John 3: 1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” 3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.[a]” 4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit[b] gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You[c] must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”[d] 9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. 10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.[e] 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,[f] 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”[g] 16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
I’m wondering if this wasn’t a major reason I was able to go to Burkina Faso last month: so that my friend, Siaka, might share his Christian faith with four Muslim men in the very Muslim town of …….just west of where I stayed last month in——.
The chance for Siaka to witness happened because my friend in ——, Gaoussou, got very sick one night and ended up in the clinic. I think it was an intestinal infection that provoked an opportunistic attack of malaria. There I visited him and prayed for him. He was home the next day, feeling better. The day after that, Siaka took me to visit Gaoussou, and we found him looking and feeling even better, chatting in his usually lively and energetic style with three other identifiably Muslim men. Gaoussou said that he started to feel better and improve after my prayer, even, that he felt it enter into him. “There is power–barika— in you people’s blessings,” he said. We assured him that Christians in nearby ——- were continuing to pray for him and his ongoing recovery.
Something Gaoussou said next opened the door for Siaka to share his faith, and he did, boldly but respectfully, honestly, but also graciously. Siaka began with the words of Paul in Romans 7, about how even a respectable, educated and pious religious leader like Paul can find sometimes that “the good I want to do I cannot do, and the evil I detest, that I do.” At this point already, Siaka had the four men nodding in agreement and saying the usual things they do when they’re in close agreement: “Choh! and “That’s really true!”
Then Siaka asked the same question that Paul did, “Who will deliver me from this condition of living death?” The men were on the edge of their seats, leaning forward to hear the answer. I was too. Then Siaka went on to talk about another religious leader, using the same title that might be used of an imam, one Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night. He too had the same problem we all have: we might be very learned, very pious, very well respected, very street legal, like Nicodemus. And yet, in the presence of One who is only sinless, holy and loving, we know we too are lacking, even bound up and addicted to sin.
They were still following Siaka, on the edge of their seats, waiting to hear the resolution to our problem, and that of Nicodemus. Which is quite remarkable when you consider that Islam teaches that there is basically nothing wrong in us, nor lacking in us, that the right religious knowledge and the right laws can’t fix. And if we do sin, its due to ignorance and the lack of Islamic law to guide us. But you wouldn’t have known that from the way these men followed Siaka in his description of human bondage.
Just when they were wondering, So where is our hope? Siaka sprung on them the very answer that Jesus gave to Nicodemus: You must be born again, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus did not come just to improve us but to make us anew. He did not come to reform us but to recreate us and renew us, to give us a new start on life, with a new, inner orientation to replace the old one, even the most religious, “street legal” inner orientations.
Now, why did Siaka go there? I wondered. This approach struck me as somewhat odd. I had read and heard and studied many other approaches and avenues to sharing your faith with Muslims, none of which began with “you must be born again.” I didn’t say anything, and I’m quite glad I didn’t. For Siaka himself had been Muslim, and had even spent some of his youth training to be an imam and memorizing the Quran. So in a way, he was Nicodemus, too.
This approach seems to have mystified the four men as well. As it seems to have done for Nicodemus. “Can a man, once he is old, climb back into his mother’s womb and be born again?” Nicodemus asked Jesus. So, Gaoussou began to ask other questions and lead the discussion off into other directions. Whenever we hear Jesus’ challenge to be made new and born again, naturally, part of us wants to change the subject. So, for a moment, I wondered if Siaka had goofed when he talked about the need to be “born again,” if he had stopped scratching where they itched.
We could say the same for Jesus, when he talked to Nicodemus that night. There’s no evidence that Nicodemus got down on his knees that very moment and invited Jesus into his life. Instead, he went home very perplexed, and probably disappointed.
But something seems to have happened slowly in Nicodemus after this encounter. We meet him again in Chapter 7, standing up in the Jewish ruling religious council, insisting that, before they arrest and try Jesus, they must abide by the rule of law and give Jesus fair treatment. He was alone in making that demand. Then we see him again, with Joseph of Arimathea, taking Jesus’ body down off the cross and attending to it, putting Jesus in Joseph’s tomb. That was a risky and costly act of identifying with Jesus and his disciples, all the more risky and costly for the fact that Jesus appeared to have been defeated and discredited, and his disciples shamed and disbanded. We can say that he finally was born again, in that when Nicodemus treated the body of Jesus like that of a friend and family member, he was closing the door on his old community and calling that had once given him status, security, honor and identity. But what he was being born into was yet to be seen. Everything Jesus had worked for was scattered to the four winds that Friday night.
How to explain Nicodemus’ risky death and rebirth when he had everything to lose and seemingly nothing to gain? We could say that Jesus planted a time bomb in Nicodemus’ heart with those words, “You must be born again.” But this is a Mennonite church, so we’ll say instead that Jesus planted a subversive seed in Nicodemus’ heart, one that took root and grew into something new and revolutionary in his life. Though those words about being born anew confused and befuddled Nicodemus at first, though they didn’t even seem to answer the question he was asking, something clicked over time, because Nicodemus slowly emerged from one life into another even while that new world was dark, formless and void, until the light of the resurrection would clarify everything.
And I think that’s what Siaka was doing, planting time bombs—or make that subversive seeds– in those four hearts, so that one day they might not only ask God for new things or new ideas, but for new selves. Siaka opened up those four hearts with his words about the human condition: our attraction and bondage to evil, even when we know better, even when we have laws, good laws, that give us guidance and make evil costly. He thereby exposed the lie by which societies and communities and even religions operate: that if we just the start with the individual as he or she is, and tack on the right rules and ideas and information, he or she will make the right choices and be an acceptably good person. I call that “the home improvement approach” to redemption. Just add a religious room or a religious porch to the house of the soul and allegedly it will serve quite admirably for heaven’s purposes.
This is not just a Muslim thing, by the way. I’m not trying to bash Islam. Though Christians should know better—this is the gospel, after all–we also often act and think that way too, or we slip into that rut. It does, after all, spare the ego the difficult work of dying.
But Siaka was not off track; he was indeed scratching where they itched, because hidden underneath all such optimism about human nature there often lies a reservoir of shame. If all we need to overcome evil is right knowledge and law, then naturally we wonder, What’s wrong with me that I have done X, Y and Z, even when I knew better, even when I knew I risked discovery and disastrous consequences? Or why were they done to me? If ignorance and the lack of the right laws is all that stands between us and perfection, then why do we, with all our knowledge and legalism, still want to do things that we know are wrong? Its hard not to believe that there must be something wrong with us, something that makes us different from, and inferior to, everybody else who seems to have their act together, everyone else for whom some religious knowledge and the right laws and morals seem to be working.
But they are not working. And No, we are not any different from others, nor inferior, whenever we are tempted or do evil. Its goes with being human. Siaka proved that when he elicited all those nods and words of agreement from these otherwise righteous, religious and God-fearing men. But the answer that he and Jesus gave to human shame and our need for release from the power of sin was not so much home improvement, but urban renewal: starting from the ground up, laying a new foundation, and building a whole new structure, a new person, to grow up now and be revealed in full on that day in the New Jerusalem when Jesus, according to John’s Revelation, will give us a white stone with our new name written on it, a name so far known only to him, before it is revealed to us. Jesus came not to reform us, but to rename us, remake us, rebuild us and renew us, from the ground up. That’s what it means to be born anew, or in some translations, to be “born from above,” by the Spirit, and by water, that is, in public testimony through the waters of baptism.
It doesn’t have to be an instant, dramatic, all-consuming kind of change, like when dope dealers and Mafia hit men suddenly find Jesus and have such startling testimonies to tell. Like Siaka, we usually use these words for witness and evangelism. So did Jesus. But if we grew up in a Christian home and made good choices early on and avoided doing and dealing drugs and murder for hire, thank God. And thank your Christian parents, too. But there still comes a time when we all have to repent of our self-oriented ways, ask pardon, and say Yes or No to Jesus’ personal renewal project, to say Yes or No to his offer to remake us from the foundation of our souls on up. And the challenge to be born anew does not end in the waters of baptism. We will never outgrow John chapter 3. The new birth is not just the start of our journey. It is the journey.
For the temptation ever and always before us is to just add a little bit of Jesus here and there, plus a sprinkling of religion, rules and Christian education onto an otherwise self-directed self. Day by day that temptation returns like a boomerang. Its the temptation not to pray, to go about our lives on our own power, in our own wisdom, toward our own ends and desires, and enlist just enough of Jesus for window dressing.
But this is the Gospel of a New Creation we’re talking about, and not just helpful hints from heaven. We, like the artwork on the altar, are made of clay. But unlike the artwork taking shape on the altar, we have the power to put ourselves on the wheel, in the potter’s hands, or not, and the responsibility to place ourselves there anew, day by day. So, every day when we read the Bible and say our prayers, and every time we gather for worship, I hope we are doing more than just asking for heavenly help. We are in effect preaching this gospel of rebirth again to ourselves and each other, reminding ourselves, and re-converting ourselves to the love of God that accepts us as the sin addicts that we are, and yet which would also rebirth us and remake us, and not just tidy us up a bit so that the neighbors won’t object.
Not only is this God’s desire for us, I believe that deep, deep down, under the facades of religion and respectability that we are tempted to share with Nicodemus, rebirth is our common human desire as well. There is a hunger of the human heart to be not so much reformed or touched up around the edges as much as to be renewed, remade, even reborn. Its there in our childhood stories, like Beauty and the Beast. Or in the myths and legends of the world, such as that of the phoenix bird rising from its own ashes.
A friend of mine worked the phone lines at a call-in crisis center for his seminary field work. It being a secular agency with government funding, he was told not to say anything religious or spiritual in nature. Just connect people with the agencies that can address their needs. Which was a good thing to do. But one night someone called in deep distress and asked him, over and over, “I’ve messed up so badly, is there no way I might start my life over? Is there no way to go back, clean the slate and get a total do- over?” My friend would have liked to say, “Yes, I know someone who does just that, and who is doing it with me.” But his tongue was tied by the rules and regulations. Yes, I’ve seen the bumper stickers that say, “Born fine the first time.” But I can’t believe that this caller was alone.
This Lenten season, if we’re still looking for something to give up so as to share something of the journey of Jesus to the cross, chocolate, coffee, desserts and television are the usual sacrifices that make us think about Christ’s sacrifice, and there’s something to be said for stripping down to essentials. But Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, and to us by extension, call for an even greater sacrifice: to offer up our old selves in exchange for new selves, to be reborn, not just reformed. That’s what we ask for, its the good news we preach to our neighbors and ourselves. Its what we open ourselves up to every time we pray and worship. Let’s pray about that a minute, shall we?
“You who formed us from the clay have given us power to say Yes or No to your work of remaking, renewing, even re-birthing us, bring Your Spirit to again hover over any darkness and chaos in our lives, to give us the power to place ourselves in your hands, as well as the earnest, eager desire to do so, there to leave ourselves for whatever your work might be, even to cooperate and to embrace what you are making of us. In the name of Him who is the power and the pattern of our rebirth, Amen.”
have made us for