Reviewing the Situation
It was an unusual preaching invitation. St. Luke’s United Methodist Church was preparing for opening night of their production of the Broadway musical, Oliver! (If you’re near Orlando, you can purchase tickets here.)
My assignment was to make the connection between Fagin — the criminal mastermind who trains abandoned children to become pickpockets in both the musical and the Charles Dickens novel on which it is based — and Nicodemus, the Pharisee who came to see Jesus at night (John 3:1-21).
The sermon followed the actor playing Fagin performing his song, “I’m Reviewing the Situation.” You can watch the song and the sermon here (beginning at 14:45).
You don’t have to be a crook to identify with Fagin.
He’s aging. He asks, “What happens when I’m seventy?” Some of us have already found the answer to that question and it’s not always a pretty picture!
He also wonders if he’ll be able to get by on the money he’s set by. Who among us hasn’t be reviewing our bank accounts recently?
And then, like most of us these days, he’s anxious about the future. Like him, we have good reasons to be “reviewing the situation.” Who among us hasn’t said, “I think I’d better think it out again!”
Something like that was evidently going on for Nicodemus when he heard Jesus say, “You must be born again.” That’s the old King James Version that I grew up on.
“How can anyone be born after having grown old?” (Jn 3:4)
Can I tell you the truth? When I hear some folks talk about being “born again” I’m tempted to agree with the cynic who said the trouble with “born-again” Christians is that they’re twice as big a pain the second time around. But there’s more going on here than you can print on a tee shirt or paint on a road sign.
In the Greek text, the word translated “again” also means “from above.” The rest of the conversation with Nicodemus confirms that Jesus was speaking metaphorically about being “born from above” or “born anew,” but Nicodemus heard him literally saying “born again.” Jesus was speaking spiritually, but Nicodemus was listening gynecologically. Because Nicodemus was taking Jesus literally, he could not take Jesus seriously.
As a result, Nicodemus totally missed the point. Jesus was saying that the Kingdom of God is so unique, so beyond our typical patterns of behavior that in order see it and live within it we need to be born from above, born anew, by the Spirit of God.
Jesus was talking about a way of living that is not self-generated, not something we make up on our own, but a way of living, a pattern of behavior, that is birthed within us by the Spirit of God.
We Can Be Born Anew Again and Again!
While we can’t be born again, we can be born anew, born from above, into a new way of seeing.
The Spirit of God can enable us to see everything in our life and our world from the perspective of the Kingdom – God’s will and way revealed most clearly in the words and way of Jesus Christ.
Being born anew opens our eyes to see the Kingdom of God which Jesus is already here among us. We can catch a glimpse of it in often unexpected places where often unrewarded disciples do the often unappreciated work of the Kingdom of God coming on earth as it is in heaven.
It’s been 43 years since any of us first stepped onto property where St. Luke’s Church now stands, but the Spirit’s work began nearly a decade before we got there when the Orlando District of The United Methodist Church purchased an abandoned orange grove in the middle of nowhere. They never could have predicted what that church has become, but they were born from above with a vision of this property becoming a little piece of the Kingdom of God nestled between Disney World and Universal Studios. They were born from above and could see something no one else could see.
We cannot be born again, but we can be born anew, born from above, into a new way of loving.
In this conversation with Nicodemus Jesus says:
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. (Jn 3:16-17)
Later in John’s gospel, on the night before he died on the cross, Jesus said: “This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you.” (Jn 15:12)
The Kingdom of God is God’s way of loving that became flesh in Jesus becoming flesh in us. Even as the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary so that God’s love became flesh through her body, so that same love of God that becomes a living, breathing, flesh and blood reality in us. It’s the kind of loving that is so unique, so radically different, that we cannot crank up it up on our own but that is born within us and through us from above.
We cannot be born again, but we can be born from above to a new hope. The phrase shows up again when the epistle named for Peter declares: “You have been born anew into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” (1 Peter 1:3)
A living hope. Hope for living into the future. Isn’t that what Fagin was really looking for? Isn’t that what we really need today? Christ followers live with hope, regardless of what happens around us; hope for our own lives, hope for our community, hope for the world.
I grew up in a tradition where being “born again” was something that happens on a specific date, in a particular moment, in a particular way – usually during the singing of “Just As I Am” at the end of the sermon, just the way it happened at Billy Graham crusades. Being “born again” was something we “got” like getting vaccinated.
I’m sure that does happen for some folks, but my observation is that for most of us most of the time, though we can be “born again” in a moment, being born from above takes a lifetime. We are born and reborn again and again as we grow in our faith, the way a baby grows into adulthood.
Nicodemus got it right. We can’t go into our mother’s womb and be born again. But the good news is that all of us, any of us, can be born anew, born from above, into a new vision, a new love, and a new hope.
We don’t know precisely how or when Nicodemus experienced this new birth. John leaves the story hanging. But we see him again in chapter 7, defending Jesus from some of the accusations against him. (John 7:5) We see him helping Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus’ mangled, broken body down from the cross. He provides seventy pounds of myrrh and aloe for the embalming, helps wrap the blood-soaked body in linen cloths, and laid it in Joseph’s tomb. (Jn 19:39-40) Somewhere along the way, Nicodemus was being born anew.
Fagin vs Scrooge
Sadly, there’s no indication either in the musical or in Charles Dickens’ novel on which it is based that this kind of new birth ever happened for Fagin. But Dickens did give us the example of a man who, after reviewing his own situation, was born from above and began living in a new way. His name was Ebenezer Scrooge. Here’s the way Dickens described Scrooge’s new life.
Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more … He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh … His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.
That’s the good news I preached with Fagin (the actor) sitting in the church We cannot reenter our mother’s womb to be born again. But we can be born anew, born from above by the Spirit of God … again and again and again.
Grace and peace,