Text: John 3:1-17
In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.
Today’s Gospel text is a favorite among Christians – as it should well be. In her collective wisdom,
Jesus tells Nicodemus that in order to be a part of the
The media speaks of certain kinds of Christians as “born again” – as though one can be a Christian and not be “born again.” In our religious culture – fueled by a media that knows nothing about the true, ancient, apostolic, orthodox, catholic faith – “born again” means something very different than what our Lord speaks of. To them, a “born again” Christian is one who favors “deeds not creeds” (and would hardly be expected to recite the Athanasian Creed as we will do shortly). To them being “born again” means being emotional, raising one’s hands in the air, singing expressive, simple ditties, having no liturgy, and a pastor that likes to call attention to himself. To them, being “born again” typically means being “holier than thou” and often means being a hypocrite.
We Americans thrive on emotionalism. We love nothing more than when someone cries on Oprah, when a basketball player pumps his fist in triumph, or when a politician speaks to us “from the heart.” We love preachers that prance around and make faces and tell us how much they love Jesus. We love the rush of adrenaline that comes with an emotional high, and we confuse this short and passing feeling with the working of the Holy Spirit. Many Christians even go so far as to place this feeling over and above what Scripture teaches and what the Church confesses. After all, shouldn’t we always trust our heart? Shouldn’t we follow what our feelings tell us? Isn’t the warm emotional tingle a better guide to the working of the Spirit than an old, dusty book of Christian doctrine written by Germans 500 years ago?
And so, dear friends, thanks to this misunderstanding, many of those for whom our Lord suffered and died never hear the Gospel. They presume the Christian faith is all about being a nice, caring, touchy-feely person. And why do I need to go to church to be a nice person? We all know what we must do in order to be nice. “We must…” “We must…” “We must…”
Now, to be sure, we must be a kind and caring person. This is the Law. We must love our neighbor as ourselves. We must love God with all our heart and mind. But we don’t. And no amount of singing “And they’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love” and waving our hands in the air with tears in our eyes will make it so.
And please, dear brothers and sisters, don’t misunderstand me. I am not against emotion. Why shouldn’t we get choked up when we again witness the miracle of our Lord coming to us in his Body and Blood, opening the gates of Heaven, and giving us eternal life? How else can a Christian respond to the unmerited gift, the infinite grace, of our Lord who suffered and died in our place? Of course, there is nothing un-Lutheran about reacting emotionally to the Gospel and to the Sacraments. But the emotion is only a reaction. It is not evidence of the Spirit any more than the rush of adrenaline that comes when our team wins in the final seconds, or when we emotionally enjoy committing a sin that so grieves our Lord. The problem is when the emotion becomes the “means of grace” and displaces the pulpit, the font, and the altar. And this is what most people think of when they hear “born again.”
It is also what comes to mind when people think about our Lord’s words at the end of our text in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Only a stone couldn’t react with emotion in the face of our Lord’s sacrifice, the Gospel, the eternal life given to us by grace. But the emotion is not where the rubber meets the road. The emotion is after the fact. Emotion doesn’t save us, but rather the sacrifice of the Son by the Father, which is grasped by faith given to us by the Spirit. The Holy Trinity’s action in redeeming us is what saves us – not our own tears, raised hands, and music designed to manipulate our emotions. Nor is God’s emotion what saves us. We often misunderstand the “so” in this verse to be a matter of quantity, often expressed emotionally. “God loved the world so, so, very much, that he sent his Son.” But this isn’t how the original text reads. The English word “so” used here really means “thus” or “in this way.” The love of God is demonstrated “in this way,” that God sent his only begotten Son to die for us.
The love manifested “in this way” is true love, self-sacrificing love, love that is eternal and unconditional – not a love based on warm, fuzzy feelings and an emotional high. So what does it mean to be “born again” if it does not mean singing “praise songs” and swaying back and forth?
Fortunately for us, Nicodemus was confused, and our dear Lord, who is called “Rabbi” or “Teacher” explains his choice of words for us. And we do well to heed our Master’s instruction.
Jesus explains the entry into the Christian life not as a choice, not as an emotional act of will power, but rather as a second birth. Being born of the Spirit is similar to being born in the flesh. We are born weak, helpless, and dependent (something our Lord Jesus knows about himself). We are born without any will or decision on our part. We make no choice to be born. We don’t ask to be made alive – rather it just happens to us. And this is just like the Christian life. We are born spiritually with no decision on our part, without any strength of our own, totally dependent on our spiritual parents: the Church our Mother, who brings us to God our Father through Jesus Christ his Son, and the breath of the Holy Spirit gives us eternal life. And while the birth of a child is a deeply emotional experience, emotion does not bring a child into this world. It is rather a miracle, a divine act by our Triune Creator. The second birth is likewise an act of divine creation, a miracle wrought by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And just as we are birthed from our fleshly mother’s womb, nourished by blood through a cord, surrounded by a bag of water, we receive our second birth, our spiritual birth, in a similar way. “Unless one is born by water and the Spirit…” says our Lord. We are born again in the womb of the baptismal font, nourished by water, and given new life by the shed blood of our Lord, given to us by our mother the Church. And what could be a better illustration of our Lord’s words than the baptism of an infant? He has no will of his own. He has no ability to decide for himself to be alive. He is completely dependent on mother, father, pastor, and fellow believers to bring him to the font, to birth him a second time.
And, dear Christian friends, look at how the “we musts” dissolve into nothing. To be born again, one need not do anything. The “wind (that is, the Spirit) blows where he wishes.” He gives a second birth to those whom he chooses. And instead of “we must,” we now have freedom. Instead of doing good works out of compulsion, trying to appease God, struggling to climb our way up to him, we are freed from the law. We are thus liberated and empowered to do good works out of love, out of gratitude, out of our new life that comes from the Spirit and water. It is no longer us, but Christ in us, who does good works. The good works, like emotion, come afterwards. They are a reaction, not a cause. And just as there is nothing wrong with good works (God forbid that we Lutherans should fall into that trap!), there is nothing wrong with emotion. The only problem with good works and emotion are when we begin to depend on them instead depending on our Lord.
There is no need ever to use the phrase “born again Christian,” for all Christians are born again. And in case your emotions let you down (as they often do), in case Satan ever manipulates your emotions to attack your faith (as the wicked old serpent so often does), we can do like Martin Luther and shake our fists at the devil, cross ourselves, and proclaim “I am baptized.” For as many of us as have been baptized have put on Christ, are a new creation, and have been born again, of water and Spirit. And whether we respond emotionally or not, this is reality. It is as real as the water that came streaming from the side of our Lord, the water that poured from your mother at your first birth, and the water that was applied to you at the baptismal font…
…in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the + Holy Spirit. Amen.