Does it make a difference whether you were born in South Carolina or in California? Does your place of birth affect your personality? Does it tell others something valuable or essential about who you are?
Most of us would answer this question, "Yes, of course it does." We often use a person's place of birth as a kind of tag, a handy label, which we can use to identify the way he thinks or the way she acts. We notice where a person was born, and we call her a native South Carolinian, or we call him a native Californian.
Well, I believe that way of thinking is nonsense. Here's why. When I moved in 1985 to Summerville, South Carolina, the local newspaper wrote a pleasant article about the new priest. The article was kind and harmless except for one item. The first paragraph identified me as a "native Floridian."
When I read that, I was horrified! Because I have always thought of myself as a native Georgian. Nothing against Florida, but both my mother and father had generations of ancestors from Georgia. I was raised, almost my entire childhood, in the same house on a farm in Georgia, close to the Georgia soil. I am from Georgia. Nothing against Florida; I'm just not from there!
But the truth is, I was physically born in Florida. My father spent some time in the Air Force, and during his year or so at Tyndale Air Force Base in Panama City, Florida, I was born. By the time I was one and a half years old, however, we were on a farm in Georgia. I do not remember Panama City at all, and I do not want to remember Panama City. I have never had an urge to visit the place.
I refuse to believe, maybe a little too stubbornly, that the mere place I was born has an effect on who I am. Now, the place I was raised sure has an effect. The way I was raised sure has an effect. Who my parents are may have an effect. But I regard the actual place of my birth as a kind of accident. And by no means do I consider myself a "native Floridian."
Jesus, I believe, might take this line of reasoning even further. He, too, was not born in his hometown; but he talked often about something far more serious. He talked about how one's spiritual birth is far more important than one's physical birth.
Truly, what Jesus says about being born again might upset those of us who put great stock in genealogies, or where we were born, or those of us who worry about being called a native such-and-such. Jesus' answer to Nicodemus, late one night in Jerusalem, put the matter quite simply.
Nicodemus, one of the respected leaders of the Pharisees, had come to Jesus with a sort of hesitant curiosity. Remember that Nicodemus was an important figure for the faithful Pharisees, who were also like a great family. They knew who each other's ancestors were. They knew where each other was from. In the presence of Jesus at night, almost in secret, Nicodemus doesn't even ask a question at first. He simply remarks that Jesus seems to come from God.
Jesus responds to the curiosity with a commanding remark about where people might come from. He says, "Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above."
Most of us today have heard the remark before. We've heard the phrase translated as being born again. "You must be born again." It could mean that, or "You must be born anew." But, basically, the word means "from above." You must be born from above, which includes, of course, the necessity that you're going to have to be born again.
I daresay when many of us hear that kind of talk, we imagine big, revival tents and slick, syrupy altar calls. We may think of quick and shallow religious experiences which may not quite be our cup of tea. Thus, we dismiss the term.
That's too bad.
Because Jesus is talking about, today, what may be the most important discipline of the Christian life. He is talking about defining our identity not by earthly standards, but by spiritual standards. He agrees with us that our births are important. Our place of birth, how we are born, is indeed important. It's just that Jesus wants us to be born entirely anew, from above, our identities shaped by something other than who our ancestors were or the place we were raised.
The truth is many of us like our breeding fine the way it is. We enjoy tracing the genealogical lines back, always carefully avoiding cousin so-and-so or grandfather so-and-so who really didn't represent the family, don't you know. When tracing one's lineage, one has sixteen options after a few generations of research. Then one has thirty-two, then sixty-four choices, from whom one can claim kinship.
Most of us who are relatively comfortable in life do not like this talk about being born again. It suggests that we might have to give up something. Why be born again, why change something deep inside ourselves, when our present lives and present situations are just fine?
Because Jesus does have something greater for us! That something greater is hard to define, and so it is that Jesus calls it being born from above, or being born of the Spirit. It is a life of freedom and wonder.
He says, "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."
Actually, I've been born again many times in life. And I hope to be re-born, from above, many more times. It is that verse, John 3:8, which I always remember speaking to me in those situations. "The wind blows where it chooses."
Listening for that wind is one of the great disciplines of the Christian life. Awaiting the chance to be born again is one of the great disciplines of the Christian life. Maybe it should be one of our disciplines during this season of Lent.
The wind of re-birth is the wind of freedom and love, and it is far stronger than what we imagine is our stability in life. It is stronger than the place where we were born, stronger than our ancestry, stronger than what Jesus calls the flesh. So, even though it may blow us to new places, we are-in the Spirit-more stable than ever. It may even blow us to places like Panama City, Florida, to places like Georgia, like California, like South Carolina, places like Africa and Asia.
We might even have had our physical births in those places. But, as Christians, we are natives of somewhere else. We are natives of that place which we call the kingdom of God, which we call heaven, which we call eternal life. It is a kingdom which we enter simply by being born again to the life of Jesus, by letting our identities be shaped and re-shaped by this marvelous wind, this breath of the living God.
Where were you born? Have you been born again? Have you been born from above? I hope so. I hope you have been born again. In fact, I hope you have been born again and again and again. Every time we let ourselves follow the wind of God, the Spirit of God, we let go of our earthly bonds, and we enter an identity of grace and power.
But there's one more thing. Many of those earthly bonds are good and helpful. I will forever give thanks that I am the son of my parents. I will certainly give thanks that I am the husband of my wife and the father of my children. But even those earthly bonds need to be renewed, don't they?
Can a man enter his mother's womb and be born again? Can a couple renew their vows of commitment and love? Can a father and a son be born together again? Can a mother and a daughter be born together again?
Yes, that re-birth of relationships is what makes those earthly bonds Christian. Our most important relationships and identities on this earth are those that can be born again and again and again. In being born again, those relationships show us resurrection itself. They teach us something of the ever living grace of God, the God who claims us again and again, and who then blows new life into us. God blows into us the wind that takes us into new lands of love.
Maybe this Lent is the time for you to renew your identity in those relationships. Begin by being born again, born from above, in the Spirit. Let the spirit of Jesus come into your life in a new way today.
But, inevitably, that new wind will shape your other identities and other relationships in a new way, too. The relationships we have with those we love can be born again, too; they can be born from above, too. They can be signs, again, of divine incarnation. God so loved the world-the world of flesh and blood and relationships and identities-God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.
Let us pray. Grant, Lord God, to all who have been baptized into the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ, that as we have put away the old life of sin so we may be renewed in the spirit of our minds and live in righteousness and true holiness, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.