Wesleyan Roots: “The New Birth”


Wesleyan Roots: “The New Birth” #45

A Message on John 3:1-21

For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church

Nov. 25, 2018

By Doug Wintermute



John 3:1-21 NRSV)


Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?


11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.


16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.


17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”


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There is a comedian out in YouTube land, and other places, that goes by the name of Michael Jr. That’s it, no last name, just Michael Jr.


The thing I like about him is that he is a clean comedian. There is no cussing, no nastiness, just good ol’ funny things. He is so clean that he performs in churches a lot.


And he talks about being in church. He tells about when he was a young boy how his grandmother used to take him to church. He remembers getting in trouble one time. An older woman was getting into the service and jumping around and suddenly her wig fell off. He thought it was one of the funniest things he had ever seen so he started laughing. His grandma reached over and pinched him, and then twisted. He said “I can understand the pinch, but the twist? That’s the devil.”


I was watching him on YouTube this past week and he was talking about babies. He said, “My wife and I have a new baby. Yeah, we have a new baby because that’s the way they come, is new.”


He said they had gotten to the point where the baby was sleeping through the night, and he was so glad because “I was so tired of getting up at like three in the morning… to wake up my wife.”


Life changes when babies are born, doesn’t it. I remember my dad giving me some advice when Pam was expecting Sarah, our first born. He said, “Sleep as much as you can now, because you will never be this rested again the rest of your life.”


New births change lives.


I have a friend that I think I have mentioned to you before. Her name is Beth Bethard and she worked in the main office at Perkins School of Theology when I was going there to seminary. Beth developed a heart condition that worsened, threatening her life. Eventually she was hospitalized and things didn’t look good.


Then, on Nov. 8, 2008, she woke up in the cardiac ICU unit at Medical Center, Dallas, with a new heart. This is how she put it in a Facebook post earlier this month. “By the grace of God, exceptional medical professionals, and the gift of life from my heart donor, Catherine, I am alive and doing exceptionally well. Grateful for life and family, for health, for every breath I take. Thank you God. And thank you Catherine’s family…for my second chance at life. I love you and my prayers are with you today.”


Beth considers Nov. 8 to be her second birthday.  She buys flowers and puts them on the altar at her church on the Sunday closest to Nov. 8 every year to honor her heart donor and celebrate her new life, her second birthday.


Our own Paula Travis knows how Beth feels, as she is also the recipient of a heart transplant.


While they may celebrate more than one birthday, the “second” birthday they celebrate is metaphorical, not literal. But it is just as important.


In the scripture we read today we find one of the Jewish religious leaders, Nicodemus, coming to Jesus at night (he was too scared to go see him during the day), intrigued by what Jesus was teaching. Jesus tells him “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”


Now Nicodemus (Tony Evans calls him “Nicky”) had trouble following Jesus metaphorical language and took his words literally, asking how a person can be born again once they have been born.


Jesus is not talking about a literal birth, of course, but a metaphorical one, a spiritual one. A new birth by water and the spirit.


When we baptize someone in the United Methodist Church we do so with… can you guess it?… water and the spirit. We place the water over the head (or pour, or immerse) and say, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”


But it doesn’t end there. I then hold a hand on their head (or make the sign of the cross with the water on their forehead) and say, “The Holy Spirit work within you, that being born through water and the Spirit, you may be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. Amen.”


Water and the spirit. It comes from Jesus being baptized with water, and then, when coming up out of the water, the Holy Spirit descends on him in the form of a dove. Water, and then the spirit.


But it also is symbolic of the birth process.  As a baby is being formed in a mother’s womb it is surrounded by what is called amniotic fluid. It protects the baby and does some other stuff that I have forgotten. When a woman’s “water breaks” before birth is it the amniotic fluid.


And the Holy Spirit is referred to in the Bible in terms that mean wind or breath. The Greek word is “Pneuma.” So when that baby is born and takes that first breath, it is like the breath that God breathed into Adam, like the “tongues as of fire” that appear above the apostle’s heads at Pentecost.


So both water and spirit are involved in the birth of babies, and are also involved in being “born again.”


Wesley recognized the connections between a physical birth and a metaphorical spiritual birth. Here’s what he said:


“Before a child is born into the world he has eyes, but sees not; he has ears, but does not hear. He has a very imperfect use of any other sense. He has no knowledge of any of the things of the world, or any natural understanding. To that manner of existence which he then has, we do not even give the name of life. It is then only when a man is born, that we say he begins to live. For as soon as he is born, be begins to see the light, and the various objects with which he is encompassed. His ears are then opened, and he hears the sounds which successively strike upon them. At the same time, all the other organs of sense begin to be exercised upon their proper objects. He likewise breathes, and lives in a manner wholly different from what he did before. How exactly doth the parallel hold in all these instances!”


Now let’s talk terminology. It is from this scripture in John that we get the phrase  “born again.” It’s not so much in use now but just a few years back people used the term “born-again Christian” quite a bit.


Now if you ask me that term is a bit redundant. If you are a Christian then you are reborn.


The term is nothing new, though. It was even used in the 1700s when John Wesley was around.


In his sermon on “The New Birth,” Wesley talks about the term “born again” and gives us a bit of a history lesson.


“The expression, ‘being born again,’ was not first used by our Lord in his conversation with Nicodemus: It was well known before that time, and was in common use among the Jews when our Saviour appeared among them. When an adult Heathen was convinced that the Jewish religion was of God, and desired to join therein, it was the custom to baptize him first, before he was admitted to circumcision. And when he was baptized, he was said to be born again; by which they meant, that he who was before a child of the devil was now adopted into the family of God, and accounted one of his children.”


So, Nicodemus, being a Jewish religious leader, should have known this, and should have been familiar with the “born again” concept. So, was Nicodemus asking the question about being born again because he really didn’t understand it, or… did he know, but asked the question to push Jesus on the topic?




Wesley summarizes the new birth toward the end of his sermon. “In a word, it is that change whereby the earthly, sensual, devilish mind is turned into the ‘mind which was in Christ Jesus.’ This is the nature of the new birth: ‘So is every one that is born of the Spirit.’”


So how should being born again affect the way we live our lives today?


Back in the 1700s Wesley saw a connection between being born again and, of all things, happiness. Yes, happiness. He said, “For the same reason, except he be born again, none can be happy even in this world. For it is not possible, in the nature of things, that a man should be happy who is not holy.”


I find that very intriguing. There are a lot of self-help books on the market today on how to achieve happiness. Some of them I find to be nothing but bad psychology. But as I have said before, I think Blaise Pascal hit the nail on the head by saying that there is a God-shaped hole within each of us. When we try to fill that void with material possessions of this world, with wealth, with vanity, with popularity, or any of those things, we won’t find happiness and contentment. Those things won’t fit in that God-shaped hole. Only Jesus does. New birth does, indeed, bring happiness.


It is only by surrendering ourselves at the foot of the cross that we find purpose, find meaning, and find, ironically, freedom.


Paul expresses the new birth in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”


So my challenge to you this week is to live into your new birth. Whether you were “born again” this past year or 80 years ago, live as a new creation. Live a changed life. Live a life filled with love of God and love of others.


Like a baby, live out your new birth. Because that’s how they come is new.


In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.


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