Sunday, March 20, 2011
Bicycle Tires in the Dirt
John 3: 1-17
Back toward the end of January, I preached a sermon that described a portion of what we understand salvation to be in the Wesleyan tradition, a portion of the doctrine called “Arminianism”, which is a central doctrine of United Methodist belief.
I said then that “it is wholly by God’s pleasure that he leads us both to act and to think," and further,
“This would seem to be fine and clear for those that have found Christ and have been led to a decision for faith in Christ. But Wesley is clear in this additional point-God works his will in us long before we have even figured out who God is, and he is pulling us slowly towards Godself, the way that even a slow moving river can push a canoe.
Some would call the moment of decision that we declare our faith in Christ as the moment of our salvation. Wesley, and the doctrine of our practice, however, allows for there to be either one large dramatic decision, like Paul getting knocked off his horse and being rebuked by Jesus himself, or room for many small decisions, like a child attending summer camp and Sunday school, and being taught all along the way.”
These statements are my best understanding of how we are to think of being “saved”, in Wesleyan thought. In other words, that Ten dollar word from before, “Arminianism”, is our theological “special sauce”, our “eleven herbs and spices”, our “secret recipe”.
So then we come to today’s scripture, the story of the Pharisee Nicodemus’s visit to Jesus in the night. This scripture is very important for how Christians talk about this concept of being saved, because it carries within it the phrase “born from above” in verses 3 and 7. The footnote in the NRSV says you can alternatively think of “from above” as “anew”; “you must be born anew”. In the King James Version, and in the NIV, this word translated as “again;” as in “You must be born again.”
Now, I am no Greek scholar-I was such a young Christian when I entered seminary that instead of taking the Greek and the Hebrew classes, I took the extra classes in Bible in English, because there were still stories I hadn’t heard yet. That being said, I do know that the Greek word for whet we are talking about here, in verses three and seven, is “anothen”, you must be born “anothen”, and the most common translation of this word is “from above, and NOT “again”.
You might think that this is perhaps unnecessary quibbling, that it’s an “how many angels dance on the head of a pin” question, but I will claim that there is an important distinction. Nicodemus hears “again” when Jesus says “anothen”, and this is the basis of his question How can one be born a second time when you’re old? Can you really re-enter the womb?”
No. Of course not. And Jesus takes off on a pretty detailed explanation. It matters to Jesus that Nicodemus gets it right, so we probably should, too.
In our modern culture, we think we understand the phrase “born again” as the one think most needed for a relationship with Christ, and that we are “saved” when we are born again.
As if it is a one time thing.
A relationship with God is a lifetime thing, and just as in a marriage, where there are times of distance and times of connection, and when looked at over time, the relationship swings together and apart like the paths of two bicycles on a dirt road.
I spoke before of there being a connection to God from the first breath we take to the last; God is a part of our lives, shaping us, guiding us, before we even know God exists. The place that God is guiding us is toward God.
Being born “anothen”, I would suggest, is that moment when we realize what is happening, and we accept it. And in some lives, where the two bicycles have spread themselves out very far, coming back together again, and the comfort given from not being lost anymore, can happen several times. Some lives just take wide and varying tracks.
The implication of being born “again,” especially the way that we get it from popular Christian culture, is that it happens only once, and that when we were once “out”, we are now “in”. But I would suggest to the children of God that they, we, have never been “out”, and that the feeling of “in” is only the realization of God’s presence all along.
Wesley calls these moments of realization “regeneration.” We see all around us today the first bulbs of spring pushing out their shoots-some yards are already seeing them push up, and the daffodils we have seen this week are grown from bulbs that regenerate ever year. These bulbs need a certain set of conditions to begin to push up shoots-a certain amount of warm weather, a certain amount of moisture, and something that we really don’t know about, something that it knows but we don’t. maybe it’s grace!
Regeneration is not a one time thing. For some of us, it is cyclical; for some of us, it is erratic; for some of us, it is different every time. Some are large and dramatic moments in our lives, some are small and barely noticeable. As we know, and have been recently reminded about the science of earthquakes, some can be huge and dramatic and devastating, and some you only know happened because the pen jumped on the paper-you didn’t feel it. Growing in faith is a lot like that; some people experience devastating and dramatic shifts, and some people grow in faith through many, many small moments.
I would suggest to you today that when we are born “anothen”, born from above, it isn’t something coming to us we did not have before. It is something that has been with us all along. And for some of us, that realization will happen a couple times in our lives.
And Jesus will have pointed the way to us, through the Holy Spirit, and through the stories of Scripture. God did not send Jesus to the world, to us, to condemn us, to make us choose salvation or damnation, depending on only once chance to make one choice in a long life. Jesus was sent by God so that we might understand who God is, and what it means when we hear “God loves us.”
And being “saved” is just realizing that this is true.