Some of us have innies and some of us have outies. Belly buttons that is.
Our navel reminds us that we were once intimately connected to our mother. Through the umbilical cord she poured her life’s blood into us. Detached from our mother prematurely, we would have died.
In addition to the physical link within the womb, mother and baby form an emotional, spiritual bond. Sonograms result in remarkable in utero pictures these days, but even those images cannot capture the spiritual cords that join baby to mother. Those cords are invisible. And real. And life-giving.
Being born severs that visible, physical link and inaugurates a new phase of our spiritual lives. We physically, visibly detach from our mothers to be ourselves. And now, paradoxically, our life—our spiritual life—hinges on the invisible threads that weave us together with God and our neighbor.
I’ve read somewhere that Thomas Aquinas thought of the belly button as a metaphor for spiritual things. No wonder. Our navel reminds us that eternal life is all about relationship.
That’s what Jesus is getting at in his conversation with Nicodemus. To enter the Kingdom of God, we have to be born from above or born again.
It’s Not What You Think
Some followers of Jesus identify themselves as born-again Christians. Some are biblical literalists. Some are pentecostal. Many are social conservatives.
There are many ways to follow Jesus, and this may be your way. I have no interest in criticizing anyone. But I have to say that this way of being Christian has no right to claim the title “born-again” as its unique possession.
That’s because the born-again movement sometimes suggests that you are only born again if you see things their way and do things their way. And if they are to be honest, they are implying—maybe even saying outright—that you’re not a Christian if you’re not born again in the way that they understand.
Here’s what lots of folks in that movement mean by being born again. As a result of a conversion experience, you have repented your sins. You have accepted that Jesus received the punishment for your sins, so you are forgiven. Now you will go to heaven when you die. Some will add the requirement that you must read every word of the Bible literally. Others insist that you have to speak in tongues or else you’re not born again.
This is certainly how many born-again Christians understand what it means to be born again. But it’s not what Jesus is talking about with Nicodemus. Following Jesus will mean that we are born again or born from above, but if all you know about the process is what born-again Christians have told you, it’s not what you think.
Again from Above
The word that Jesus actually utters to Nicodemus means two things at once: born again and born from above. In other words, God gives us a new life. A new kind of life
I have heard being born again explained in terms of having a do over or getting a mulligan. God doesn’t hold our past against us and gives us another chance.
This is helpful, but it’s incomplete. If God is only about second chances, he’s still leaving everything up to us. We’re on our own.
For instance, let’s assume that an umpire decides to give me a fourth strike. (This obviously could happen only in the Major Leagues, because Little League parents would kill the umpire.)
Given the fact that I have horrible eye-hand coordination, a fourth strike would do me no good at all. I might hit the ball with dumb luck, but that’s about it. Something about me would have to change before a fourth strike would be the least bit of help. Only a power greater than myself can change something like eye-hand coordination.
So, being born again is not just a do-over. It involves a make over. God gives a future that is free from our past. But he also makes us a new person, a person who can do something with that future. We are not only born again. We are born from above.
God acts upon us decisively and definitively. He makes us a new creation. But even this is incomplete. We can still think that we’re all on our own. We’ve been spiritually reborn and, we think, we have to stand on our own two feet, walk a rigorous moral line, and put our shoulder to the wheel of spiritual disciplines.
That is not the point at all. Being born from above makes us new by bringing us back into a deeper, richer, more dependent relationship with God.
And that brings us back to the lesson of the belly button.
Belly Buttons, Vines, and a Windblown Life
Our belly button reminds us that the key to life—the key to eternal life—is connection. Relationship.
Being born physically involves a visible separation. God’s desire is that biological birth coincides with an invisible, spiritual process that works in the opposite direction. The direction of deeper relationship, deeper connection, more complete dependence.
Later in John’s Gospel Jesus uses a different image to teach the same lesson. He told his disciples that he is the True Vine. He is the vine and we are the branches. Branches are differentiated from but internally connected to the vine. Cut a branch away from the vine and it will die. Being born again means being connected to God from the inside out.
Getting back to Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus says that a life born from above is a windblown life. He says, “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.” (John 3:8-9) God stirs within us invisibly, and God’s movements impact this visible world through us.
The Gospels give us vivid examples of windblown lives: the Gerasene demoniac restored to his right mind after living for years naked among the tombs; the woman of ill-repute set free by the power of love who washed Jesus’ feet with tears of joy and gratitude; a woman who stands tall and straight after spending years bent by a crooked back; cleansed lepers returning home to their families; Lazarus blinking at the sun after emerging from his tomb.
Paul says that lives like these bear the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23)
Windblown lives embody the love that is only God’s to give. And we impact that world with that same love. There has always been compassion in this world. But in this world compassion flows toward those who deserve it.
God’s compassion flows through us to those who need it. Deserving has nothing to do with it. We feed the hungry because they are hungry, shelter the homeless because they are homeless, clothe the naked because they have no clothes.
That is the lesson of the cross. On the cross God’s love flowed to those who need it. Not to those who deserve it.
And that is lesson of the belly button. The mother nourishes the child in her womb because that is her child. God nurtures us because he is birthing us as his children.
This sermon was preached at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in West Monroe, Louisiana.