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F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Audio Version See series on "Salvation"
Lent 1 - 3/13/11 Is. 58; Ps. 50; 2 Cor. 6:1-10; Mt. 4:1-11
We begin, on this first Sunday of Lent, a series of sermons on the New Testament basics of salvation, running through Lent. They will dovetail with the Sunday School sessions beginning in two weeks on the Book of Acts, running for about 6 weeks, which will also dovetail with sermons between Resurrection Sunday and Trinity Sunday. The Church year calendar teaches us step by step in the events of Jesus' life the very meaning of that life for the fullness of our salvation. It begins with Advent and Christmas. We are picking the themes up here with what the life and death of Jesus has to do with our salvation.
Much of what we will be discussing for these weeks has already been a part of previous sermons, but this will be the first time things will be put together as a consistent whole picture, hopefully making things more clear.
I have mentioned a few times the periodic need of the Body of Christ to have a Reformation for our own current time. That is necessary because each new era raises new questions for Christians to answer, and we create some new problems for ourselves, not least because of our divisions -- just as in the 1500's with the Protestant Reformation.
A proper reformation does not reinvent the wheel, going off in a new direction which changes the substance of our faith. Rather, it emerges out of going back to mine the Scriptures one more time in the light of any new knowledge we might have of the human condition, any new insights we might have gained over the years, and any new challenges brought to us by unbelievers. We are under obligation to respond with reason and grace to honest questions raised from any direction.
I have spent literally all of my adult life in this pursuit for an understanding of my own personal faith because, though I have been a convinced Christian since 7 years old, I was disturbed by much of what I heard as Christian teaching, and by many contradictions between different views of the very issues we will be addressing -- namely the work of Jesus in bringing salvation into our broken and sinful lives. We Christians were doing a very poor job of presenting a viable and united witness to the society collapsing around us.
I grew up in the 1940's and -50's, believing as a young lad that we Americans had "made it", that we were producing the good society. That seemed then to me to be the result of what I then thought was a secular democracy somehow combined with Biblical faith. It was not until nearly 60 years old that I discovered that America was founded as a Christian nation, and that Biblical faith was the foundation of whatever greatness we had as Americans. But the divisions among Christians were disturbing.
The answer to that disunity came to me during my undergrad time at Trinity College in Hartford, CT., that we must become truth-seekers rather than be position-defenders, that pursuit of truth was a condition of discipleship to Jesus, and that if we are truth-seekers, the truth and the Lord of truth will themselves guarantee the correctness and truth of our positions. If we are position defenders rather than truth-seekers, our positions will harden, petrify, and become unable to hear any corrections which God may be giving us.
That, I think, was the condition of the Church almost universally during my growing up. There were a few notable exceptions to that, and there have been more come on the scene since then, so I believe that we are headed for a serious and positive new reformation which will restore the intellectual, moral, and spiritual credibility of the Body of Christ.
These sermons are a part of my contribution to that effort. I believe that God holds the intellectual, moral, and spiritual high ground, that He is inviting us to stand there with Him, and that if we do, God will put into our hands a keenly sharpened Sword of the Spirit with which to slay the lies and deceits of the Devil, and by which we can correct our own wanderings in darkness.
What did Jesus mean when He told Nicodemus that he needed to be "born anew", or "born again"? The classical text is John 3 where Jesus says to Nicodemus, "...unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.... ...unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit..."
Beyond that verse, the notion of "born again" is hardly discussed in the Bible, but it was given by Jesus Himself, and has become a central theme for most of Christianity.
Nicodemus had accomplished the first birth in good shape, becoming a mature and capable Jewish leader. The Hebrew identity was the most powerful and enduring personal identity in all human history, accomplishing things no other people have accomplished of endurance and survival. The Jews lost their national sovereignty in the late 600's and early 500's BC. Their Temple was destroyed, they lived in exile for 70 years, they returned to Israel, rebuilt their Temple, but remained under foreign domination. Their Temple was destroyed again by Rome, they were either killed or exiled permanently from Judea, and dispersed among the pagan nations. But these people survived for another nearly 2000 years, and returned to Palestine to reestablish their national sovereignty in 1948 after 25 centuries of having no homeland. No other people on the face of the earth has done anything like that.
But even all that was not enough. Unless he was born anew, Nicodemus would see only worldly kingdoms -- Israel, Rome, Greece, Germany, France, America -- but not the Kingdom of God.
In order to see the Kingdom of God, something else had to happen. Nicodemus needed to be returned to that Kingdom from which the human race had fallen. In the closed circle cosmos of the Fall, with no clear perception of God, or trust that He even existed, one could have no clear perception of the nature and reality of that Kingdom.
In the Greek text, the phrase "born again" mean "sired again", or "begotten again", a specifically fathering role, which is no doubt why Nicodemus took Jesus so literally. Jesus was speaking of an actual birth process, but a spiritual birth, not a second physical birth. And, the word for "again" can mean "from above". Hence, "sired from above...." "begotten from above". God wants to become our Father.
Every birth has three stages, conception, gestation, and delivery. The born again experience has the same three steps. Spiritual conception is our receiving of Christ. The Word of God, as Jesus tells us in the parable of the seeds, is the spiritual seed from the Father planted in our hearts and minds. The gestation period is our time of spiritual growth through life, as we mature toward... the delivery -- which occurs at physical death. Death is in fact the new birth -- for those who have chosen to follow Jesus to the Father. "O death! Where is thy victory??? Oh death! Where is thy sting???"
The subject of being born again rarely occurs in the Bible other than in John 3, but St. Paul refers very briefly to this process in Romans 8:22.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
What is this waiting for our adoption as sons and daughters of God? We, ourselves, groan in travail, says Paul. Our present life is like going through a birth canal. We groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons. And what is this adoption? It is the redemption of our bodies, the resurrection. Bodies are important to the Kingdom of God.
But even here on earth, we are not walking blindly. We have the "first fruits of the Spirit", that which Paul three times refers to as the "guarantee" of things to come, the fullness of the Kingdom. The first fruits is the personal experience of dramatic change in one's life, a freedom from guilt, a stability of one's own being, an ability to be oneself fully and openly in the face of opposition, a freedom to be witnesses for Christ.
We groan in travail, sometimes hurting through the process of gestation, personal spiritual cleansing, repentance, healing, and growth, growing in the womb of life. The fullness of adoption as sons or daughters of God does not come instantly after conception. It comes with birth at the end of the canal, that is, at death, and the reception of our new bodies. But the power of the Holy Spirit, the new Comforter sent by Jesus, sets us free to be witnesses to the world around us, a new ability to be obedient to the law of God, producing fruits of the Spirit in our own Christian community, spilling out into the world. We will see much more on this when we get to the Sunday School course on the Book of Acts.
In any event, to get resurrected, you first have to die. Death is the exit from the worldly birth canal into the life of the resurrection, which is the redemption, the salvation, the sanctification of our bodies. Or, more accurately, the resurrection to whichever ultimate choice we have made. We either build heaven with God and each other, or we build hell all by ourselves. We will have chosen to be either sheep or goats.
That is the message of the Last Judgement scene in Matthew 25:31 ff. We, by our own choices, have elected which direction we wish to go. We either want (or do not want) what God is offering -- and we will get what we want. If we do not want what God is offering, we will get what's left.
The Bible does not teach that we are born again at our conversion, but that at conversion, we are conceived, sired from above, we begin the process of being born again, which is accomplished after gestation, leading to death and the resurrection of our bodies -- either to heaven or to hell. We have often short-cut this born again process into one instant step. But it is a process, as any other birth.
But there is more. Our parents seem to us at birth to be as God. When in the womb, we literally live and move and have our being in our mothers, the phrase Paul quoted from the Greek poet who described God that way, "in whom we live and move and have our being." Parents are not God, of course, even though infants see them that way. But parents are made in the Image of God, male and female, so as to introduce us to the real God as we grow up under them.
But being fallen parents, they do a second rate job. So we inherit, often copy, maybe even multiply, their sins. Our own natures, created likewise to reflect the Image of God, either male or female, can be badly damaged and distorted, passing on the sins and brokenness of our parents to our children.
So it becomes all the more urgent that we accept the offer of God to be born again, sired from above by the spiritual seed of the Word of God, uniting with our souls to become new creatures in Christ. We are conceived again, and begin the long journey down the birth canal of life to death and resurrection, the redemption of our bodies, the transformation of our bodies into the spiritual bodies appropriate for an unfallen world.
After conversion, we are in the position of leaving our human parents, by normal growing up, and by being called by our now heavenly Parent to be His child. We learn when Jesus at 12 years old visits the Temple with His parents, and lingers afterward to converse with the priests and rabbis, that He knew by the age of 12 who His real Parent was. Jesus responds to his mother's quite understandable concern for His behavior: "Do you not know that I must be about my Father's business?" That suggests that perhaps we all should know by 12 years old who our real Father is.
But God mothers us as well as fathers us. We human are made in the Image of God, male and female. Eve is given to Adam to be a help meet, or appropriate, for him. Adam, made in the Godly image of manhood, was not equipped to bear adequately the Godly image of motherhood. That was Eve's vocation. Both were made in the Image of God, reflecting those fathering and mothering sides of God which are so necessary for our growth as persons. The marriage of Adam to Eve symbolizes in a sacramental outward and visible way the eternal spiritual union between the fathering and mothering aspects of God. They are totally and eternally at one, there is no battle of the sexes.
When God creates Adam, He breathes His breath into the dirt from the ground, which then becomes a living being. The breath of God is the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, the giver of life, as we say in the Creed. The power of the Holy Spirit is the power to be oneself, fully and wholly, the power of being. Our mothers first communicate that ability to us as infants. We soak up the stability of mother. That is the beginning of our own ontological, personal stability.
Our fathers major in teaching us moral responsibility, a sense of direction and purpose, which is built on the earlier foundation from mother of personal, ontological stability. So we are taught by our parents who we are and where we are going. They can do an adequate job of that only to the extent to which they themselves have traveled down that spiritual birth canal toward being children of God and are indeed reflecting His fathering and mothering nature.
So this second trip down the birth canal, this time "of the Spirit", into a childhood relationship with God Himself, leads us to the place where our human parents are no longer God to us. They become brother and sister, hopefully in the Lord. God is now our Parent, both Father and Mother. We are now both fathered and mothered by God -- members of the family of God, children of God. That is what Jesus was telling Nicodemus. He had to move from the place where his Hebrew parents and culture were no longer mothering and fathering him, where no created resource was mothering and fathering him -- to the place where God alone was giving him his stability of being and his moral stability.
In the Kingdom, God alone mothers us and fathers us. Our other relations are sibling relationships, we are all equal, children by adoption and grace before the same Parent. We should become brothers and sisters of and with our parents.
So, "born again" has a rich and powerful meaning deeply embedded in our own personal experiences of being mothered and fathered, and in our need for healing, repentance, and forgiveness in those relationships. And it points us on to the Image of God, our heavenly Parent who alone can adequately reparent us, heal us, grow us up, mature us into that fullness of the stature of Christ to which St. Paul points as our rightful inheritance.
Next Sunday we will address the meaning of "justification by faith", and ways in which a new reformation might help resolve conflicts among Christians in that area.
Audio Version See series on "Salvation"
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