Born from Above
This sermon by the Rev. Canon Frank Logue was given at
St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Pooler, Georgia on March 20, 2011.
You Must Be Born From Above
Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon saying, “That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.” Those steps onto the moon were an important moment in human history. It’s a good thing he didn’t say, “That’s a baby step for me and a great big step for all of us.”
David Farragut was a naval commander during the American Civil War. His name is etched in history in part because during the Battle of Mobile Bay he did not say “Forget about the torpedoes, just make the boat go fast.” Instead, he gave a steely gaze to the danger ahead and ordered, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” With those words and the victory, he charged into history.
Words matter and it is serious business changing words around once we get used to them. The King James Bible has had Jesus telling us we must be “born again” for nearly 400 years. Now since 1989, the New Revised Standard Version has the nerve to have Jesus tell us we must be “born from above.”
This comes from the set up to what is arguably the best known verse in scripture, John 3:16 with Jesus immortal words, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
So are we to connect John 3:16 to being “Born Again” or “Born from Above.” The two expressions are not exactly the same, so I did some digging to find out what’s going on. What I found is that the word translated as born again in the King James Version is anothen. Anothen is a Greek word whose ordinary meaning is from above. It also used metaphorically for “anew” or “again.” This word occurs 13 times in the Greek New Testament. The translators of the King James Bible translate anothen as “from above” in every case but John 3:3 and John 3:7. In fact, the King James Bible even translates anothen as from above in John 3:31.
OK, if your eyes are not glazing over yet, they probably should be. I know that I am comparing how a 400-year old translation deals with a word, but it matters. It might not matter so much in every time and in every place, but here and now in the Bible Belt, someone might well ask you “Have been born again?” A harder look at the story of Nicodemus’ night visit to Jesus will help show what is really going on.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling elite who would later vote on whether Jesus should die. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. We are not told why he makes a night visit. Perhaps Nicodemus doesn’t want to be seen with Jesus. Maybe Nicodemus wants some alone time with Jesus without the crowds to distract Jesus’ attention. Or maybe Nicodemus doesn’t want to wait until the next morning, he just has to rush over to talk to this miracle-working Rabbi.
Whatever the reason, Nicodemus begins by complimenting Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” There is no question yet. Nicodemus has not given Jesus any reason for his visit. Yet, Jesus launches into the conversation saying, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born…” and here is where translations of scripture get into a problem. The Gospel of John then gives us the word anothen, which means “from above” or “anew” or “again.”
Nicodemus decides that Jesus meant, “born again,” and then Nicodemus can’t make sense out of the expression. He asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” You see Nicodemus misunderstood Jesus. Jesus wasn’t saying we should be born again in a physical sense. Jesus was speaking of spiritual matters and he tries to clear things up for Nicodemus saying that we must be born of water and of the spirit, we must have both a physical birth and a spiritual birth. Yes, it is means being born again or anew, but it mostly means being born from above, being born in a spiritual sense.
Jesus gets frustrated with Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a spiritual leader over Israel and yet Jesus sees him as being in spiritual darkness. Nicodemus just can’t understand Jesus’ spiritual teaching. Nicodemus made things too earthly. He had trouble tuning in to the deeper spiritual discussion for which Jesus longed.
I think the way the expression “born again” is often used today also misses the point. When we talk of being born again or if someone asks, “Have you been born again?” the emphasis is all on our side of the equation. The asker of that question wants to know about you and what you have done. That is well and good, to a point. However, it may still miss Jesus’ real point.
In Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, the emphasis was not on Nicodemus’ actions, but on God’s actions. Jesus did not ask Nicodemus if he was “born again,” or if he had “gotten saved.” Jesus did not try to lead Nicodemus in the sinner’s prayer. You see it wasn’t about Nicodemus. The emphasis in the conversation is on God and God’s action.
In verses 14 and 15, we get the setup for that best-known verse in scripture. Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
Jesus is comparing his own crucifixion to an important healing in which Moses took part. The people were being bit by poisonous snakes and they cried out to God in prayer. Moses was told to fashion a snake, put it on a pole and anyone who looked at it would live. Moses made a bronze snake on a pole, the people, looked, and were healed.
Jesus says that in a similar way, he will be lifted up on the cross in death and those who look to him for salvation will find eternal life. The emphasis is on God’s action through Jesus Christ. Yes, we must believe, but we believe in what God has done for us. It is God’s action, not our action that matters most.
John 3:16 is not first and foremost about you. First and foremost John 3:16 is about God and God’s awesome love for us. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” We are not born again because we so love God. We are born again, born from above, because God so loved the world that he sent his only Son that the world might be saved.
Yes, our faith matters. Yes, we must believe. However, all that we do matters only because all God has done. Undergoing a conversion experience is not about being born again in the way Nicodemus thought of it. We certainly do not enter the womb again to be born. What we experience through new life in Jesus Christ might better be thought of as being “born anew,” or better still “born from above” which takes the emphasis off us and what we do and gives it back to God. The action is from above, it is beyond us, because that new birth is not something we can control any more than we can control the wind.
Nicodemus first two words to Jesus were, “We know” in saying, “we know that you are a teacher come from God.” Nicodemus was starting with what he thought were certainties. Jesus then blew all those certainties out of the water with a conversation unlike anything Nicodemus had experienced. Jesus challenged Nicodemus that if he wanted to see the Kingdom of God, he would have to let go of his own knowledge and his own control to be born from above. The words matter here as being born from above starts with God. Yes it is birth into a new life in Christ, but it comes from God’s action and your merely receiving what God has done and is doing.
If you are at the point of giving your life over to God, then just let go of that last bit of control you are holding on to long enough to turn you life over to God. The promise of a new birth that also means to be born from above is as real this morning as it was for Nicodemus that long ago evening.
What about those of us who have already been checked off on the guest list for the Kingdom of God? In this season of Lent, we too are called to let go of our own confidence in what we know. We too are called to let go of our certainty and let a new experience of God’s presence blow all our certainties away as we live in to the new birth Jesus has already given us.