There is a passage from John 3 that comes up from time to time, including now, in which Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born again or from above if he is to enter the kingdom of God. When Nicodemus asked how one can be born again, Jesus went off on a tangent leaving both Nicodemus and us to wonder what being born again might mean. Is one born again through Baptism, even as an infant? Does being born again require an experience of spiritual renewal? If one has no idea what born again might mean, are they excluded forever from God’s kingdom?
Uncertain what born from above (or again) might mean, Nicodemus asked about reentering the womb. It’s a question that draws attention toward images of human birth, which is both misleading and restrictive. There are many ways in which something might be born other than birthing a baby. Moreover, being born again has become a modern day imperative enforced by inflexible rules about how it is to be done. Perhaps it would be helpful to lay the ‘above’ or ‘again’ question aside, and concentrate for a few moments on what born and birth might mean. Our English word is heavy with meaning that covers everything from bearing children to bearing burdens. The Greek of John is equally heavy with meaning centering on the origins of everything in creation, indeed on the origin of the Christ in the unoriginated Godhead. To be born is to begin somewhere and emerge somewhere else, to begin as one thing and end as something else, carrying the burden and doing the work needed to make the change.
As I write, Beethoven’s 7th is playing. It was born in his imagination, emerging as a completed score through the hard work of putting notes to paper, reaching fulfillment in a well rehearsed performance by skilled musicians guided by expert direction. It’s a process that takes time, energy, work, patience, and cooperation with others. I think that’s the kind of born Jesus had in mind. He wasn’t chastising Nicodemus for not having already been born from above or again. He was inviting Nicodemus to enter into the process of doing the hard work of becoming a new creation in Christ, it was a call to discipleship.
It would take time and effort, but it would bring him to the recognition that the kingdom of God was at hand, near, present. It had always been there, he just couldn’t see it. He had always been in it, but didn’t know it. The NRSV puts it this way, “…no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” The kingdom is there to be seen. It always has been. Again, “…no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” Does that mean baptism? Does it mean an ecstatic experience of God’s Spirit? Or does it mean doing the work of becoming a new creation in Christ? I’m certain it is the latter, but what is the necessary work? Is any work needed? Aren’t we saved by grace, not works?
Becoming new creation in Christ who can both see and enter the kingdom of God that is present in the eternal now requires the hard work of recognition, surrender, and participation in God’s work of salvation. It’s a free gift in the sense that we cannot earn it. It’s simply, freely given, but it’s a costly gift in the sense that in the act of accepting it changes everything. What it isn’t is initiation into a club from which others are excluded, because no one is excluded. Seeing and entering the kingdom of God that is near is an awakening to the reality of God’s abounding and steadfast love so profound that every person and all of creation are embraced by it. It is an awakening that impels one to proclaim the good news, inviting others to see for themselves what has always been there, to enter into it, and to join in sharing the good news with yet others. It’s a process. It takes time, effort, and patience. It’s not magic. It’s a mystery.