Second Sunday in Lent, Year A
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
When reading the Old Testament, we often have this idea that the Israelites are the blessed people of God and the rest of the people are not. Today we clearly read that this is not the case; for God says, “All the families of the earth shall be blessed.” It is true that the Hebrew people are set apart from the rest of mankind, but it is not because they are the only ones in God’s favor. This universality of God is one of the points that Paul makes. Paul is in the middle of a debate as to who can be a Christian. Do you have to be Jewish before you can become Christian? Do you have to be circumcised? To understand this debate we have to look at Abram from our lesson today. He is the same person as Abraham and his name is changed as part of his covenant with God. The Hebrew people viewed Abraham as the person who is the primary model of classic Torah obedience. He demonstrated better than any that through obedience to the Law the Jewish people received a blessing of salvation. This applies to Abraham and his ancestors; to all the Jewish people,
Paul takes a new look at Abraham because Paul’s faith says that we cannot work our way into heaven. Our salvation is based on faith and grace. Paul sees Torah obedience including circumcision as works. Probably to the surprise of the people around him his point is clearly seen. Abraham received his gift before he receives Torah or even before he is circumcised. God gives Abraham and his descendants this gift out of pure grace because Abraham is righteous in God sight. With this new insight, it is clear that non-circumcised believers can join the community of salvation. Circumcision should not be the direct link to Jewish identity, it should be faith.
I wonder if this reexamination of familiar traditions is what Christ is asking us to do? Christ is talking to Nicodemus about faith. He says that we have to be born again. This phrase obviously confuses Nicodemus who needs to be more metaphorical and less literal. In this exchange, Jesus tells us that we need to have a rebirth which seems to be connected to Baptism. He says, “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” He sets up a bit of a duality between born of the flesh and those born of the Spirit. Possibly with a certain amount of sympathy for Nicodemus, Jesus readily admits that this idea of being born-again is not exactly intelligible for us. It is like the wind; where does it come from and where does it go? Without our popular TV meteorologists, this would be an impossible question. Regardless of how well we understand this rebirth, it is none the less life changing.
There is a certain baggage that comes with the term “born-again;” in which a person is “converted to a personal faith in Christ.” I have heard this term used in an accusatory sort of way as if the person asking the question will use the answer as a barometer of the other person’s salvation. For some, this may be the stigma that goes along with a more evangelical “born-again” tradition. The Episcopal Church doesn’t typically fall into this category but I am sure there are many people here who have been asked this question at one time or another. And I am also sure that many people could tell of a personal life changing experienced in which they took Christ into their heart and made a change of life. But I don’t think being born-again has to always be something dramatic.
According to Billy Graham’s website, “A born-again Christian is someone who has repented of their sins and turned to Christ for their salvation, and as a result has become part of God’s family forever. All this takes place as God’s Spirit works in our lives.” In this definition, being born-again can be a process that takes some time, not at a specific moment. Realistically, why couldn’t a girl, for example, raised in a convent just know who Christ is in her life? Repenting would be part of her rule of life and at some point in time, but not a conscious point in time, she would be fully aware of Christ’s salvific love. This girl’s transformation doesn’t fit some people definition of born-again, yet it fits with Billy Graham’s, as well as many others.
The idea, in which being born-again is a separate experience from Baptism, only came some time after the Reformation. Prior to this, Baptism was the sacrament of rebirth and is what people believed the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus was about. Even today most mainline traditions, including ours, believe this to be true. Just as side note, John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, was split on this idea. He says, “Our church supposes, that all who are baptized in their infancy, are at the same time born again...But...it is sure [that] all [those] of riper years, who are baptized, are not at the same time born again.” In the Anglican tradition, I could even say that we are born-again over and over again because our journey with Christ is life long and transformative. Even if you have had a foundational experience which changed your life, your journey did not stop there. We are called to continually deepen our faith and be transformed by the spirit through the waters of baptism that we received, even if it was a long time ago. All this talk about Baptism or being born-again is only part of what Jesus is talking about. Christ’s point, maybe even his main point, is to answer who does salvation applies to; Jew or gentile.
Nicodemus says, Jesus, you are from God. Jesus agrees this is true. But for you to fully understand you have to be from God also. We then go into the discourse about being born again by water and Spirit. But beyond this discourse, from John 3:14 all the way through 21 we have a new set of thoughts. People often want to focus on John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” I don’t think this is the most important verse. While it amplifies and expands upon what Jesus is telling us, it is the two verses prior that get to the crux of his thought.
In verse 14, Jesus tells Nicodemus about his death and resurrection. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” In the next verse, he continues with what this means for us. “That whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Remember that Nicodemus was a Pharisee. He is thinking much along the same lines as the people Paul is speaking to; in that God’s people are the Hebrew people. The Hebrews are the chosen ones and it is through Torah that they find obedience and salvation. But Jesus says, “Whoever believes in him, may have eternal life,” “may not perish,” “are not condemned.” There is a better way than the Law. The Law is not abolished but fulfilled and clarified. This is the way of faith in Christ. And this way is available to all families, or all people, of the world. Believe and have faith.
Wesley, J., The works of the Reverend John Wesley, Methodist Episcopal Church, 1831, pp. 405–406. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Born_again