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That Which Is Born of the Spirit
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
May 31, 2015
Isaiah 6:1-8 John 3:1-17 Psalm 29
Our Old Testament reading and our New Testament reading both talk about some kind of change taking place in a person. In Isaiah, the Prophet confesses a sense of his own sinfulness. He is then purified by a coal taken from the altar. And in John, we have a lesson about being born again. A contrast is made between flesh and Spirit. Jesus says, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). Making a distinction between flesh and Spirit, Jesus says that we must be born anew, born of water and the Spirit. So both passages say that we need some sort of change in our lives.
In order to inherit eternal life, we need to undergo some sort of spiritual change. In the language of John, we need to be reborn of the Spirit. And in the language of Isaiah, we need to be purified by God. Both these passages say that God needs to work on us to make us into a new person. We need to be recreated by God.
Christianity has different interpretations about what this rebirth means. John’s reference to rebirth by water and the Spirit leads some to think that baptism gives rebirth. According to this interpretation, baptism washes away sin and with baptism a person is saved. I would add, here, that there is a whole lot of good music that celebrates spiritual cleansing by baptism. Often, this baptism takes place in a river and there is a lot of music celebrating going down to the river.
Another interpretation teaches that a person needs to accept Jesus in their heart. When a person confesses that they are a sinner, and that Jesus bore their sins on the cross, they are forgiven and saved. Accepting Jesus’ forgiveness in a person’s heart is being born again.
Catholicism has a complex teaching about salvation and rebirth. They teach that original sin is taken away by baptism. Original sin was when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This original sin of disobedience resulted in their being expelled from the Garden of Eden. Their sin is said to be passed down from generation to generation with conception. According to Catholic doctrine, this original sin is washed away in baptism. But the Catholic Church also recognizes that the temptation to sin is an ongoing fact of human existence. So they teach that a person needs to attend mass and confess sin and receive absolution. By doing these things, a person receives grace that remakes a person into a spiritual being. Finally, though, even this isn’t enough. Catholics say that as a person is dying, they need to receive the Last Rites, to clean up any sin that a person still has left on their immortal soul.
Calvinism has an interesting doctrine on rebirth. They have a teaching called “sanctification.” What this means is that God shines a light on a person’s sins, and removes them over time.
This doctrine of sanctification is closest to our teaching about spiritual rebirth. Our teaching touches on all the above doctrines. We say that a person needs to accept Jesus into our hearts; we say that a person needs baptism; we say that a person needs to be aware of their sins and to do away with them. And we say that all this is done by God with our cooperation.
What we mean by spiritual rebirth is actual personality change. We need to be changed into a new and different person. This happens as we allow God’s Holy Spirit into our lives. Allowing God’s Spirit into us is a gradual process that takes place over a whole lifetime and even into the next life. The Greek Orthodox teaches a similar doctrine and calls it “theosis.”
We need to change only because we need to form a connection with God. Even if we are basically good people, being good isn’t enough. What we need is to have God’s Holy Spirit in us so that all our love and all our wise thinking are done by God’s Spirit in us. Paul says this quite well when he says,
work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13).
This quote says that our will, that is what we wish to do, and our actions are both God willing and acting in us.
But for this to happen, we need to ask God into our hearts. And we need to remove any blockage that would keep God from entering into us. That means getting rid of selfishness and self-driven desires. Selfishness has a thousand ways of manifesting. We think of ourselves as better than others, or we want to be better than others. We want people to honor us. We want to show off our possessions. We crave possessions that will make others admire us or envy us. These are only a few of the many ways that self comes between us and our neighbor—and ultimately God. For God alone deserves honor, God alone is the greatest, the whole world is God’s.
For Swedenborg, sin is anything that blocks love for our neighbor and love for God. Swedenborg grew up in a Lutheran Church. He grew up with the idea that our desires are corrupt and evil from birth. This teaching was in the air in the Lutheran Church of his day. We also find it in Catholic doctrine, notably in Augustine. So we find statements in Swedenborg like this one,
From birth, each of us is like a little hell in constant conflict with heaven. The Lord cannot rescue any of us from our hell unless we see that we are in it and want to be rescued (DP 251).
For Swedenborg, spiritual rebirth is seeing sin in ourselves and desiring to cease doing it. It is actual character transformation. It is seeing clearly aspects of us that we need to get rid of, and then taking action to get rid of those defects of character.
While we are taking action to do all this, at the same time we acknowledge that the insight into our sins and the power to remove them are all from God. This is how we let God into us. It is by cooperating with God’s efforts to transform us that we abide in God and God abides in us, according to Jesus’ words in John 14.
As we work to remove our spiritual shortcomings, we find new feelings flowing into us. As we get self out of the way, we find new love for others flowing into our hearts. We are becoming new people. We are being reborn. What we used to enjoy, is now not pleasurable. The aims and goals we used to strive for blindly, as if our lives depended upon them, no longer seem important. In somewhat archaic language, Swedenborg describes this process,
All affections have their delights; but such as are the affections, such are the delights. The affections of evil and falsity also have their delights; and before a man begins to be regenerated, and to receive from the Lord the affections of truth and good, these delights appear to be the only ones; so much so that men believe that no other delights exist; and consequently that if they were deprived of these, they would utterly perish. But they who receive from the Lord the delights of the affections of truth and good, gradually see and feel the nature of the delights of their former life, which they had believed to be the only delights, that they are relatively vile, and indeed filthy. And the further a man advances into the delight of the affections of truth and good, the more does he begin to regard the delights of evil and falsity as vile; and at last to hold them in aversion (AC 3938).
We are made new, we are reborn, to the extent that we remove sin and allow love from God into our hearts. Rebirth is actual character transformation. It is a psychic change. From loving ourselves first and craving to rise in power and prestige in the world, we seek to walk together with our brothers and sisters and to make the world a better place. This we do, because God is now in us. And God loves each person in the world equally. And God’s love knows no bounds. The delight that this life knows is far greater than any delight the world has to offer. Now we are living by the Spirit. And God’s Spirit gives us love and joy beyond words. Being born of water and the Spirit means joy, love, and peace that passes understanding.
Lord, you are the light that guides our way. You show us the direction we are to walk in. You illuminate our path so we know the pitfalls we are to avoid. You show us our souls, as we are ready to see. You shine your light on those areas in us that we need to overcome and put away. You give us the power to do all this. For without you, we can do nothing. Self-directed ambition, even spiritual ambition will only fall in upon itself and we will not benefit. But when we act by your grace and power, we can overcome any obstacle; we can remove any spiritual shortcoming; and we will grow more and more pure. And as we grow in our spiritual perfection, we come nearer and nearer to you, in love, in obedience, and in solidarity with our neighbor.
And Lord, we pray for the sick. May they experience the power of your healing love. Fill them with the grace of your healing power. We pray for the grace of your healing power for all who are ailing in body or soul.