The birth is only the beginning…being ‘born from above.’
Sermon for St John’s Adel 2nd Sunday of Lent
Genesis 12: 1 – 4a; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3: 1-17
Anyone a fan of ‘Call the Midwife’? I’ve come to it rather late – so since Christmas I’ve been catching up on the early series.
Apart from being an amazing social history of post-war Britain, it’s also a reminder that childbirth is a messy and violent affair.
Since it’s really the story of the midwives, frustratingly we never hear the rest of the baby’s story…we don’t see them grow up. Occasionally there are glimpses – a young policeman will appear and say to a nun, “I’m one of yours – you delivered me during the blitz.” But mostly, it’s the birth that matters.
Today’s gospel is also about birth. Jesus tells Nicodemus no one can see the Kingdom of heaven without being ‘born from above’…often translated ‘born again’…
I wonder…what does that phrase mean to you? I’ve always belonged to churches where it’s either not used, or regarded with some suspicion…an idea used by rather dogmatic, overenthusiastic evangelicals.
And I’ve done placements in wonderful churches where it’s seen as vital…those who aren’t ‘born again’ perhaps not really regarded as proper Christians.
I guess as usual we’ve both missed the point. Firstly – I’m pretty sure Jesus chose the picture carefully. Birth – wonderful, but not gentle. Watch a couple of episodes of ‘Call the Midwife’ back to back and you soon realise that.
But Nicodemus seems to be hoping it is. I think he’s realised that in Jesus he’s somehow encountering God but he comes to Jesus by night. As a Jewish leader he’s not ready to commit himself fully by coming openly during the day.
Does he come hoping for reassurance that he can have a private faith in Jesus, but go on with the rest of his life as before? That’s not what Jesus offers him. No, Nicodemus is told that following Jesus is like another birth – a huge change. It’s like moving from the comfort and safety of the womb, the life we know, to the scary space of the outside world.
Nicodemus is invited to bring his faith in Jesus from the secrecy of night, into the daylight where he can see it better.
Becoming a follower of Jesus means change. So those Christians who make much of the idea of being born again are right in a way.
I think the problem is that it’s come to mean a once in a lifetime happening. A sudden massive change from not believing to being certain that Jesus is Lord. That’s a wonderful thing that happens to some people…but for many, me included, it’s a much more gradual process. It’s not all about the birth.
Mark Oakley, a favourite writer of mine, says Christianity involves two conversions. The first happens when suddenly this idea that God loves us, and shows this love by sending Jesus…this idea starts to make sense, and something stirs inside us.
Something stirs…for most people it’s not a sudden certainty – not a point where we say, I wasn’t a Christian and now I am – we may not even remember it. But at some point we start to take faith seriously enough for it to invade the rest of our lives – we bring it out into the light.
Like childbirth, though – it’s not an end in itself. It’s the beginning of something…of that second conversion…a conversion that is the rest of our life…as we slowly, sometimes painfully, try to adjust to this different way of being human, to live in this different light.
So, although the ‘being born again’ matters – I think the second conversion matters more. We don’t want to be a ‘Call the Midwife’ church, just sharing birth stories – we want to be the spin off stories of how those babies grew up!
Which is why the chance to get involved and share our faith is so important. For me, growing in Christ has always involved discussion: trying to put my ideas into words and having them refined by the thoughts of others.
So there will be increasing opportunities to do this here at St John’s. There’s the Lent course – last week we had two very different but valuable discussions…ask the people who came. It’s not too late to join in.
In June Bishop Paul comes to confirm Christians here. If you haven’t been confirmed…if this Jesus stuff is starting to make sense, and you’d like to explore it further – speak to me about confirmation. You can come along to the discussions without committing to anything else.
In April we’re starting up a new group for older children – year 4 and up. A chance for them to be together without parents, to have fun, but also to start asking questions –discussing this Christianity stuff for themselves.
I know this sort of discussion is not for everyone – it can be a little scary. I would say though – if you’ve never tried it, give it a go.
But there are other ways to journey together as Christians – by getting involved in serving at the altar, and so perhaps learn a little more about the Eucharist.
By reading the lesson or leading the prayers, and so perhaps engaging a little more deeply with the service.
By joining the team who welcome people on a Sunday morning, or who serve coffee afterwards and so thinking about what welcome in God’s name looks like.
Or if you’ve done those in the past, but can’t at the moment – by taking the pew sheet home and praying for those listed on it. Praying for others is a great way of growing closer to God. Whatever you do – I think it’s good for all of us to think about new steps in our Christian journey.
So for us, being ‘born from above’ may not be the violent, messy affair so beloved of ‘Call the Midwife’, but it should hold the same promise of a whole new life ahead as we try to live in the light of Christ.