Some time ago I attended a large United Church gathering that showcased the various Christian communities throughout the Maritimes. I went to the L’Arche presentation. The assistant who spoke to our group described the community as a place where women and men of different abilities live together as sisters and brothers. The assistants tend to be able-bodied and the residents live with some form of physical or mental challenge. But their way of relating to one another is the same as any family.
I was impressed with what I heard but I wanted to see it in practice. I invited members of the church I then served to join me for the tour. We walked throughout the house but ended up in the dining room. At that point one of the elders from the church asked what the assistants do for the residents. The assistant who was guiding us responded that everyone in the house “do things” for each other, again as any family would. The elders from the church looked confused. The assistant had seen the expression that was written all over the elder’s face before so he attempted to explain. “Before I came here there was something missing in my life. I felt I wanted a deeper connection than what I experience in regular church, I wanted my sisters and brothers in Christ to be my sisters and brothers. And in this house we are a family, we make meals together, we laugh together, we cry together, we learn from each other. For instance I have learned from my sisters and brothers here that our value to God is not what we do or what we say or how we look. Our value to God is that we live as a family, that we love each other unconditionally, that the way one of our residents looks at me, the touch of their hands, the way they laugh or look in awe at each other, this transcends our conventional notions of worth.”
After we left the house I asked the elders what they thought of L’Arche. There was a long silence. And then… “I admire those people. Some part of me wishes, even longs, for that kind of love. But something about it just doesn’t seem normal.” Later I went back to the house on my own and I asked one of the assistants if the relationships seemed “normal” to him. He said, “I understand that response. But once you’ve been born from above it changes everything, most of all it changes how you look at others.”
What does it mean to be born again? The language has come to suggest the promise of an eternal reward. You’ve heard some Christian believers say that you must be “born again” to enter heaven, to be saved. This definition has the feeling of a task, a test that we either pass or fail. But for Jesus and his followers this second birth was not so much the ending as it was the beginning, marking the beginning of a dangerous journey. It entailed leaving behind the safety nets (in some cases one’s family and/or employment), starting fresh, aligning with something new, something not very “normal”.
The second birth also recalls Jesus’ own emergence in Baptism from the waters of the Jordan. It recalls Israel’s own emergence from slavery into liberation through the waters of a parted sea. In short, it recalls moments when people have set out on new and treacherous journeys, called by God to fashion themselves in a new image. To forge an identity apart from the markers that had shaped them and re-imagine their communities and their very bodies as God might. Just like the community, the family, of L’Arche.
John Allen, the Chaplain of the Occupy Wall Street movement from a few years ago, was no stranger to getting people to imagine themselves in new ways, to reject what many called normal arrangements. Allen says that the timing of the encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus, at nighttime, suggests that Nicodemus knew he was defecting, at least in some small way, by going to speak with this radical Rabbi. “He calls Nicodemus to walk away from the power and privilege of his leadership position and join a cause for justice and liberation, to cast in his lot with outcasts. Jesus is pushing his followers to understand that new life emerges constantly from the old. God sends new life from above that interrupt our old habits. This is how Jesus becomes our Saviour.”
We are afraid to admit that the way things are, the “norm”, is not nearly all that it’s cracked up to be. There is inside each of us a quiet longing for deeper relationship, one based on love that is freely given and freely received, one not based on our “success” but one based on the belief that all of us are God’s children, we are all “born from above” and thus family. But to get there it means unlearning a lot of “norms” we take for granted, norms that don’t really connect to our Christian teaching, to the way Jesus lived his life.
Writer Gail O’Day says that we have become adept at finding ways to talk and act ourselves into ignoring what we know deep down has to change, to find these deeper relationships. Some use moral absolutism with clear-cut answers to tell ourselves that the only relationships worthy of us are those who are “good enough”. Or we engage in bursts of activity that somehow distract us from this longing for deep relationship, all the while trying to convince others and ourselves that we are worthy. Or we might retreat into ourselves, convinced our devotion and purity will overcome our deep desire for relationship. Or we take on the most common response to unrequited longing, numbness, we simply fill our minds with television, games, celebrity culture, and other distractions that keep our thoughts from the big questions that leave us uneasy and unsettled.
What is required to leave behind the distractions of what we call “normal” and accept the invitation to being “born from above” by a Saviour like Jesus? O’Day believes it is a two-step approach, first to accept that something new is happening and we are part of this and the second is to engage what John’s Gospel so often refers to as “the kingdom of God”. This connecting of being “born from above” with participating in the “kingdom of God” suggests that accepting our new identity as sisters and brothers in a holy family as God’s children means that our inheritance and chores (my words) in this new household include anything that touches this “kingdom of God”. If I accept that I am no longer living a “normal” life as defined by my culture, that is us and them, my looking out for me and my kin, my doubling-down on the ways that assist my own survival and those who agree with me, than I am participating in a different kind of “kingdom”.
Note Nicodemus’ response to Jesus’ invitation. As a man of privilege and power Nicodemus is unsure how much he is willing to give up to receive what he lacks. Nicodemus says, “How is it possible…” For Nicodemus life follows a certain pattern, the norms are clear, and he has benefited from such norms. It is the “signs of Jesus” that interest Nicodemus, how Jesus brings healing to whomever he touches, to wherever he goes. “How is this possible?” Nicodemus wants to know. Jesus has an answer, you have to be born from above and you need to become part of a family that is building the kingdom of God. Such unfamiliar imagery and the potential of losing whatever power and certainty Nicodemus has accumulated will prove too much for him.
I pray that this will not prove too difficult for me, for you, for us. Last week I began the season of Lent with a talk about “the Confuser” and how a voice comes to us and suggests power is more important than love. Today I stand before you and suggest that accepting Jesus’ invitation to be “born from above” means re-imagining who you believe is your kin and why you think others matter, why you think you matter. These are not “normal” ideas by any stretch. The world around us values people based on what they do, who they are, what they look like. But our Lord comes to save us from that normalcy and show us a better way. By living in a world as sisters and brothers in Christ, by working at touching and building this kingdom, we are opening our eyes to beauty and wonder of each other. These relationships change everything and fill our longing as nothing else can.
Thanks be to God for the invitation to be “born from above”. Thanks be to God for saving us from being normal. And thanks be to God for giving us a family to love and be loved by. Amen.