Sermon: Understanding the New Birth

We saw the word as we walked into church this morning.

It is written on the marquee. It’s on our bulletins. You can’t miss its iconic logo – the curved flame next to the cross. It’s everywhere we turn.

We are united by that word. We are Methodist … United Methodist at that. We gather as a body of Christians united by the spiritual heritage of a revolution that took place in the 18th century in England. It was inspired by the works and witness of John Wesley, and was led, in America, through great spiritual leaders such as Francis Asbury, Thomas Cooke, and others. When we gather to worship God, we do so as believers who hold onto a spiritual lineage that traces back to these great leaders.

But there are questions that hang over us as we look at that word. What is a Methodist? Who is a Methodist? And what does it mean to be a Methodist in the world today?

These are probably questions that many of us have never wrestled with before. For many of us, we have simply come to the Methodist church because it is the same church that our families have always gone to. That is special, and I honor that, because our families are important in informing who we are. They help us understand what we believe and how we have come to understand our faith in God. But I believe we should wrestle with the question of our spiritual identity in Christ. Our spiritual heritage as Methodists helps us see who we are in Christ, how we understand our faith, and interact with our communities and world around us.

That is what we will do over the course of the next few weeks. We will wrestle with some of the things that we, as Methodist and Wesleyans, hold dear. We will comb through some of John Wesley’s most historic sermons and bring them forward to today. This will help us get an idea of what it means to believe in the new birth, that we saved by faith, the call of Christians to grow in sanctification, and the practices that help us to grow in our faith. What I hope is that this series will inspire you to ask this question: What does it mean to be a United Methodist?

Before we fully get started, I should at least offer a disclaimer of how I see denominations. As Christians, I believe we are called to work together, across denominational lines, to serve the poor, to seek justice, and to proclaim the truth of the message of Jesus Christ. For too long, churches and denominations have seen themselves as competitors for God’s attention, and church attendance, instead of partners in ministry. But I believe there is value in having different theological perspectives. As Methodists in the Wesleyan tradition, we have one angle in seeing Scripture. It’s like looking at a baseball. If you hold it up one way, you can see the stitches, but that may be all you see. Another view, another theology, can help you see the fullness of what it is you are looking at. There are things that we are going to challenge and see as wrong theology, and we have to be willing to wrestle through our differences – not in an “I’m right, you’re wrong” attitude, but in a posture of “how can we grow together in our understanding of Jesus Christ.”

For me, and I hope for you as well, Wesleyan theology, the theology of the United Methodist Church, helps me to see the grace and love of God the most. So, let’s begin to wrestle with this theology and the question of what it means to be a Methodist.

We will start with the idea of a new birth. It is a cornerstone belief for all Christians. The belief is found in the words of our Scripture passage for today. In the middle of the night, Nicodemus, a leading Pharisee, comes seeking Christ. He has questions, and Jesus has answers for him. Very early in the dialogue, Jesus tells him that unless someone is born again they will not see the kingdom of God. That unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, they will not be able to experience the beauty of God’s kingdom. What is Jesus speaking of here? He is talking about the need for all Christians to be baptized, yes, but also about becoming a new creation through the Spirit working in us. When we confess our belief in Christ Jesus, and repent of our sin, it begins the process of a regeneration in our souls. We are no longer beholden to sin, but are transformed into a new being, as children of God, and called to live lives “worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

But what does it look like to be born of the Spirit? Jesus says that seeing someone born of the Spirit is like the wind – you don’t know where it comes from, but you know it is there. The transformative life in Christ Jesus came from the Spirit of God’s work in us. It is a process that cannot begin unless we have been born again, and come to a realization of our need of Jesus Christ in our life.

Holiness in our lives cannot be experienced with out first being born again. There are some identifying marks of this new birth. Wesley said there were marks of this new birth, or things that are distinctive about someone’s life that has been born again by the Spirit of God.

The first is that a person born again by the Spirit is a person of faith. What does Wesley mean by faith here? He is not speaking of faith as a merely intellectual idea. This is not faith that agrees with the basic idea that God exists, that Christ died for us, and that the grace of God is freely available to us all. By faith, we mean a sure confidence and assurance that Jesus did die on the cross for my sin, as well as the sins of humanity. We cannot do anything on our own to secure our salvation. Our salvation cannot come from our own good works, but only through the blood of Jesus Christ. We’ll talk more about this in the weeks ahead, but it is only through faith that we are saved. Only belief in Christ within the depths of our soul, and that full assurance that Jesus died for us, is the key to the kingdom of God. It doesn’t matter if you are a good person, or did nice things – if you have not known Christ, believed in him, and recognized that he is the Lord and Savior, you will not get into the kingdom of God.

This mark of the new birth is not just a get out of jail free card, but it should transform how we live in our communities and the world around us. We are called to live by faith. Paul says that we are to “live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Our faith in Jesus Christ should inform and be at the center of our entire lives. Too often, our faith is an afterthought, something we only consider in times of trouble. A living faith in Jesus Christ informs how we love our families, how we serve the poor in our communities, how we conduct our business at work, how we engage our communities, and live in this world. Our faith should be central to who we are and what we do. But a living faith is more than that. It gives us power to overcome temptation. Faith provides the way out of the temptations we all face. As Wesley taught, a living faith in Jesus Christ overcomes the desire and willingness to sin. We become the image that Christ desires us to be.

A second mark of the new birth is that we are called to live by hope. Our hope in Jesus Christ is our anchor. It is what secures us in difficult times and gives us humility in times of plenty. Hope is our confidence and trust in the grace and love of God to be at work in our lives. It is the “blessed assurance that Jesus is mine.” In hope, we know that Christ is alive and is at work. It’s not just a throwaway conviction, but is something that speaks to us at the depth of our soul.

We trust that God is alive, and it defines who we are and how we live in this world. We do not hold onto multiple hopes, as if to place our bets on multiple ideas to make sure we are in the right when that final day comes. No, we have one hope, in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Nothing else gives us hope to live in this world but the fact that Christ died for us, and that the grace of God is freely available to all who believe and seek to repent of their sins. Hope should define us.

As should love, which is the final mark of the new birth. If faith and hope are inner activities of the soul, then love is both an inner and outer mark of the new birth and faith in Christ Jesus. Both have something to do with the idea of what it means to love God. Paul writes that the greatest gift that God has given us is love. It is love that should define our relationship with God, and that love should permeate the depth of who we are. We love God, because God loved us first. God is our first love. We love God with our obedience and faithfulness. This love is expressed in our gratitude and thankfulness for God’s grace and willingness to send his Son, to die the death we deserved to die. To be born again means to have a deep love and affection for God because of God’s free gift of grace in our lives.

That love of God doesn’t stay on the inside. No, it becomes expressed as a “faith that works through love” as we engage the world in Christ’s love. This mark of the new birth is to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to see everyone in our community as someone that God loves. We are called to serve in love, to seek justice, and to see Christ in the needy, the hurt, and the oppressed. Love is not just a feel-good virtue, but it is a way of life and a way of proclaiming the truth of God’s free love and our hope in Jesus Christ. Love should define us as individuals, as a community, and as a body of believers – in our two churches, as United Methodist, and as Christians. If we are not defined by love, then we are being defined by something else… something that is not from God.

Faith, hope, and love are the greatest gifts from God, and come out in our walk with Jesus Christ. They are marks of the new birth, and marks of our life in Christ Jesus. The new birth is not the end of our walk in our Christian journey, but it is only the beginning. These virtues will only be developed as we grow in our relationship with Christ, and our strengthened in the love of Christ working in us and through us. As we grow in Christ, these virtues, through the Holy Spirit, will transform us and shape us into new beings in Christ.

The question for us is have we experienced this transformation through the love of Jesus Christ? Are we new creations in Christ’s love? Are we a people of the new birth, marked by faith, hope and love? If not, then it is never too late to experience the love of Christ, and to be reborn in the Spirit. Jesus told Nicodemus it was never too late, and it is not to late for us today to be a people defined by the new birth and our faith in Jesus Christ.

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