September 30, 2007 - Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
If you’ve ever taken an introduction to psychology class, you probably recognize this diagram. It’s Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of basic human needs. It ranks the necessities of human life in the order in which Maslow believed they motivate us. Those at the bottom, basic physical necessities like food, shelter and sleep, he believed, need to be met before we will be concerned about those higher up. You won’t be worried about safety if you have nothing to eat, and you won’t be too concerned about relationships if you’re feeling insecure. You definitely won’t be bothered about esteem if you’re cold or hungry. In other words, you work your way up the chart in life, taking care of your more basic needs first.
In our text for today, Nicodemus, a Pharisee of the highest order, one of the seventy members of the Sanhedrin, came to Jesus offering Him belonging and esteem. He graciously treated Jesus like an equal or even more. “Rabbi,” he calls Him in verse 2. That is, “You belong, you’re one of us.” And then esteem: “we know you are a teacher who has come from God.” Nicodemus knows so, he says, because Jesus is doing miracles that only someone with God behind him could do. What higher praise could a man want?
Belonging and esteem are high on Maslow’s chart. We all need them in some form or other. Yet Jesus ignores the right hand of rabbi fellowship and Nicodemus’ flattering praise and turns the conversation in a completely different direction. He begins to tell Nicodemus about something he never suspected, a human need addressed neither in Nicodemus’ understanding of religion nor in Maslow’s hierarchy.
In verse 3, Jesus addressed the most basic and important human need of all when He said to Nicodemus, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.” Nicodemus wanted to motivate Jesus through a basic need for esteem, saying that no one can do miracles like Jesus does without having a connection with God. But Jesus wanted to teach him that no one is going to have a connection with God without addressing the most basic need of all. As Jesus puts it in verse 7, “You must be born again.”
The Covenant Church states what Jesus taught Nicodemus as the second of our central affirmations, “the necessity of the new birth.” This is part of what was meant when I said two weeks ago that the Covenant is evangelical. We are committed to the Good News of Jesus Christ, who died and rose again so that you and I and everyone who believes may have new life in Him. New life in Christ is essential. It’s more basic than any need charted by Maslow. It’s a spiritual need, a spiritual necessity, a need to know and love God and be part of His kingdom.
Maslow’s list of needs is not completely wrong. As human beings we really do need most of what he describes in order to flourish and lead good lives. We all need food and shelter. We need security—look out how hard our country has worked at that. We need loving relationships with family and friends. We need achievement and recognition and affirmation. It’s all necessary to a happy, fulfilled life.
Yet what Jesus is getting at with Nicodemus is the basic fact that once you’ve got all that—once you’re fed and safe and loved and esteemed—you still find yourself restless, unfulfilled. Nothing is more obvious about us as Americans. We live in nice houses, are protected by good police and armies, have spouses and children who care for us, and are successful in all kinds of ways, yet we are depressed, discontented and angry. We guzzle alcohol and drugs. We have affairs. We buy or even steal more stuff we don’t need. And we keep reading and listening to every self-help scheme that comes along, because we feel like we’re missing something. There is more to life. We have a need that goes beyond all the good things we get and have in this world.
It’s hidden a little here in the TNIV version I’m reading today, but when Jesus said, “You must be born again,” there’s another meaning in Greek for that word “again.” It can also mean “from above.” “You must be born from above.” Jesus is talking about that feeling, that need we have for something outside this world, something beyond, something other than sleep and safety and society and success. There’s more.
Maslow knew there was more, more to human life than basic needs. At the top of his pyramid, there’s a category he calls “Self-actualization.” It’s a need of different order. The lower four categories were all what he called “deficit needs.” When you don’t have a deficit need met, you feel it—you’re hungry or scared or lonely. But when it is met you feel nothing. The deficit is filled. Eat and you’re not hungry any more. Find some friends and you’re not lonely any longer. But “self-actualization” is not a deficit need. It’s what Maslow called a “being need.” It’s a need to “be all you can be,” as the Army slogan used to go, a need to fulfill your potential. And when a need like that is met, you don’t stop feeling it. In fact the need for being what you were meant to be grows stronger the more it’s met. It’s a need to grow as a person, to become more than you are now.
If deficit needs are dissatisfaction with the world and what it’s giving you, then Maslow’s being need is a dissatisfaction with yourself. It’s a realization that even with all basic necessities provided, you can’t be truly whole and happy until you yourself are better.
Maslow developed his notion of self-actualization by picking out great figures from recent history and studying their lives. He looked at people like Thomas Jefferson, Jane Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Schweitzer, Albert Einstein, and Eleanor Roosevelt to form a picture of what it means to live at the highest level. He found such people were discerning about the truth, didn’t bow to social pressure, formed a few long-lasting relationships, had a gentle, self-deprecating sense of humor, had a wondering appreciation of the world around them, and had humility and respect toward others. They focused on truth, beauty and goodness as well as other great positive ideas like justice.
However, Maslow found an apparent contradiction in the hearts and lives of those he called “self-actualized.” They frequently suffered deep anxiety and guilt. It was not pathological anxiety or false guilt, but a realistic sense of their own shortcomings and failures. At the same time they were reaching to become better, they knew how far short they fell. The Bible calls falling short in this way “sin.”
Though Maslow didn’t see it, sin is the reason we have this need to be more than we are. When we are at our best, at our most authentic and truthful, when we are most “self-actualized,” it’s then we see how very far we still have to go.
For many years if you had asked me “Who would you say is the best person alive today? Who today is truly good?” I would have answered “Mother Teresa.” I think you might have given the same answer. To all appearances she was a wonderful Christian woman who gave her life away to the poorest people on earth in the name of Jesus.
Yet in a recent collection of letters she wrote to her superiors and confessors over the decades of her ministry, we see a picture of a woman tormented inside by a sense of her own failure, feelings of hypocrisy, even frequent and deep perception that God was absent. Mother Teresa, one the best people we can imagine, was tortured and despairing of her own goodness. And if that’s how it was for her, what hope have you and I?
Jesus was trying to show the same thing to the bright, successful religious man who came to see Him. In verse 2 we read that Nicodemus came to Jesus “at night.” The usual interpretation you hear is that he came at night for secrecy, so that none of the other rabbis would know he was interested in Jesus. But as far back as Augustine, the night time visit was given spiritual meaning. Nicodemus came in the dark, not just physical darkness, but spiritual darkness. Last week you heard Reed elaborate the theme of Light and darkness which permeates John’s Gospel. And that note is sounded even in how John tells the story. Jesus was speaking to a man lost in the dark, a man in need of something more.
So Jesus spoke to Nicodemus to help him find the answer to the need he felt, a need for light, a need for something more than basic needs, a need to live beyond this world, a need for new life. What Nicodemus was after, what we’re all after, is a fresh start, a new beginning, a bright morning in which everything is green and moist with dew. So Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be “born again.”
Nicodemus should have gotten this spiritual metaphor right away. Even in Judaism it was said that one who converted to that faith was like “a twice-born child.” And in the Greek mystery religions of the surrounding culture there was also the notion of a spiritual re-birth. In one ceremony a candidate for initiation was placed in a pit, bathed in the blood of a bull, and then drawn up and out “reborn for all eternity” in a graphic reenactment of birth. Nicodemus should have got it, but he chose to be obtuse. He chose to be a literalist and ask in verse 4 how anyone could go back into the womb a second time.
Jesus then made the spiritual nature of this new birth clear: “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.” The water of the new birth is Christian baptism, but the key element of it all is the Spirit. “Flesh gives birth to flesh,” says Jesus in verse 6. As long as we live only in this world, as long we’re only concerned with physical homes that keep us fed and warmed and in the company of others, as long as success means hearing others praise us or winning football games, we’re doomed to disappointments, the disappointments of our poor, weak, inadequate, sinful flesh. But when the Spirit comes, says Jesus, “the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”
And, Jesus explains in verse 8, like the wind, the Spirit comes from somewhere else. It comes from outside this life, outside ourselves, outside all our own efforts to have and be something more than we are.
Both Maslow and Nicodemus don’t get it about the Spirit and being born again. Nicodemus wanted to know how a person could do it. How could you conceivably make this happen to yourself? That’s still his question in verse 9, “How can this be?” How can you get yourself born again? And of course Maslow thought the highest level of living came from yourself. Those at the top are “self-actualized.” He did not understand his data, that the internal torment of the best of the human race means that self-actualization is ultimately doomed to frustration. Sin prevents us all from “being all we can be.” We can’t be self-actualized. We need to be Spirit-actualized.
So Jesus says we must be born again. We must be born from above. We must accept that to become all we’re meant to be, to have a new and better life, there must be something, be someone who comes to us. We can’t make it happen by working harder or working smarter or living more simply or taking one day at a time or thinking outside the box or by being all we can be. All we can be on our own is lost, tormented sinners living in the dark. Our only hope is a whole new life which comes down to us completely apart from our efforts to fulfill all our other needs. Our only hope is the Spirit, the Spirit who comes through Jesus by grace.
New and better life is a gift. You and I can’t produce it out of ourselves. We can only reach up and receive it as the Holy Spirit of God pours it down on us like the rain fell on thirsty ground here this past week. When we say we believe in “the necessity of the new birth,” we’re not talking about something we all must necessarily do, some spiritual course of action we must follow. We’re talking about a gift of grace we must all receive.
It makes a difference. I’d like to say it makes all the difference in the world, but it’s more than that. New birth in Jesus Christ makes all the difference beyond this world, beyond our basic needs, beyond what this world can offer, beyond what you and I can produce by ourselves in this life. And you can see that difference.
Talking about the wind in verse 8, Jesus pointed out that, though you cannot see it or know exactly where it comes from or where it’s going, you can hear it. And you can feel its effect. All the hurricanes of the past few years remind us again of just how great and obvious the effect of the wind can be. “So it is,” says Jesus, “with everyone born of the Spirit.” You can hear, see and feel the difference.
The difference was remarkable in Mother Teresa. By the grace coming to her by the Spirit, she did not succumb to the darkness inside her, but instead she lived the most beautiful life of our time. Born again she was able to rise by strength that was not her own above all her doubts and fears and failings.
It’s not just in the great ones, though. We can see the difference new birth makes in ordinary people like ourselves. There was the man who sat in my office and told me how he heard the Gospel and became a new person. He stopped drinking and started spending time with his family and raised up three daughters who grew up safe and happy and loving Jesus themselves. There was a married couple on the verge of breakup as their fights teetered on the edge of physical violence. They turned to Christ and found something new that changed it all, that let them learn to love each other in healthy ways.
I saw that difference again for my own mother six years ago. The new birth is not something that’s over and done at whatever point you become a Christian. New birth in Jesus Christ keeps happening. It keeps changing you, transforming you for the rest of your life. When we believe in Jesus, new birth goes on and on. It did for my mom.
In the fall of 2001, Mom was to all appearances dying. Her kidneys failed and she was absolutely and completely depressed, lost in darkness. She could no longer live the life she had, taking care of herself, meeting her own needs. She could not even take care of her two dogs she loved so much. My sister and I flew her up here in an air ambulance, fully believing that our mother was coming to be near us as she died in a nursing home in just a few months.
Yet when she got here, and was welcomed and enfolded by the love of Jesus in this congregation, she was, I would say, born yet again by the Spirit. She started to come to church again regularly for the first time in many years. She found her faith renewed. She taught a Sunday School class. She participated in a home fellowship group. She still struggled with depression and feelings of helplessness and all the darkness old age can bring. But the Spirit gave her new life and she enjoyed that with us for four more good years. She’s enjoying it still, forever.
You and I can receive that new life, that new birth, whether you are 75 years old like my mother was or 7 years old like a child. As John writes further down in the chapter, “whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” New birth is a gift waiting for us all to receive at any time. It’s always waiting there for us with the Spirit of God. You may be brand new to the whole idea like our friend Arezoo was last spring, or you may have counted many years as a Christian. Either way, the new life offered by Jesus Christ to Nicodemus is still available. You can be born again. You can be different. Not self-actualized, but Spirit-actualized. All you were meant to be. You can be born again.
But of course what Jesus said is you must be born again. If you want to really live, the only way is His new life. It’s a must, a necessity. I pray that you will feel that need, that necessity in your own heart and mind today.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj