Tuesday, June 5, 2012
You must be born again. . .
Some years ago Billy Graham wrote a big book on being born again. In amazement I found that nary a mention of baptism in his treatment of the subject. There are those who would speak of being born again is an act of our conscious will, the public confession of faith, the promise to Christ and pledge of obedience. Today, on Trinity Sunday, we come face to face with Jesus' words to Nicodemus "You must be born again". It is significant that on this day when we confess the mystery of God, we hear Jesus say, “you must be born again.” If you look at the Gospel, you quickly find that Jesus is neither appealing to Nicodemus to understand or to make a decision about anything. Just the opposite. Jesus calls Nicodemus to faith in what his mind cannot comprehend nor his power accomplish.
How many of you can recall being born? Of course not. None of us can. In birth you are completely passive and unaware. By God's miraculous design you did what God moved you to do. The same is true for all of nature and for God's work. God does not require us to cooperate with Him for His will to be done. To be sure we can reject His gifts and refuse His grace but we cannot occasion that grace or make Him give us His gifts. So, if we did nothing in our first birth, why would we get the idea that in speaking of being born again or born from above Jesus is asking for our understanding or our agreement?
When Jesus speaks to him of the kingdom of God, Nicodemus' question is the same as ours: What must I do? But Jesus presents an impossibility to Nicodemus. " You must be born again." How? Nicodemus cannot enter his mother's womb again. Notice that Jesus does not tell Nicodemus that he must be born again spiritually. He insists that He must be born again but that this second birth is by water and the Spirit. It is significant to note that Jesus points Nicodemus to the very thing that so many who love this phrase “born again” forget – namely, baptism. Nicodemus is asked neither to act upon or understand Jesus' words but simply to trust in Him. Nicodemus can do nothing. Only Jesus can enable us to be born again to life with God.
Being born again is the work of God in you. It is not what you do but what God does. As Scripture reminds us, even the faith that acknowledges and trusts in this work is the gift of God and not the fruit of your intellect or your will. To enter the mystery of knowing God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the work of God for us and in us, to which faith simply adds "Amen" to what God has done. In confronting Nicodemus with a second birth of water and the Spirit, Jesus is confronting Nicodemus and us with the way God makes Himself known to us and the places where He makes His mystery accessible to us. That is, the Word and the Sacraments.
So what is it God does? First of all He sends forth His own self-revelation through the person and work of His Son, the Word made flesh. Christ comes in human flesh and blood as the bearer of the kingdom, the revealer of the Father, and the sender of the Spirit. We encounter the mystery of God as God reveals Himself and that is in His Son. God reveals Himself to us as one God in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Note where it is that this name is explicitly given: in Jesus’ command to baptize. This mystery is thus meant not for our understanding but for us to receive with faith and to faithfully confess before Him in worship and before the world in witness.
Our hearts have been made brittle and hard by sin. Fed with doubt, clothed with suspicion, cynical from disappointment, we are resistant to trust. Faith does not become easier as we get older. It is ever more difficult. The infant’s main advantage over us is that he has not learned such suspicion, doubt, and cynicism. In addition, he has not been deceived by confidence in his ability to discern and understand. The infant has only trust. So Jesus insists we must become like little children to enter the kingdom of God. It is not accomplishment or intellectual ability that save but simple faith in God, trust in His own self-revelation, and confidence in His promises to us in the means of grace.
Death cannot be avoided. Either we will die the death that steals everything from us or we will die the death that gives us all that sin stole from us. Jesus points Nicodemus to the death that gives life, to baptism. There we die to sin before we can be made alive forevermore. Baptism does not symbolize death but actually kills us. We are killed under the waters, drowned in death to be raised by God made new. Here on earth we live to die. Death is our unchangeable destiny. But in baptism God turns the tails on death. His death in baptism is the means to life – abundant now and eternal to come.
We do not crack the mystery of God as if it were a riddle. We are born again into the mystery of God through baptism. There we are united with Christ into His death and joined with Christ in His resurrection to rise up as His own new creation. We are not who we were and we are not yet whom we shall be. But we are set upon the path of salvation, marked for the kingdom, and directed to the future God has prepared for us in Christ. What is left to us is simply to trust – to trust what the eye cannot see, the mind cannot explain, and the will cannot make happen. Faith is not some active reaching for God but the Spirit pushing aside all barriers to God's work so that we can trust in the mystery that is the Triune God and participate in the mystery of grace that this God has made known to us.
The old expression says that a coward dies over an over again and the brave dies but once. Without Christ we live a daily death that leads to an eternal death. But only God can intervene to break the cycle of death. Until Christ rescues us, death is our destiny. But God has broken the cycle and now death becomes His tool. The rescue of God comes to us through death – the death Christ works in us by baptism, the death of repentance where daily we deny ourselves and take up the cross to follow Him, and the death in which we exchange the mortal bodies of this mortal life for the glorious flesh and blood of eternity. God's brave action has given to us what we could not will, desire, or work for ourselves.
When we confess the Trinity, we are not defining God into human categories of wisdom, but laying forth the parameters of His mystery, confessing the mystery of who God has revealed Himself to be, confessing the mystery of how He works, and confessing the mystery of the kingdom which we own now by faith until the day comes when it is our full possession in heaven. As the Athanasian creed which we shall soon confess has put it. The catholic faith, the apostolic faith, the faith that saves, is manifest not in words that explain God, but in words that confess God’s own self-revelation and make it possible for us to enter into His mystery in worship. The words of the Trinity are worship words, faith heard them first when they were applied to us in our baptism and now when we gather in His name, we confess them over and over again – from the invocation that calls together to the creed we speak to the benediction which sends us forth.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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Having witnessed the birth of my four sons I assure you none of them were passive as they were born. They screamed at the top of their lungs. This is nitpicking though as they were certainly entirely unable to accomplish anything themselves. And even more to the point if they'd been able to they'd have resisted the change that was taking place in their lives.
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