tall order. Maybe it sounds, today, as impossible as being born again sounded to Nicodemus under the cover of darkness long ago. But that’s not the last we hear of him. Awhile later, after Jesus had been crucified, Nicodemus decided go with Joseph of Arimathea to help prepare Jesus’ body for burial. It probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do, as it was no longer night, but broad daylight. And the air was so thick with threat that even most of Jesus’ closest disciples had fled the scene. But still he went. He couldn’t help himself.


And a few days later, at the regular Monday meeting of the Sanhedrin council, the air grew heavy with conversation about Jesus again. It’s nowhere recorded like this, but I like to imagine this is how it played out. Nicodemus listened as the men around him spoke. And when he heard that some of the disciples had seen Jesus alive after his body had been placed in that sealed tomb, well, a gust of wind swept through the room and Nicodemus became so flustered all he knew to do was to excuse himself, duck around a corner, remember what he once was certain was impossible, and weep tears of astonishment and joy, just like a newborn child.[6]


Do we really need to be born again? If Nicodemus has anything to say about it, the answer is yes.


[1] This story is shared by Barbara Brown Taylor in her essay “Stay For Tea, Nicodemus,” in The Christian Century, 1996.

[2] Story relayed to me by my friend and colleague, Rev. Meg Peery McLaughlin of Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke, Virginia.

[3] Peter Gomes, The Good Book.

[4] Again, Barbara Brown Taylor, “Stay for Tea, Nicodemus.”

[5] Haley Sweetland Edwards, “The Horror That Won’t Stop Happening” in TIME Magazine, June 4, 2018.

[6] This ending is inspired by Frederick Buechner’s entry on Nicodemus in Beyond Words.