Lent 2A – Born Again
March 12, 2017
Beginning in the 1500’s, there was a name – a derogatory name –
given to people who were secret believers – the closeted faithful.
It started during the Reformation when Protestant Christians
lived in Roman Catholic countries
and escaped persecution by hiding the fact they were Protestants.
John Calvin called them out –
and he coined the term “Nicodemite.”
The “nicodemites” were named after Nicodemus in our gospel text –
who by day was a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin leadership council,
but who by night came to see Jesus.
Over the years, there were a number of notable people
given the label of Nicodemite.
As a Catholic with Protestant sympathies, Michelangelo was said to be a Nicodemite-
He went so far as to sculpt himself as the figure Nicodemus
in his statue of the Pieta in Florence, Italy –
the sculpture was a highly personal work,
thought to be intended for his own tomb.
In the 17th century, Sir Isaac Newton was called a Nicodemite,
for publicly practicing as an Anglican but privately holding unorthodox beliefs.
To be called a Nicodemite was meant to be derogatory..
To be branded cowardly or unable to commit.
Today I’d like to claim the word “Nicodemite” in a more positive way.
I don’t see Nicodemus as cowardly —
I see him as someone who is trying to figure something out.
Who’s in discernment.
Who is willing to admit that he doesn’t have all the answers.
Who actually has a more mature faith than someone who never questions,
Never expresses doubt or disbelief.
What is Nicodemus doing up at night?
It could be that it was daylight savings time
And he was so worried about missing the alarm clock and being late to church
That he couldn’t get to sleep…
But I don’t think this was the only night
Nicodemus was up tossing and turning.
I think that night after night thoughts were going around in his head like this: [i]
“I heard he turned water into wine (Jn 2:1).
They’re saying he is the Messiah, the Son sent from God.
I wonder if they’re right, because how can he make wine out of water if he is not sent from God?
But if he is sent from God, why has he not studied with our rabbis?
If he is sent from God, why is he critical of our practices?”
Last fall we took our Confirmation students to Camp Caroline Furnace on retreat.
We left on Friday night.
It was dark.
As we got near to the camp in the Blue Ridge mountains,
The street lights of the city were long gone,
My GPS no longer had a signal,
And as the narrow roads twisted and turned through the Shenanodoah Forest,
I was thankful for the taillights of the car ahead of me,
And the yellow signs with that black arrows
That showed where the road curved up ahead.
I learned something on that drive:
It’s easier to find your way in the light.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night looking for some street signs,
as his racing mind is trying to find its way along the dark winding roads.
Here is Nicodemus late at night, knocking on Jesus’ door.
Jesus opens the door and says,
“I know why you’re here…
You want to see the kingdom of God –
But I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless you’re born anew.
(Or some translations say “born from above” or ‘born again.’)
Surely many have been asked the question, “Are you born again?”
I knew it was going to be a long bus ride
As soon as the guy sat next to me.
I was taking the bus home from college for spring break.
Like everyone does on the bus,
When we got to a stop and others started to come on board,
I was avoiding eye contact,
hoping no one would choose the seat next to me.
But he did.
And as soon as he sat down he handed me a leaflet and said,
“Are you born again?”
In my head I was groaning;
In my mind I was asking, what can I say to get him to stop talking.
I mumbled an answer maybe sounding like Nicodemus’;
“Yes, well no.
No, well, yes.
I don’t know.”
Now I know what Lutherans are ‘supposed’ to say
When we’re asked about being born again.
We’re supposed to say,
“Well, yes – glad you asked – I was born again when I was baptized!”
But in the years since,
this is what I’ve come to know about baptism – about being born again – about rebirth.
I’ve learned that birth – any kind of birth including spiritual birth
is never simply a once and done thing.
Jesus tells Nicodemus,
“No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Learning to see the kingdom of God –
Learning to see God’s work in the world –
Learning to see God’s movement toward justice, mercy, and love,
Is a lifelong journey.
I was a young physician in Massachusetts
And I went to talk to my pastor because some of my patients had died.
I was pretty sure they weren’t believers,
And I wanted to know if I was a bad Christian for not trying to convert them on their deathbed.
I thought I should come clean to my pastor.
That maybe I wasn’t really a Christian,
Because I didn’t feel compelled to do this.
I didn’t go to him at night…(that would be weird!) but I did make an appointment
to come when no one else was around.
I was embarrassed.
I don’t remember at all what my pastor said.
But I remember that I left his office with a spiritual rebirth….I was born again.
One time of many times that I’ve had over the years.
For me, it is a spiritual rebirth
when I come to an awareness of a deeper spiritual truth.
They come in times of pain, in times of struggle, as well as in times of joy.
And usually they involve sleepless nights with racing thoughts,
When I’m wondering, “Where is God in all of this?
I’m just not seeing the kingdom of God here.”
I have come to treasure those moments of doubt; of questioning; of wonder…
I have come to appreciate being a nicodemite…
Because despite a lot of restless nights,
The light has never failed to come in the morning.
The darker the night has been,
The more bright the light appears.
Thanks be to God.