Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, January 22, 2022
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You Must Be Born Again

John 3:1-21 and Romans 8:5-17

 John’s Gospel reveals Jesus through a series of short vignettes.  We typically see Jesus interacting with individuals or small groups of people in John’s Gospel.  Through those interactions, we come to learn who he is and what he is doing.  

 One of the best known and perhaps most beloved of those vignettes is his conversation with Nicodemus.  We know it well because it contains two of the best known verses in the New Testament:  “For God so loved the world…” and “You must be born again…”  

 Nicodemus is a Pharisee, which is a little bit surprising since they were, by and large, not very fond of Jesus.  But you can’t paint an entire group of people all at once.  Nicodemus was very sincere in his devotion to God.  He was honestly seeking God and his Kingdom, and he had a teachable spirit.

 Nonetheless, he was aware of public appearances!  He knew it would not be a popular thing among his peers to be seen in public with Jesus, so he met with him privately at night.  He begins by stating what he thinks is obvious:  You must have come from God to be able to do these miraculous things.

 And Jesus says, “If you want to see the Kingdom of God, you must be born again.”  

 “Now what do you mean by that Jesus?  Because it’s obviously impossible from a literal perspective.”  

 So, Jesus goes on, “You must be born of water and Spirit.”  Here’s the question:  Is that one birth or two?  Because it could mean one new birth.  Water could refer to baptism, and hence, conversion.  And Spirit, of course, refers to the renewal God’s Spirit alone can bring.  Or it could refer to two events:  Water can refer to the natural birth, the amniotic fluid.  And Spirit, no matter what, refers to God’s work.  Bible scholars disagree as to the best interpretation.

 I think, based on the line that follows, that Jesus is talking about two births:  A person is born first “by water,” in the flesh.  Flesh gives birth to flesh.  And then a person can be born again by the Spirit.  The theological term for this is regeneration, literally “starting over” or “new beginning.”  

 What does it mean to be born again?  To talk more about it, let’s turn to Romans 8.  In verse 5, and in numerous other places in this chapter, the word that is translated as “sinful nature” is the Greek word SARX.  SARX doesn’t necessarily mean “sinful nature.”  Literally, it just means “flesh.”  The translators of the New Living Translation that I read interpret it to mean “sinful nature.”  And I think it’s debatable that it should be translated that way.

 What is flesh?  In the broadest sense, flesh is human beings.  We are flesh.  It’s not necessarily a “bad word.”  After all, Christ became flesh.  If there was something wrong with flesh, then Christ could not become it.  But by this time, the word flesh also had a more specific connotation, a more negative connotation.  Flesh meant “weakness,” and not just physical weakness, but moral weakness.  Flesh meant a tendency to fall into sin.  

 Theologians talk about a concept called “original sin.”  Original sin is our tendency to sin.  We all have it.  It is unavoidable, inevitable that we will all sin.  “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” as Romans says in chapter 3.  The great theologian of the early Church, Augustine of Hippo, defined original sin with a Latin phrase, NON POSSE NON PECCARE, meaning, “not able not to sin.”  

 Now the problem is not that we are made of flesh.  Remember:  Christ was also made of flesh, and he was without sin.  The belief that physical things are always bad was the heresy that we talked about a couple times in these past two months called Gnosticism.  It’s still alive today, though we don’t always recognize it.  

The problem is that not that we are flesh.  The problem is that we live by the flesh.  We live according to our own strength.  We try to “pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.”  The division described in Romans 8 is not between a “low and cravenly flesh” and a “high and noble spirit.”  That idea has also crept into the church.  It comes from Neo-Platonic philosophy, not Scripture.  The division is that there are some who live by God’s Spirit, and most live by the flesh.  These are two opposite ways of living. 

Living by the flesh means living by one’s own resources, doing it all by one’s own strength.  But if we live that way, our world becomes a smaller place.  Our minds become smaller.  Because we are closed off from the realities of God and his power.  On our own, there is no way that we can please God.  We all stumble into sin.  We have no resources on our own to overcome sin, the bane of the human condition.  

But if we live by the Spirit, our world becomes larger.  Our eyes are opened to new realities, greater realities.  Our lives become more than they could ever be apart from God.  We have the limitless power of God at work in us.  If the Spirit is in us, then Christ is in us.  And we are made alive in him.  

Our bodies still die, but the Spirit is life.  Death doesn’t mean the end of our Spirit life.  It only changes the venue of our life from earth to “paradise” and eventually to the New Heavens and New Earth.  

This is made possible because we have been made right with God.  Our sins have been covered by Christ’s blood and we bear his righteousness.  That is justification.  

And as justified, Spirit-filled, regenerated persons, we no longer have any obligation to the work of sin.  Sin’s power over our lives is broken, even if sin’s presence in our lives continues.  Augustine said that apart from Christ, we are NON POSSE NON PECCARE.  But in Christ, we are POSSE NON PECCARE, “able not to sin.”  It’s control over us is broken.  Our weakness toward sin is overcome by Christ’s power over sin.  

There is still a danger of sin, of course.  Paul admits, “If you keep on following it, you will die.”  Sin can still ruin us, but only if we choose to be ruined.  We can turn from it by the power of the Holy Spirit.  That is sanctification, living into the righteousness of Christ by the power of the Spirit.  

We can do that because we are children of God.  Literally, we are “sons of God.”  Now that is not Paul being sexist, though he’s certainly been accused of that!  Rather, Paul is referring in this passage to the Roman customs of adoption, and in Roman society, only sons were adopted.  

In Roman culture, a father held absolute authority over his sons.  He even had the power of life and death.  If he decided that his son had disgraced him, he could kill him with no legal repercussions.  And he continued to have this power until the day of his death.  His sons never “came of age” until he died; only then were they independent men in their own rights.  

The only way a father’s power over his son could be ended while he was alive is if he allowed his son to be adopted.  And this could happen at any age, as long as the father was still alive.  

There were two parts to the adoption ceremony.  The first was called the EMANCIPATIO, emancipation.  Three times the father would “sell” his son.  The first two times he would “sell” him, then “change his mind and buy him back.”  But the third time he would sell him and let him go.  The second part of the ceremony was the VINDICATIO, the vindication.  The adopting father would take the son as his own.  Both parts had to be witnessed by seven other men for it all to be legal and binding.  

But once it was done, it was done.  There was no going back.  The adopted son would lose all his rights in his original family.  He could receive no inheritance from his biological father.  But he would gain full rights in his new family.  He could not be denied an inheritance there.  If he had any debts in his former life, they were erased.  In the eyes of the law, he became a completely new person.  

Paul, a Roman citizen, who knew their customs well, applied this image to what happens to us in Jesus Christ.  We are adopted into the family of God.  We are no longer the person we were.  We are new.  We are now children of God through Christ.  We cry out to God, “ABBA.”  ABBA was the Aramaic word that basically meant “Daddy.”  It’s a term of intimacy, a term of confidence.  In Christ, we have assurance of God’s love for us and our salvation.  The Spirit testifies to it.  And we have full rights of inheritance:  Glory in the world to come, and like Christ, persecution in this world.  

All of this sounds pretty good, maybe not that suffering part.  So why do so many resist the offer of Jesus?  

Maybe for some it just sounds too good to be true.  But I think Jesus gives us some insight in verses 19-20 of John 3 that we heard earlier:  “We love darkness more than light.  We want to stay in the darkness for fear our sins will be exposed.”  

It’s not easy to be a new person.  It’s not easy to leave the familiar and comfortable.  Even if we’re not entirely happy with this life, at least we know it.  We are reluctant to embrace the new.  And we do love our sins.  Even if we also hate our sins, we also love them.  And we’re reluctant to let them go.  

With Jesus, the world becomes a bigger and better place.  But often we stay in the place we are out of fear of embracing the new.  

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