"Being Born Again Gives Sight"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - June 15, 2003

Psalm 29: John 3:1-17

     When we are asked by an interested person if we are a "born again Christian," the question can give some of us pause. This label may not fit or accurately communicate our identity as a disciple of Jesus Christ, at least not with the associated beliefs that frequently accompany such a description.                

     The concept of being "born again" became associated with evangelical Christians somewhere in the early 20th Century.  The label surfaced within the same time period when "speaking in tongues" became a primary emphasis with the Holiness, Charismatic or Pentecostal movements in the Church.  

     No one should ever analyze the source of another person's joy when they clearly have discovered a new creative orientation to life. The reality is, however, that not all of Jesus' followers resonate with the same beliefs.  Certainly the Apostles Peter and Paul disagreed over many issues of faith, but they remained focused on Jesus' primary directive, "Love one another."              

     In a sermon called Catholic Spirit, our founder John Wesley once wrote, 

Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?  Are we not of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?  Without any doubt, we may.  Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. While these differences remain, we are still capable of moving one another forward in love and in good works.           

     This morning our Gospel lesson centers on the one episode during Jesus' ministry where the concept of being born again had its beginning. Today we are going to examine what Jesus was saying about this experience as we seek to apply his understanding of this idea to our lives. 

     First, who was Nicodemus who came to Jesus after the sun had set?  He was a devout Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin.  After his private meeting with Jesus, he is mentioned two other times in John's Gospel.  He defended Jesus while in front of the chief priests and Pharisees. When others were planning Jesus' arrest he said, "Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?" (7:51)  Nicodemus' last appearance  took place when he helped Joseph of Arimathea to prepare Jesus' body for burial. (19:39). 

     There is evidence in the early Church, however, that Nicodemus became a disciple.  In a fourth-century book called, The Acts of Pilate which later became The Gospel of Nicodemus, his full discipleship is described.  This background is helpful because whatever shift in thinking Jesus said was necessary in order to understand him and his message, Nicodemus must have experienced it. That awakening changed the direction of his life.

     Secondly, let us consider what Jesus was teaching when he said, "You must be born again." Nicodemus said, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher sent by God.  No one could perform the miracles you are doing unless God were with him." Jesus responded by saying, "The truth is, no one will be able to understand me or my message without first changing how they think."  This is a very loose translation of verse 3.  Jesus was using a metaphor when he said, "No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again." 

     Jesus was aware that we live in two worlds -- the physical world we perceive with our five senses and the spirit world we perceive intuitively.  Constantly these two worlds are in competition for guiding how we understand and evaluate our experiences as well as which choices would be the most helpful for us to make.

     A number of professions are currently exploring this understanding.  The place where both worlds collide may be the source of many of our illnesses.  What is stress, for example, but the point where life's demands are becoming destructive to our sense of balance, peace and joy.  We become ill when we are not equipped with the skill of seeing the opportunities for growth that are facing us during such a moment of collision.

     For example, recently an acquaintance of mine sold his business and has become a multi-millionaire.  He has the security of knowing he has more wealth than most of us can imagine.  When he and I work together, I find him increasingly aloof as if he is asking, "What am I to do now with the rest of my life?" Recently, I have not seen him smile.  He appears distant and preoccupied.

     His physical world is colliding with his world of spirit.  Try to imagine what may be happening to him.  The primary mission that motivated him to get out of bed in the morning is no longer present. He can sit with his coffee and Washington Post until noon if he wants to. Everyone with whom he worked has now vanished from his daily routines.  He developed his identity while struggling to get to the summit of his mountain.  Once he arrived at the top he sold the mountain.

     Now he is experiencing the same uncertain vacuum that Nicodemus faced. Jesus knew of these two worlds while most of humanity did not.  Jesus' point of being born again was simple.  The world of spirit has to be dominant if we are to understand Jesus and his teachings.  Our awakening may come in very different forms.

     It was senior week and Rebecca Steinman had gone to Myrtle Beach with a number of her classmates to celebrate that high school was finally behind them.  This was one of the transition points where high school graduates try to demonstrate that they can be responsible when no adults are around to monitor their behavior. Eventually parents have to let go and allow  their children to find their own way.  When that happens, the material and spiritual worlds often collide. 

     A cell phone call came at 2:00 a.m. with news no parent wants to hear.  Rebecca had been in an car accident and was taken to the hospital by an ambulance. The frantic friend making the call thought Rebecca might have suffered a spinal injury.  Rebecca's car had been hit by an automobile driven by someone intoxicated with alcohol. 

     Since there were younger children at home, Mel had his wife stay behind while he made the four hour drive to the hospital. When Rebecca regained consciousness, the two talked non stop for hours.  At first communication was awkward, but after finding the secure ground on which to stand, their words began to flow more fluently.  She was telling him about her life and he was sharing stories about his childhood.  

     Rebecca suddenly grew quiet as though a new awareness had come to her.  She said something that caused her father's physical world to collide with his world of spirit.  She said, "Dad, why did it take a car accident for you to show up in my life as you have just now?  You have told me so many things about you that I never knew. Was it that until now we never took time for each other?"

     On hearing Rebecca's words, Mel's eyes filled with tears as they hugged.  He confessed that he did not know how to answer her. He got up everyday and went to work, slaying dragons, bringing home paychecks, getting the grass cut and maintaining the cars.  "It never dawned on me," he said, "how much time was getting away from us, but I guess it did."  Rebecca said, "No it didn't. We have just found each other."  

     Rebecca fully recovered, but the two of them made a discovery that they might have missed.  They found each other and became friends.  Father's Day is now very special to both of them.  Why wait for an accident before we realize how beautiful the lives of our children are?  We need to let them know this before they get away. 

     This is what we call an epiphany. This is what it means to be born again. It is an awakening to the fact that the physical world is not the only one that molds our lives.  In fact, it is the physical world that brings object lessons to us that are geared to helping our spirits grow. The same experience can give one person stress while an "awakened person" is being encouraged to access and develop their patience and peace. 

     What Jesus was saying is that until we awaken, tune-in, and grow the awareness of our spiritual world, we will never understand our identity as spirit beings.  Jesus asked Nicodemus, "You are a great teacher in Israel, and yet you do not know this?  You do not believe me when I tell you about the things of this world; how will you ever believe me when I tell you about the things of heaven?"  

     This question drives Jesus' point straight to its mark.  We cannot see if we do not have the skills to interpret and use creatively what is in front of us. This inability is preventing my millionaire friend from finding his next mission that will restore purpose to his life.  This was what prevented Mel Steinman from relating to his daughter prior to her car accident. Until we understand that the physical world is filled with opportunities that can help us create a better version of ourselves, we will always fall prey to our imagined fears about it. 

     The history of strife in the Middle East is another good example of how so many people miss the mark.  The unrest there has been based totally on the responses of people who believe that the physical dimension is humanity's only world.  There will never be peace in that region or any other area of perpetual conflict until people learn to see what now they cannot.           

     The Mideast conflict is not about driving Israel into the sea as the enemies of the Jewish state desire to do.  It is not about totally destroying Hamas and like groups who engage in or sponsor terror.  Leaders of nations do not understand that their governments are mere players in an endless cyclical drama that has lasted for thousands of years. 

     This is why Jesus said, "You do not believe the things I have told you about this world, how will you ever understand when I tell you about the things you will experience when you leave your physical form?"  Until we learn to out grow the ignorance in the way we think, we simply will not be capable of understanding any greater truth.  We have to be born again.  We have to learn how to interpret life differently.                     

     In our Tuesday morning Bible Study, I frequently illustrate this lesson by using a geographical fact.  If we live in Maryland and we wish to drive to Pennsylvania, there is only one direction to travel -- north.  God does not care if we go east, west or south.  We will simply experience different adventures but we will delay our arrival at our desired destination of Pennsylvania until we travel north.  This is exactly the way it is with finding peace in the Middle East and it is also the way we find our way in life.   

     If we human beings wish to engage in wars for the next 10,000 years, God is very patient.  For God there is no time.  Until we learn our lesson, the stimulus demanding a response, other than war, will remain in our midst.  God created us and knows that one day we will awaken from our dream of destroying each other and discover an identity we have long since forgotten we are citizens of a realm that is not of this world. The solution that nations must awaken to is the same for each individual.

     Being born again simply means discovering that there is a completely different world present from the one in which we think we live.  It is the world of spirit.  In John 3:17, Jesus tells us that he did not come here to hurt us but to teach us this greater truth.  He came here to save us from the misery we create when we respond to our physical world as though it is the only one. 

     Our material world is temporary and always changing.  When more of us understand Jesus' message, as Nicodemus apparently did, we will become overwhelmed with joy and peace because of our new awareness.  This is what Jesus meant with his metaphor, "you must be born again."


    Merciful and gracious God, we thank you for teaching us the value of being corrected.  We enter the world undisciplined, well energized and filled with curiosity.  We quickly learn to test the limits set by our parents.  We thank you for the ease with which obedience helps define our character.  Teach us the wisdom of knowing you, O God, before we begin to paint outside the lines.  Grant us the patience to master the little elements of life so that we can bring skill and not over-reaction when the larger challenges come.  May we be aware everyday that our words and deeds become an accurate portrait of what we believe.  Remind us that we have come among others as ones who serve.  Amen.


    Loving God, for centuries people have called you "Father" because you are the divine parent who knows exactly who each of us is.  In your wisdom, you have allowed us to find our own way, as painful at times as we perceive that journey to be.   

    We have learned that fire is hot and it will burn us when we are not careful.  We have learned that it is better to create hospitals and schools than it is to build hostilities that can destroy both.  We have learned the pains and pleasures of being in relationships, and we have realized that nothing of quality comes without our willingness to participate fully.  What would life be like, O God, if we were given everything we want?  

    May all parents everywhere learn from your ways of parenting.  You have allowed us to become exactly what our choices have made us.  Every morning your love gives us a new day in which to create a new version of ourselves. Thank you for giving us the ability to evolve and change the direction of our lives any time we wish. 

    Continue to inspire us with your presence.  As we receive new members into our church family today, bless them with an eagerness to become involved.  Inspire us to reach out with both hands as we greet them.  Allow our sense of community to melt the "we" and the "they" into an "us" so that we may know we are one.  Bless our church family with purpose, perseverance and peace.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .