Rev. Glen Shoup is the Executive Pastor of Worship and Congregational Care pastor for those who have last names beginning with J – L.
I grew up in a segment of the Christian faith (for which I am grateful) that placed great emphasis on John chapter 3; specifically being born again or “born anew” (vs 3), as this translation renders it. One did not spend much time at all in my church growing up without hearing of the need to trust in Jesus and be born anew. Now having grown up as I did, I’ll be one of the first to acknowledge that there can be dangers with overemphasizing Jesus’ clear statement to Nicodemus in verse 3 of today’s reading. Overemphasizing Jesus’ directive to be born anew can lead to an understanding of the Christian gospel that is grossly reduced. It can lead to a belief that all that matters is whether one has prayed a prayer asking Jesus into their heart, for this is the greatest of needs anyone faces. The greatest need the world has isn’t peace for those torn apart by war, food and clean drinking water for those torn apart by hunger and disease or education for those imprisoned by cycles of poverty—the greatest need the world has is to collectively join together in a recitation of the sinner’s prayer—for if we could just get everybody to invite Jesus into their hearts, then the gospel of Jesus would be fully realized. Of course Jesus himself—makes it blatantly clear in Matthew 25 (among other places) that this kind of thinking is not accurate, nevertheless, this kind of thinking is one of the admitted and observable dangers of overemphasizing Jesus’ admonition to Nicodemus to be born anew.
However, I have also been in and around other segments of the Christian faith that place almost no emphasis on John chapter 3; specifically being born again or “born anew”. One could seemingly spend their whole life in these churches and never hear of a need to trust in Jesus and be born anew. Now I’ll be quick to acknowledge that often great emphasis is given to feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, leveraging education for those imprisoned by poverty and seeking peace for those torn apart by war—just as Jesus blatantly instructed his followers should in Matthew 25 (among other places). But for this segment of the Christian faith, the Christian gospel is fully realized when human beings—no matter the motivation of their heart or the authenticity of their attitudes—just collectively unite in service to their fellow person. For if this communal sense of responsibility could just happen everywhere, then heaven would come on earth and the hell that so many live in would be eradicated and the gospel that Jesus came teaching and living would be realized. Believing that following Jesus is synonymous with the Peace Corps is one of the admitted dangers of underemphasizing Jesus’ admonition to Nicodemus to be born anew.
Overemphasizing or underemphasizing what Jesus had to say to Nicodemus in our reading today seems to be where many in Christendom tend to get off track. And that tends to happen because of human emphasis (most often fueled by human bias) on whichever side of this Gospel coin they personally find most appealing. But Jesus—for his part—clearly taught that both were essential and it was impossible to authentically live and sustain one without the other.
Being born anew is the grace empowered, faith-transaction by which I receive forgiveness I don’t deserve, mercy I did not earn, peace I can’t manufacture and the Presence of Life (both now and eternal) that is not my own. Being born of the Spirit (vs 5) is what enables me to live life daily in and by the Spirit (which is the Holy Spirit of God which is the Spirit of Christ). Being born of the Spirit is what continually reorients me to the need to live out the life and light of Jesus to others by being God’s hands and feet in the world—i.e.—this is what propels and compels me into service.
And conversely, in consistently seeking to serve others, I realize both how little my own frustrations really matter (perspective) and how much my own tendency towards self-preference needs ongoing treatment (continual need to be born anew) that only life in Christ can provide. Consistent service to others reveals that I can give all that have, but if I’m only giving what I have, I will quickly be ineffective and extinguished. Service to others drives me to recognize that I am dependent upon life by God’s Spirit which can only be accessed by being born anew of God’s Spirit continually and daily.
So daily seeking to be born anew by entrusting myself to Christ and asking Jesus to be Lord of my life is what empowers me to live out the good news of Christ socially. And seeking to consistently live a life of service that seeks to meet the needs of my community and world drives me to the awareness that I must have more than my own life to give to others in service—I need the life of Christ living within me to give to them.
Faith without works is dead; and works without faith is just work. But—if I may take just the slightest bit of liberty with verse 3 of today’s reading—when one is born anew, one will necessarily be compelled to serve the needs of others and in so doing they (all) will see (God) the Kingdom of God.
That’s why today (and every day), I need to be born anew.