Last Sunday my granddaughter Rhiannon was born. Her parents were not quite ready for her, after all, she was only 35 weeks in the womb, but Rhiannon was very active and wriggly, she really wanted to be born. So, last Sunday, in church, the waters broke and Bonnie and Rhodri hurried off to the hospital. By six o’clock in the evening Rhiannon was getting impatient so she was born by emergency Caesarean section. She weighed 2.15 kilograms, which is nearly five pounds. She is doing very well, and Sue is over in Adelaide to give the family some help.
This is rather appropriate, since the gospel reading is about being born. The Pharisee Nicodemus went to see Jesus. He went at night because he wanted to keep his visit secret. And Jesus said a very strange thing. “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Now Nicodemus did know where babies come from so he began to laugh at Jesus. “Do you expect me, a grown man, to go back into my mother’s womb to be born a second time?”
Obviously not, because Jesus told Nicodemus, “No one can enter the kingdom of heaven without being born of water and the Spirit.”
Nicodemus was even more puzzled. “How can these things be?” he asked.
These days, of course, we know the answer to that. Jesus was talking about baptism, where the symbols of water and fire stand for the new birth a person has through baptism. A new birth through water and the Holy Spirit. It sounds really simple, and it is.
The trouble is that we often don’t understand what it is to be born again. Some people use the name Born Again Christians to describe Christians who speak in tongues or show obvious gifts of the Holy Spirit. Some people think that one must be born again suddenly, in a twinkling of an eye.
However, for most of us, that is not how it happens. The process of birth is long and often painful. St Paul writing to the Romans, uses the metaphor of childbirth to describe the process of redemption. First of all he says, “Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” So all God’s creation is like expectant parents who are waiting to meet their new child. Or, in my case, a grandfather who longs to meet his granddaughter. St Paul continues, and now compares us with the woman in labour. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now” says St Paul, “and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” In other words, the process of being born again has begun, but is not yet completed. We are all still struggling to give birth to our born again selves.
Nicodemus would have been absolutely astounded to discover that in order to be born again, we must give birth to ourselves.
Jesus and St Paul use the image of the woman in labour to show that being born again is not something easy to do and it is not something to be treated lightly.
The other reason that this image is used is because to be born again is to start our lives again. Not only that, we start with a new life. Once again, St Paul writes to the Corinthians, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” St Paul is saying that our old life has ended and a new life has begun.
This is what happens to people when they allow Christ and God’s Holy Spirit to be part of their lives. As we live this earthly life, we find ourselves changing, becoming more and more like Christ, more and more like the people God created us to be.
And this is the reason that we belong to a church. We are not perfect, far from it, but we wait with eager longing for the transformation of our lives.
Jesus, in the gospel, uses another way of describing this re-birthing, this transformation. He says the Holy Spirit is like the wind which comes and goes as it pleases. The person who is born of the Spirit will find themselves changed in wonderful and unpredictable ways. We don’t know where the wind of the Spirit will blow us. Most people find it very hard to let the spirit guide and change them because it is so very much like being born. We must leave the comfort of our mother’s womb and emerge into a world which is utterly unfamiliar. The Holy Spirit will most certainly move us from where we are comfortable and it may blow us into places where we think we would rather not be. Being born again needs courage and hope because we do not know how the Holy Spirit will influence us. Being born again needs a willingness to accept change and a willingness to take risks. Being born again means seeing the world with new eyes and hearing with new ears. We will certainly lose some things we wanted to hold on to, but what we gain is infinitely more precious.
In John’s gospel it is described this way, “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. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
The question for us, as it was for Nicodemus, is, Are we prepared to be born again? Are we ready to let God change our lives from perishing to eternal? Are we courageous enough to let God save us by changing us?