“You must be born again.” John 3:7
John 3:7 has a bad press. Saying the words, ‘you must be born again’ to most Anglican congregations stirs up negative thoughts because they straightaway think they are being got at, that someone is standing in judgement over them, that someone is saying to us them they are not Christians.
But, if it is a verse that is seen in a negative way, what then does one do with this Gospel reading? What is usually done, is that it is skimmed over. People usually forget about these verses and go on to something a bit more comfortable. Given this morning’s readings, many clergy will tend to be drawn towards Abraham rather than to this conversation of Jesus with Nicodemus.
If one takes Jesus seriously, one can’t just skip over the bits that present people with difficulties. There is a need to look again at this encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus.
“Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council”; it is Nicodemus in this story who is from a rather humourless group of people. The Pharisees were so humourless that they had hundreds of rules that were to be observed every day and took the breach of any of them very seriously. The Pharisees thought they could earn their place with God through their “good-living”. People described as “good-living” tend to be very religious, dour, narrow and humourless; as people with a very strong belief in judgement and not much sense of grace.
It is the “good-living” Pharisee, Nicodemus, who is told that he must be born again. Nicodemus, who is a legalist, misunderstands what Jesus is saying to him. “How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus makes it clear what he means: “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’”
Even then Nicodemus still does not understand , “How can this be?” he asks, and Jesus’ response to him is clearly one of frustration.
“You must be born again” is a word of advice, a word of warning to anyone who wants to follow Jesus, that they have to become new people. People think that they can shape God into their own preferences, their own way of doing things, they think that they can fit God into their lives where he is convenient.
No, no, no, Jesus is saying. Don’t think you can make God in your own image, you’ve got it the wrong way round. It’s you that has to be remade. It’s you that has to be born again.
God will not fit into the human way of thinking, the human way of doing things. Jesus tells Nicodemus, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Perhaps when people hear ‘You must be born again’, they become defensive because of the thoughts it stirs up in their memories, but perhaps they also recoil because they don’t want to change. Sometimes it is easier to shift feelings elsewhere. To say that one doesn’t don’t like that Bible verse because it misused is easier than admitting that one doesn’t like that Bible verse because it is too challenging.
People must ask themselves if they have really become new people through what they believe. When Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again”, how do people answer him?