Love Stronger Than Death

Passage: Num. 21:4-9; John 3:1421
Date: March 26, 2006
Preacher: Rev David Hutchinson
Guest Preacher:

Having trouble playing the audio? download the mp3

Sermon

An OXYMORON - is a contradiction that contains truth. It's a figure of speech that takes two things that seem like they should NOT go together - two ideas that are opposite and places them side by side - to create a NEW meaning.

"Freezer burn" - is an example. You can't get burned by something that's freezing and yet we all know what we mean. All of us that is who have used a freezer. If you come from a place where freezers are rare - you might not know.

Other examples: "jumbo shrimp"; or "sweet sorrow". How about "civil war"? Or a vehicle that came to mind as I was preparing this sermon: the "Dodge Ram". (think about it).

So - it seems - that often - contradictions are - part of life. And that these contradictions - at least in some cases - contain some meaning. If we take the time to look for it.

How about "born again"? "Born" - - - means - to be brought into being. And "again" - - - means - a second time. "Born again" is a contradiction.

Does anyone here really understand what the phrase means? How about this: are there people here - that don't claim to understand it - but nevertheless claim to BE - - "born again"? The phrase gets used all the time.

It's a phrase the gets used by some Christians to explain what it's like to experience a new - strong sense of the Holy Spirit in them. It's often associated with the moment an adult believer who has not been baptized - accepts Christianity for themselves. Christianity becomes part of their identity - at that moment.

And the question is sometimes asked: "when were YOU born again?"

The phrase "born again" - is associated with the scripture reading this morning.

In the 3rd chapter of John, Jesus and Nicodemus have a conversation, in which they discuss a strange and special kind of BIRTH. This is not physical birth, like when a mother has a child. This is a kind of birth, described by the Greek word:
"an-o-th-en".

That word - as Dick Rohrbaugh described in his class on March 12 - can be translated as "again" if you are an ordinary sort of person. But it can also mean, "from above", which is what it meant to the people who originally created - told - read - the gospel of John. Born - - "from above" - - was their meaning.

Either way - it's strange language. Born "again" - - or born "from above" - do NOT describe what happens in labor and delivery rooms throughout Portland when a woman gives birth to a child. Nor do these phrases describe the birth of a human child at the time of John's community. Not - that much - has changed since then.

So comes the question: what DOES this language describe then?

And I think that the way John's gospel uses the language - can help us understand a little more - about what this kind of birth is - and what "born again " means. /
What does it mean - to be born again? Does it mean - joining a fundamentalist, non-mainline church, and putting a fish decal on my car - and buying a zippered binder for my Bible - and using the word "just" in all my prayers, as in: "I just want to - just - thank you Lord"?

Or does it mean - like it meant to the community that gathered around John's gospel - that they were all born "from above". Does it mean - like it did for them - that they were all part of a new family of faith. That they shared common parentage - and were all siblings - sisters and brothers in Christ. And that because of that they were all equals. And all the divisions between human families - based on arguments - and money - and discrepancies between income - went away.
No more keeping up with the neighbors - competitively. Instead all are one in a family of faith - facing together - the challenges of the world.

The next time someone asks you if YOU are "born again" - - ask them if THEY are "born from above"? And then - - instead of trying the EXCLUDE them from your reality - - try to listen - - and to INCLUDE.

When you hear these phrases - do you immediately think of baptism? Because I do. The liturgical "born again" moment - or "born from above" moment is baptism. Baptism is a sign - of rebirth in faith. If you are baptized - you can say, "yes! I AM born again".

My hope - though - is that we would spend time trying to understand it first. / Rather than having our primary goal as going around telling people we are born again, and surveying them as to if they are, and probably not all having the same idea what we mean by these strange and marvelous words - - rather - - that we spend time pondering the words ourselves. Pondering them - together.

How many of you have never really pondered your spiritual rebirth - because it seemed like the sort of scary - weird thing - done only by kooky fringe groups and fundamentalist Christians?
Have you ever pondered - your spiritual rebirth - or your longing for it?Have you ever pondered what spiritual rebirth would mean - for your
participation in a community of faith - and life in the world - and life of service - and spending patterns - and your voting record? What does it mean - for your position on the war in Iraq? What does it mean - as you face the death of a loved one?

Listen to the words of Robert McAfee Brown as he reflected on his feelings after learning that his granddaughter - Mackinzie - was diagnosed with a severe KIDNEY PROBLEM and was in intensive care: He writes: "To affirm the reality of LOVE - - is to look its opposite in the face - - and do our best - - throughout this lifetime - - to stare it down."

In the gospel reading from John, we read, "for God so LOVED the world - that he gave - his only begotten son". God loved the world - - and gave the Son - - to experience DEATH. So that - - we might experience LIFE.

This seems - contradictory - to me. But I know it's truth in my own life. In my "death moments" - I have also powerfully experienced God's - mysterious love.

And understanding the reality of it - has something to do with - understanding this amazing kind of BIRTH - - described to Nicodemus by Jesus.

In the "Brief Statement of Faith" which was written in 1983 - as part of what Presbyterians nationally claim - to describe their faith and beliefs - is the phrase: "In life - and in death - we belong to God". Baptism - moves us in the OPPOSITE direction - NOT from life to death - but from death - to LIFE. In baptism we die FIRST - and THEN we are born. And in THAT birth - we are born - from above - in a kind of way that changes how we relate to everyone - and everything in our world.

Do you remember Robert McAfee Brown's granddaughter - who I described earlier with the kidney problem? As he stared at the walls of the hospital - imagining her death - 30 of his students - when they learned that she was in intensive care and needed blood - they each went - 30 of them - INDEPENDENTLY - on their own - not knowing about the others - and 30 of them went to the blood bank to offer their own blood.. The reality of love - is looking death in the face - and doing our best - to stare it down. It is - as Robert McAfee Brown says - an activity called HOPE.

I believe that is what this new spiritual birth is about. It is about hope.

Ask yourself this: what have you hoped for lately? Have you really dared - to really hope for it? Or does it's opposite seem too strong? Do the contradictions - seem stronger than the hope?

This table - and the broken bread - proclaim the hope. Hope - stronger than those contradictions. Love stronger than death.
Amen.