A Born-Again Transformation

Today’s scripture readings:
Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 29
Romans 8:12-17
John 3:1-17
Sermon audio:

One morning last week I traveled all the way across the river, to Minneapolis, to sit down for a one-on-one conversation with Reverend Herron, a pastor at a prominent black Baptist church on the north side.

Earlier this month, the two of us were in Cincinnati together for a few days at a training sponsored by ISAIAH, an organization here in Minnesota that organizes people of faith to advocate for racial and economic justice. Around 70 pastors from Minnesota and Ohio came together to hone our community organizing skills and strategize about our specific role in building more equitable communities.

While we were there, several members of the Minnesota delegation met on our own a few times after hours to discuss our particular context, and how we can be leaders in a movement to transform our state. There we were, a half dozen or so clergy sitting late in the evening in one corner of the hotel restaurant; some of us mild-mannered white Lutherans, others charismatic black Pentecostals; some of us gay, some of us not at all sure how we feel about gay people; some of us serving affluent congregations, some of us barely scraping together a living responding to God’s call to serve the most distressed and impoverished communities in our state; all of us united by a common sense that the status quo isn’t working.

The first night we met, the person convening the meeting asked us all to answer a question: “Why are you here? Why do you want to be a part of this work?” There were a few moments of silence as we pondered the question. Then, one by one, each person began to share what turned out to be variations on a theme, speaking about their profound longing to find wholeness, to fill the void in our lives created by the forces that keep us divided from one another. I shared with the group that I can literally make it through most days only seeing white people, never having a serious interaction with a single person of color. Even though we live in a racially diverse city, somehow many of us have managed to structure our lives in such a way that we never see those who look different from ourselves. How can I be a leader working on racial justice and reconciliation if I don’t have real relationships with people of color?

Reverend Herron went next. “Amen, brother,” he said. “God has given each of us a little bit of the Body of Christ, and the Body of Christ can’t be whole until we come together and decide we need to be united.” He went on: “You know, I’ve spent so much of my life hating white folks and just being angry. I’m tired of that. I’m at a place in my life where I’m ready to take a risk and be in relationship with white people. That’s why I’m here and why I need to be a part of this work.”

When we got back to Minnesota I wrote to Reverend Herron. “You said you wanted to risk being in relationship with white folks. Want to start with me?” And so last week I found myself in north Minneapolis, in a part of the city that is totally unfamiliar to me, out of my comfort zone, unsure what would come of this conversation but certain that building a relationship with Reverend Herron would be transformational for both of us. He shared what it was like growing up in Kansas City in the 1960s. To be honest, hearing his stories, I could understand why he has spent so much of his life despising white people. I shared with him what it was like to grow up as a gay kid in a town of 900 in northern Minnesota, going to a school where I could count the number of students of color on one hand. After sharing stories, we prayed together. Then we set a time for another conversation. In a couple weeks we’ll be meeting here, in a part of the city that’s totally unfamiliar to him, where I’m sure he’ll find himself out of his comfort zone. As we continue our conversations, I’m confident that each of us will find our usual ways of knowing and experiencing the world challenged and transformed. It might make us feel like our lives have totally changed, like we’re getting a new start on life, like we’ve been born all over again.

In today’s gospel lesson Jesus speaks with a confused Nicodemus about this kind of a transformation, about being born again. Nicodemus—a Pharisee, one of the religious authorities—comes to Jesus and says that, in his judgment, Jesus must be a teacher who has come from God. How else could he do all those miraculous signs? Jesus reprimands Nicodemus, not necessarily because Nicodemus is wrong about who Jesus is. Yes, Jesus is a teacher who has come from God. But Jesus reprimands Nicodemus because of how Nicodemus reached that conclusion. He has measured Jesus according to his preconceived notions of what it must mean to be sent by God. Jesus tells Nicodemus that the kingdom of God defies traditional human reason. God doesn’t show up in the world exactly the way humans expect God to show up. God is always messing with our expectations and challenging us to see things in a new way.

That’s why Jesus tells Nicodemus that nobody can see the kingdom of God without being “born from above.” Actually, there’s something interesting going on here that we miss when we read this passage in English. In the original Greek version of this story, the word for “born from above” has a double meaning. It can also mean “born again.” Nicodemus gets hung up on this second meaning, on the idea of being born again. “Do you really expect me to crawl back into my mother’s womb and be born a second time?” His brain just can’t process what Jesus is trying to tell him—and he totally misses the other meaning, which is to be “born from above.” What Jesus is trying to tell Nicodemus is that a person can’t see the kingdom of God without undergoing a radical transformation—almost like getting a new start on life—and it’s a transformation that has to come from above. It has to be the work of God. Nicodemus needs to be born again, from above. He needs to experience that kind of transformation.

When we experience that kind of transformation in our own lives, it hardly ever comes without some discomfort and pain. In our first lesson today, the prophet Isaiah—someone who recognizes himself as a “man of unclean lips”—needs to undergo his own transformation. In this mythical story, an angel flies toward him holding a burning coal and touches it to his mouth. “Now that this has touched your lips,” the angel says, “your guilt has departed from you and your sin is blotted out.” Having been made clean, Isaiah is immediately called into service as one of God’s prophets.

It can be scary, uncomfortable, even painful, to be born again, from above—to allow God to work transformation within us. Sitting face-to-face with Reverend Herron, hearing stories of how people who look like me have brutalized people who look like him, describing my own struggles to come to terms with my sexuality and embrace my identity as a gay man—this was a vulnerable and sometimes painful conversation for both of us. But when it was over, we each recognized that something profound had happened, that something was beginning to change within us.

A few days later I got a long text message from Reverend Herron. There had been a murder in north Minneapolis. Maybe you heard about it on the news. “I went to the scene while the young man was still lying in the street,” he said. “I saw his family and friends and onlookers standing at the police tape; angry, hurt, and confused adults as little children played and watched and learned. I saw people who committed to avenge his death. I’ve been at these scenes far too many times. We the people of God must go out into our communities and begin to heal the dis-ease and address the trauma so we can be whole again.”

I called him back as soon as I had an opportunity, but I didn’t really know what to say. I fumbled through something about how I’d be praying for him and for the community. And I wondered aloud with him how the work we’re doing to build a relationship with one another might change how we go about healing our communities and seeking reconciliation. How might the transformation that God is working inside each of us individually also transform our capacity to do God’s mission in the world—to seek wholeness where there is division, to heal the wounds we’ve inflicted on one another, and to build a more just and peaceful world?

In the coming weeks, we’ll be launching a conversation campaign here at Gloria Dei. Members of our church council and several other ministry leaders will be trained on how to have powerful, intentional one-on-one conversations. The conversations they have may be uncomfortable. People will probably be asked to be vulnerable in ways that aren’t common in our everyday interactions with others. But the goal of these conversations will be to build relationships, to get to know one another more deeply, to allow the stories that are shared to transform us and open up new ways of seeing the world. If you’re wondering if there’s an ulterior motive here, I’ll be completely honest with you, there is. It is this: We want to see how our capacity to do God’s mission will be transformed when we take the time to build deep, powerful relationships with one another. How will the stories we share and the trust we build with one another transform the ministries of this church? I’m excited to see what comes of it.

Spoiler alert: Nicodemus will show up two more times in the Gospel of John. In chapter 7, when his fellow Pharisees are becoming more and more furious with Jesus and want to see him arrested, Nicodemus defends Jesus and argues for a fair trial. And in chapter 19, after Jesus has been put to death, Nicodemus joins up with Joseph of Arimathea, and together they prepare Jesus’ body for burial and place him in the tomb. Nicodemus came to Jesus clueless but built a relationship with him and ultimately found himself transformed after all. If there’s hope for Nicodemus, there is hope for us, too. Thanks be to God.

Resources consulted:

Paul L. Hammer, “John 3:1-17: Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).

Emmanuel Y. Lartey, “John 3:1-17: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).

Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible series, vol. 9, Leander E. Keck et al., eds. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995).

Randall C. Zachman, “John 3:1-17: Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).

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