This sermon was delivered by Wendell Griffen, pastor of the New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Ark., on June 7, 2009.
Like Nicodemus, many people who are serious about faith struggle to understand what Jesus meant when he said that a person must be “born-from-above” in order to enter the kingdom of God. They don’t understand this “new birth” or “born again” thing.
Basically speaking, Jesus told Nicodemus three things: (1) one dimension of life is physical; (2) another dimension of life is spiritual; and (3) we are never truly alive and able to fulfill God’s purposes unless both dimensions of life are operating under God’s authority—what Jesus meant when he spoke about seeing and experiencing the kingdom of God. Until both dimensions of living happen, we are incomplete and only partially alive to God, ourselves, and others.
We understand that human life requires physical conception followed by birth. Human conception and birth happen in fluid environments—in what we can loosely call water. A baby is conceived and developed in a fluid environment, and is born from that environment—born from the water, so to speak. Physical conception is vital, but so is birth. Unless birth happens, there is no life to feed, teach, and grow to maturity.
But birth and physical maturity do not make up all that we understand as living. If humans are merely born, fed, cleaned, sheltered, and grown to physical maturity, we merely become adult brutes. We understand that eating, drinking, sleeping, voiding and eliminating our bodily wastes, breeding, aging, and dying are aspects of our living. Yet, we somehow sense that life is more than that. There is a dimension to living that is more than groceries and comfortable places to rest and nest. Sadly, too many people never enjoy these are basic necessities from the time they are born until they die.
Even so, living is more than satisfying physical pleasures and avoiding physical hardships. Without love, honor, truth, peace, and hope, none of our pleasures truly are satisfying. Unless there is more to life than physically getting what we want and avoiding what we don’t want, life is vanity, as the wise person said in Ecclesiastes. No matter how much we want and get, and no matter how much we avoid that we don’t want, the getting and avoiding do not complete us. Something else is missing. The emptiness we sense is not physical. It is spiritual. We sense that we have been intended for more than physical comforts and hardship. We sense that we have been spiritually conceived. But conception without birth is not life.
This explains why Jesus told Nicodemus that we must be born spiritually—from above. Just as physical birth follows physical conception, spiritual birth must follow spiritual conception. God’s Spirit—first mentioned in Genesis as a brooding wind over the soupy nothingness that later became our physical universe—is our spiritual parent. Physical birth gives us mortality, but we must also be born of the Holy Spirit to be completely alive. If a person is only born of the water (meaning physically), but is never born of God’s Spirit (meaning spiritually), he or she is “un-whole,” not fully alive for God, ourselves, others, or the rest of creation.
Jesus really struck a nerve when he pointed out that Nicodemus, a respected leader in organized religion, did not even understand that a person must be spiritually born to be fully alive. Nicodemus was an expert in religious history, ritual, and rules. He believed in one God. He read sacred writings. He followed the rituals of his religious tradition. But he did not understand that living in the true sense, in the whole sense, requires spiritual birth. Nicodemus did not understand that one can be religious yet “un-whole,” meaning not fully alive with God, for God, and with other persons and the rest of creation.
Like Nicodemus, many people know a lot about religion. There is a lot of religion in the world. Yet all the religion in the world will not make people fully alive who have not been spiritually born. Jesus shocked Nicodemus and the rest of us when he said that religious involvement is not the same as spiritual life. Unless we have been born of God’s Spirit, even our religious efforts are “un-whole.”
“Un-whole religion” keeps us from knowing and loving God as we should. God is Spirit—not a body. We cannot know God, love God, and obey God as we should without knowing, loving, and obeying God as Spirit. It is true that the physical universe provides abundant evidence about God. But the massiveness, forcefulness, and profound intricacies of nature do not fully define God to us. Left with only the universe, we have only an “un-whole” sense of who God is, an “un-whole” idea about what God is like, and will live out “un-whole” notions about who we and the rest of creation are intended to be in God’s great purposes.
“Un-whole religion” also keeps us from loving ourselves, other people, and the rest of creation as we should. “Un-whole religion” defines the “good life” by what makes us personally comfortable. “Un-whole religion” teaches that other people and the rest of creation exist so we can be comfortable. If other people and the rest of creation do not cooperate with our quest to be comfortable, “un-whole religion” teaches that they should be distrusted, feared, and conquered because they are obstacles to our comfort—our “living.” When the only dimension of reality for us is physical, “living” is measured by whether people, events, and situations advance or interfere with our individual notions about what is required to make us comfortable.
“Un-whole religion” does not deny the existence of eternal life. However, “un-whole religion” defines eternal life as being comfortable after physical life ends. In “un-whole religion,” people who love and please God expect to be physically comfortable until they die, and then be comfortable evermore. Everyone else and the rest of creation can go to hell. Rob Bell refers to this belief system as “evacuation theology.”
So “un-whole religion” tries to justify murdering, enslaving, and otherwise exploiting people in the name of God so that some people could “enjoy life.” “Un-whole religion” causes enterprising people to see the earth as our playpen, a place where we can do whatever we please for as long as we please to the air, soil, water, plants, trees, and other creatures so we can be “comfortable.” “Un-whole religion” causes religious people to view and treat other people who do not look, sing, pray, love, and sound as they do as aliens who do not deserve equal dignity, mercy, and opportunity. Based on “un-whole religion” women and people of color have been considered unqualified or less qualified to lead anything that men wanted to lead.
The big deal is that God loves the creation so much that God will not leave humanity in “un-wholeness.” So God solved our “un-wholeness” problem by sending his Son. When we trust the love of God that is revealed in the Son, we experience birth in the Holy Spirit. The wind-birth from God’s Spirit and the water-birth of our physical parents together make us fully alive. We are no longer “un-whole,” but are alive to be “holy,” alive to love God, serve God, and live for God with others and the rest of creation in the power of the Holy Spirit.
God sent Jesus, the Son, to heal our “un-wholeness” so that we can experience spiritual birth by the Holy Spirit. We will never live in the power of the Holy Spirit unless we have been born by the Spirit. We will never grow in the power of the Holy Spirit unless we have been born by the Spirit. We will never love in the power of the Holy Spirit unless we have been born by the Spirit. We must be born spiritually if we are to live, work, play, learn, and love spiritually. After we are born spiritually, we must then grow spiritually so that the life of the spirit operates with the physical life to fulfill the purposes of God. Holy living is whole living for God by people who have been born spiritually and physically. As Jesus told Nicodemus, until we are born of the water (physically) and are born of the Holy Spirit, we are “un-whole” people even in our religious efforts.
We recall the Mother Goose nursery rhyme about Humpty Dumpty, who sat on a wall and had a great fall. The King’s horses and the King’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again. So it is with you and me. Until we are born spiritually as well as physically, we are “un-whole” no matter what the King’s horses and men try to do.
The good news is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has come to show us what being wholly alive for God spiritually and physically looks like. Jesus Christ has come, born by water and by the Holy Spirit, so we can know what whole love is. Jesus Christ has come, born by water and by the Holy Spirit, so we can know what whole truth is. Jesus Christ has come, born by water and by the Holy Spirit, and we know what whole joy is. God so loved the world that he sent Jesus Christ, born by water and by the Holy Spirit, to put us together, to make us whole, so that we can live to be holy for God. God has not abandoned us to languish as spiritual Humpty Dumpty folk. So let us trust Jesus Christ, receive the birth that only the Holy Spirit can give, and grow to follow Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit as people in the kingdom of God. Amen.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.