March 2020

Being Born Again

2nd Sunday of Lent, March 8, 2020
John 3:1-17

– The Reverend Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas –

Many of you know that my spiritual journey began very early when even as an elementary school child I questioned my dad, a very conservative Baptist minister, about the meaning of scripture passages. And this inquiry became more probing and extensive as I grew older to the point where I think dad breathed a sigh of relief when I finally went off to college to burden others with these questions.

Yet amid such spiritual curiosity lingered the assumption that something was wrong with me for not only questioning the meaning of scripture but the tenets of faith for, in a conservative religious environment, questioning of this sort meant that I wasn’t right with God and that there were elements of doubt that needed to be purged from my being if I were to truly be a born-again believer.

Even now I cringe at the expression of the term “born-again,” reminded of evening Campus Crusade Bible Study sessions where people were asked to raise or clap their hands if they were saved and lines were drawn between the redeemed and doomed of God. Even now I cringe at the reminder of an evening meeting with a born-again student who informed me she could no longer be my friend for fear she would join me in hell if she continued to associate with me.

So, the evening encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus mentioned in John’s gospel conjures up memories of other evening encounters about faith I would prefer to forget, but cannot. And because I cannot, you can be assured that any question or inquiry or doubt about your faith in this church will be seriously heard, considered and appreciated without thought of divine judgment or condemnation. For faith is more than certainty. It is a power that compels you to venture into the uncertain and unknown wilderness of your soul, confident that a force of goodness is guiding you.

Now you may be uncertain what to call or how to identify this force. The popular Star Wars saga simply calls it the Force. But it is that mysterious, unseen, yet very real presence that inspires you beyond normative conventions, beyond customs and expectations to ask the questions How and Why, especially when you’re not supposed to. Jesus called this force the Spirit of God.

Now the word Spirit, (pronounced Ruah or Ruach in Hebrew) also means Breath or Wind. And Jesus likens the Spirit of God to wind that “blows where it chooses;” you know it’s with you, but you don’t know “from where it comes or where it goes.” (John 3:8) In other words, you relinquish control and allow the Spirit to guide you where it chooses. It led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. And it led Nicodemus, a Pharisee steeped in Jewish law and tradition, to come to Jesus under the cloak of night and beyond the sight of public scrutiny, to question Jesus, an individual whose words and deeds confounded the customs, norms and conventions of belief in which he once felt secure.

It’s interesting to note that as we dealt with the matter of becoming a welcoming church without regard to sexual orientation or gender identity, and as we now deal with the matter of who should receive the Sacrament of Communion, the question arose and continually rises: “Are we watering down our faith?”

But water is a cleansing, purifying agent symbolically associated with the renewing, born-again experience of life in the Holy Spirit. And some will point to Jesus’ statement that “no one can enter the realm of God without being born of water and Spirit,” as proof that one must be baptized before receiving Communion. And others will argue to the contrary by pointing to biblical references where Jesus revived those without baptismal waters. Either way, we want our traditions and customs from which we seek stability to exercise control over the radically uncontrollable, destabilizing force of the Holy Spirit, only to ultimately confront the fact that being born again means relinquishing control to a Spirit that blows where it chooses.

The very last act of grace Jesus performed before dying on the cross was promising the criminal who hung next to him that he would be with him in paradise. The Spirit of God embodied in Jesus Christ makes no sense, because it is a wind that blows not where we want it to go, but where it chooses.

Nicodemus would eventually submit to its force and become a born-again follower of Christ. It is the same all-embracing Spirit and divine love that calls the church in every age to rise beyond customs, conventions and expectations; to be born from above and carried by a sacred wind to new heights of awareness of what it means to be a child of God. May we be so uplifted and carried away in that wind-swept current of new life. Amen.