"Understanding Being Born Again"

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – March 16, 2014

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 121; John 3:1-12


    This morning we are going to discuss what Jesus meant by being born again. This teaching has become the cornerstone for many Christians for determining the quality of a believer’s faith.  What is a mystery is how the one-on-one conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus has become such an essential teaching in Christian theology. Our journey through Lent provides us with an excellent opportunity to re-examine what Jesus was teaching this Pharisee. 

    Nicodemus was one of the most brilliant teachers in Israel.  He came to Jesus and 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.”  (John 3:2)  Jesus answered Nicodemus by describing how his ability happened.  Jesus explained that his God consciousness came as a result of a dramatic shift to his orientation toward life.  No doubt, this shift occurred because of his very dramatic experience during his baptism.  Jesus said, “No one can experience the Kingdom of God without being born again.” (John 3:3)

    Even though Nicodemus was highly educated, he found it impossible to understand what Jesus was telling him.   This conversation had more of an impact on Jesus than it did on Nicodemus.  This Pharisee was teaching Jesus what may have been the most significant lesson that Jesus learned during the early stages of his ministry. What was that lesson?  Jesus learned that if the greatest teacher in Israel could not understand what Jesus meant by being born again, no one in the general, uneducated public would understand either. (John 3:10) 

    After this encounter with Nicodemus, Jesus never again mentioned the necessity of being born again.  Instead, he taught by using examples with which his listeners were intimately familiar.  He started many parables with the words, “The Kingdom of heaven is like this.”  After these introductory words, Jesus gave examples that all his listeners experienced every day and during every growing season.  For example, “The Kingdom of heaven is like this:  A woman takes some yeast and mixes it with a bushel of flour . . . .”  

    The problem Jesus faced throughout his ministry was guiding his listeners to shift their thinking away from being obedient to the time-honored Covenant, to developing compassionate attitudes that surfaced in one’s daily living from a willing spirit.  Teaching this idea was an uphill struggle for Jesus.  Had it not been for Jesus’ miraculous ability to heal people, it is doubtful that many people would have been attracted to his radically new message of love over obedience.           

    Humanity has lived with Jesus’ teachings for over two thousand years and still we miss countless lessons that offer guidance for our growth because we have not made this shift in our consciousness.  We are still intimately attached to events in our physical lives that are governed more by the countless unrecognized laws of self-interest than by attitudes of compassion.        

    For example, when we were living on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., I entered our local Post Office one afternoon.  Generally, the Post Office is filled with people but that afternoon there was only one other person ahead of me.  However, the dream of having a swift transaction quickly faded when I realized what that person was doing.  She was a dear soul that looked to be 120 years old.  She was intent on sending 16 cards to countries all over the world.

    The Postal Clerk had to find the exact postage for each card in a large book.  Once the woman was told the correct postage, she had to take coins from her purse and put them in a tray. I had gone into the Post Office just to purchase stamps.  

    I was amazed at what was happening within me.  I actually began clocking this woman’s tedious, slow-motion movements.  I was becoming crazed by this inconvenience. Other Postal employees saw what was happening and no one came to my assistance.  I actually thought I might be on Candid Camera, a very funny television program many years ago that captured moments of people being people in situations just like the one I was experiencing. 

    I was a veteran of episodes that require patience.  I have been trapped in my car during rush hour in Washington, D.C. as a medevac-helicopter hovered overhead and landed right in front of me.  The drama that was unfolding was a terrible accident that had stopped traffic in all directions.       

    There was a time when I sat endlessly in traffic at a blinking red traffic signal because the other motorists had a blinking yellow light and those drivers were refusing to take turns.  On another occasion I had an appointment with my ophthalmologist at 10:00 a.m. and it was 11:25 a.m. before I heard a receptionist say, “Mr. Stetler, the doctor will see you now.” 

    While in that Post Office, I kept asking myself, “Why is my patience being tested again?”  The answer came swiftly, “Dick, you are still in a hurry and your impatience is eating you alive.”  We are easily controlled by these unrecognized rules of self-interest.  All my rules were being violated and I was being taught once again that my frustration would not change what was happening.  I needed to be born again in that moment i.e., I needed to change my impatience to an attitude of peace.

    Peace never destroyed anyone’s mental processes.  Peace never produces adrenalin and cortisol in the quantities that seething impatience creates.  Once I realized what was happening to me, I adjusted my perception and was prepared to stay in that Post Office the entire afternoon if that is how long I had to wait.  As soon as I had chosen peace, the light went on in my consciousness and I smiled in a spirit of thanksgiving for how my angels had provided me with another opportunity to replace my impatience with peace.     

    I had come to realize that this episode appeared as though it had been specifically designed for me because all during that time, no one else had come into that Post Office.  How much we get done in a day is not nearly as important as the spirit we bring to each moment.  If we are in pain right now, it probably is the result of our thoughts, our fears, our worries, our “me-first” attitudes or moments when our needs are not being met.

    During Lent we need to explore how our faith saves us from all the anxieties we create within ourselves because we live in a world that does not care one bit about our personal laws of self-interest.  The world could easily say, “If you want to be your own worst enemy, have at it!”  Of course, the other alternative is to show up in life totally prepared to deal compassionately with whatever comes to our life’s stage.

    Linda Caldwell was a student at the University of Chicago.  She excelled in every subject but one.  She had taken a demanding schedule and needed every credit for graduation at the end of May.  She was completing her college degree in three years instead of four.  To expand her knowledge in a subject with which she was unfamiliar, she took an elective 400 course in Philosophy. 

    The professor had waived all the prerequisite courses because she was the darling of the faculty and had maintained a 4.0 average in every course.  Everyone knew her.  She had all the talents and graces to perform well in life wherever she went.  To the chagrin of everyone that knew her, she was failing Philosophy.  Linda could not grasp abstract thinking just like Nicodemus had failed to do.

    The day of the final examination arrived. If she failed, she would not graduate.  She would not deliver the address to her graduating class that was always the privilege of the student that had achieved the highest grade-point-average.  To give Linda a break, the professor gave the class one question for the final examination -- “What is faith?”  All the students began writing feverishly in their blue books.  Within seconds, Linda stood up, handed in her blue book and left the classroom.

    The professor was heartsick. He had given her every opportunity to succeed.  Her professor thought, “With so much at stake, why would she do this?”  Filled with a sense of sadness and frustration, the professor picked up her blue book to see if she had written anything. He developed a broad smile on his face, nodded his head in an affirming manner and gave her an A. 

    Knowing that her graduation depended on the decision of her professor, what had she written in that blue book that was so profound?  In answering the question, “What is faith?” Linda wrote two words, “This is” and she left the classroom. Linda had successfully illustrated the meaning of faith by placing her destiny into the hands of her professor. 

    Countless Christians are not prepared to place their destinies outside of their control.  We know very well what we do.  We worry.  We pray.  We become insecure.  We seek God’s will while remaining influenced by the unrecognized laws of self-interest.  We cannot let go of our destiny as Linda had done, and row our boats gently down the stream.                

    Jesus knew that finding and living in the Kingdom of heaven was difficult because of how entwined people become and how dependent we are on the things in our material world.  He once said, “The gate to life is narrow and the way that leads to life is hard, and there are very few people that ever find it.”  (Matthew 7:14).

    Do you remember the time when a Samaritan village refused to receive Jesus and his disciples?  James and John came to Jesus and angrily asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?”  (Luke 9:54)  On another occasion, Peter drew a sword in the Garden and cut off the ear of Malchus. (John 18:10)  How long had Peter, James and John been listening to Jesus’ message?   Like Nicodemus, they had not learned what it means to be born again.  Their spirits were still being manipulated by events happening in their experience.

    What a blessing it is to know that God’s love is so extensive and so encompassing that God waits for us like a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.  We cannot earn God’s love with our titles, our academic degrees, our manner of witnessing to our faith, our ordination papers or our wonderful, thoughtful deeds.  We are saved from the craziness of this world because God loves us.

    God takes each kernel of wheat that we represent and with the breath of loving kindness, blows the chaff away.  There is a wideness in God’s mercy, as our final hymn tells us, that we seldom consider. Too many believers living in fear cling to God’s judgment rather than being filled with thanksgiving and gratitude for God’s mercy.  Jesus taught us from the cross and from the empty tomb that such mercy can be ours as well when we make developing a merciful spirit our choice.