Born of the Spirit

A sermon given by the Rev. Teri Daily on March 8, 2020…

A few years ago scientists developed a specialized test to allow NASA to evaluate the creative potential of its engineers and rocket scientists. It proved useful, but the question remained: Is creativity something one is born with? So NASA administered the test to 1600 four- and five-year-old children. The results were shocking! 98% scored at the level of creative genius. It was decided to test the children again in five years, meaning when they were ten years of age. Five years later, only 30% fell in the genius range for imagination. And at 15 years, the percentage was down to 12%. And what about most adults? Well, only 2% of adults achieve the designation of creative genius.[1] These results have been duplicated.

Dr. George Land, one of the scientists who developed the assessment of creativity, proposes that this reduction in creativity has at its root the two different types of thinking – convergent thinking and divergent thinking.

Convergent thinking takes place when our thoughts converge or come together. It’s when we limit possibilities, as happens with a multiple-choice question, or an either/or proposition, or the expectation of yes or no answers. In convergent thinking, we weed out the things we don’t think are possibilities and engage with only a limited number of feasible options.

On the other hand, divergent means branching out in different directions, so divergent thinking occurs when one is open to new directions of thought, new possibilities. Divergent thinking can result from an open-ended question, one in which there are no pre-determined options that limit the range of answers.[2]

Why the drop in creativity as children age? Scientists reasoned that, as children get further along in their educational journey, they begin to engage in both divergent and convergent thinking simultaneously. We know what that’s like, to have a running commentary that fills our mind. An idea pops up, but then comes the response: “That didn’t work last time.” Or “That’s a crazy idea.” Or “That’s impossible.” Before we know it, we’ve whittled the list of possibilities down to a nice small, manageable number. We do this so much that, by the time we’ve reached adulthood, we have determined a range of what is and is not possible.

And here’s where Nicodemus looks a lot like many of us.  Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a leader of the Jewish people. In order to not ruffle the feathers of the establishment, Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night.

Almost as soon as their conversation begins, Jesus launches a simple statement that leaves Nicodemus reeling: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

When Jesus says Nicodemus must be born from above, he uses a Greek word that actually has a double meaning – “from above” or “again.” But since there is no word in English with a similar double-meaning, translators must choose whether to translate this phrase “without being born from above” or “without being born again, or anew.” Jesus actually means both. No one can see the kingdom of God unless that person be born anew, this time from above.

Nicodemus is understandably confused: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter the second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus doubles down: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of Spirit is spirit.” One more time Nicodemus is incredulous: “How can these things be?” Nicodemus has come into this conversation already knowing – knowing what is possible and what is not. Don’t most of us already have an idea of that by the time we reach adulthood?

Jesus is quick to point out that to be born again from above, by the Holy Spirit, Nicodemus may have to loosen his grip and let go of some of his preconceptions. That’s the nature of the Spirit at work: “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.”

Jesus goes on to say that there’s still another part of being born again that is out of Nicodemus’ control. Just as Moses lifted the bronze serpent up in the wilderness to heal the Israelites of their snakebites, so also “must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” And then we come to that famous verse taught to children in Sunday School and plastered on poster boards at sports events: “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.”

It’s as if the Spirit does its part and Jesus – the Son of Man – does his part, and our part in coming to eternal life, our part of being fully present to God, is to believe in Jesus. Here’s the thing, though: Jesus isn’t talking about an intellectual proposition that we assent to, or a confession that we sign our names to. The word translated “believe” could just as easily be translated “trust,” “rely upon,” or even “treasure.” That’s a very different meaning. These words are about a relationship.

But, true to convergent ways of thinking, we in the Church often take this verse – John 3:16 – and use it to whittle down the gospel into a nugget that becomes a litmus test. We are like Nicodemus; we try to make the gospel fit the size of our understanding. We try to capture and limit the wind, the Spirit.

So what would it look like for Nicodemus to be born again? For a grown man – maybe forty, fifty, or sixty years old – to be born anew from above? Perhaps it looks like a willingness to relinquish our preconceptions, to let go of our certainty that we know what God can and cannot do in our lives and in the world around us. Perhaps it is to have the imagination of our younger selves and to trust the Holy Spirit to take us places where we would never think of going on our own. Perhaps it is trust the Holy Spirit to work through us in ways that we now think impossible, too lofty, too hard. Perhaps being born again is to allow ourselves to be born of something that we have not reduced to a size we can control. Perhaps it is to stop trying to capture the wind, get out of the its way, and simply let the Spirit blow in our lives where it will.

I once visited a church that had been born again. The church in question was located in the downtown area of a southern city. As many surrounding churches followed the movement of their members to the suburbs, this particular congregation decided to remain in their current location and to remain active in the life of their neighborhood. The number of church members dwindled to fifty. They watched as a parade of homeless people passed their church each day on the way from one meal to another provided by various ministries in the city. One day an idea surfaced among the parishioners. After much hard work, including networking among agencies and applying for grants, two apartment buildings rose behind the old church building. This church of fifty members now provided housing for approximately one hundred low-income, previously-homeless neighbors.

I am sure these church members had been told by many that providing housing was too complicated, too difficult, too risky, maybe even impossible. The parishioners may have even believed it themselves at time. But they persisted. In the process, not only was this congregation transformed, but so the neighborhood and so many lives within it were as well.

I suspect that Nicodemus left his encounter with Jesus conflicted and confused. But we will see him two more times in the gospel of John. In the seventh chapter of John, Nicodemus will gently suggest to the temple priests and other Pharisees that perhaps Jesus should receive a hearing before he is arrested. In the nineteenth chapter of John, Nicodemus helps Joseph of Arimathea prepare the body of Jesus for burial. It seems the Spirit worked in Nicodemus over time; being born again from above was a process in his life. It’s that way for most of us.

Perhaps what we should give up for Lent is all the ways we try to fit God in a box, all the times we try to dictate to God and to ourselves what is and is not possible. Let this season be a time of trusting the Spirit to blow where it will, creating and recreating us in the process – in ways we might never imagine. 


Born of the Spirit
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