John 3: 1-8
In this age of technology, social media, online video games, and smart phones, people are finding it easier and easier to interact on a number of different levels. Take for example, the online world of Second Life. Second Life was created in 2003, and it is an online world of make believe. You can get on Second Life, create an avatar (or virtual 3D character), and interact with other avatars which represent people from all over the world. In this virtual world, you can teleport to anywhere in the Second Life universe- stores, homes, vacation resorts, entertainment venues. It’s not a game, but a place for Second Life residents to live, play, and in some cases, work through their avatar’s virtual life online. They even have their own economy system where if you pay $45 for example, you will get 10,000 LS or Linden dollars to spend in Second Life. With these Linden dollars, you can purchase virtual goods including land, buildings, vehicles, jewelry, or character enhancements for your avatar.
Second Life is perhaps one of the purest forms of art imitating life. People from around the world have created this virtual space to interact and escape the realities of real life and everyday routine.
Church has even taken up space in Second Life. In fact, I had two friends in seminary who created an online church community with it, and it was pretty successful. LifeChurch is another example of this- an evangelical multi-site church in Oklahoma with 11 campuses, with the 12th being the internet campus on Second Life, called Experience Island- a church meets café environment. Their ministry philosophy says: “We desire to engage people right where they are (physically or virtually), and Second Life represents a new frontier in that effort. Because Second Life uses avatars, people are able to remain relatively anonymous. We find that this creates a less threatening environment where people are much more willing to explore and discuss spiritual things” (Homiletics).
There has even been a debate going on within the United Methodist Church about whether or not it is appropriate to offer online communion. If someone is watching a worship service online from their home, or attending a worship service on the internet through something like Second Life, is it “kosher” for them to take Communion where they are? Is the blessing over the elements valid over the internet or in a virtual space? That is what some are debating and trying to decide. What do you think?
Whatever your opinion of these virtual spaces, places, and people, the reality is that more and more we are seeing that people seem to enjoy playing out alter identities that they can’t live out in real life. People feel the need to take on a second life or a different identity apart from who they really are. In today’s text, we meet Nicodemus, who we might say leads two different lives. If Nicodemus lived today, he would fit into Second Life rather well. During the day, he is a Pharisee, teacher of the Law, leader of the Jews, and perhaps someone who condemns Jesus and his teachings. By night, he ventures into his second life of a curious rabbi who seeks out this counter-cultural avatar named Jesus who has some rather interesting perspectives on God and everything that Nicodemus had been taught.
If Nicodemus had lived today, we might meet him at that online church and engage him in conversation where he could be someone else entirely. There, at night with Jesus, he could ask the questions that his everyday job would prevent him from asking. Like most people living two lives, Nicodemus sets out on his more questionable ventures at night, escaping the public eye. His spiritual curiosity finally gets the best of him! (Homiletics).
Even though we meet Nicodemus at night in his second life, we know that over time, he allows himself to be changed by Jesus, even to the point of stepping out as a believer in broad daylight when he anoints and buries him later on in John’s gospel. We know that Nicodemus is eventually able to step out of Second Life and into the real life of a disciple to which Jesus invites him to be a part. And what was it that encouraged Nicodemus to step out into the real world? It was Jesus’ invitation to be born again in order to see God’s kingdom, to which a confused Nicodemus says, “But how is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible for someone to enter into the womb for a second time!” But Jesus is playing with words here. He says that no one can see the kingdom without being born (Greek) anothen- from above, from the beginning, or again/anew. The birth that Jesus proposes is an invisible birth from above that creates visibly changed life (Homiletics).
Nicodemus would have been familiar with the several Hebrew scriptures that integrated water and the spirit together in reference to a spiritual cleansing or transformation of the heart that set a person of faith on a better path with God. But here, Jesus puts a new spin on these elements of water and spirit, suggesting that these make up the new womb of life from which we come and enter into a second life…not the imaginary kind, but a new life- a second life from God and for God.
Nicodemus’ two lives were not going to work for him much longer, but he did need a second life, or perhaps a new life. Instead of escaping away to an imaginary place or running away under the cover of night to engage in second life, Jesus offers the real thing- a real chance for transformation. We are offered a Second Life everywhere we turn in our world today- online, through our smart phones, video games, the secret lives we lead that no one knows about. Many of these second lives are a sham. Jesus offers us the real thing.
We all have a second life that we run to as a means of escape from the sometimes harsh realities of life. I just finished watching a TV show on Netflix called The United States of Tara, which is about a woman named Tara who struggles with multiple personality disorder.
At one point in the show, she has at least 8 different people she could become at any given time. When she transitioned between personalities, it was usually triggered by something stressful that she, as her true self, couldn’t handle. Her “alters” as she called them all had very distinct personalities, habits, hobbies, and ways of dealing with stress or anger. After a time of being a different person, Tara would finally come back as herself, and usually would be unable to recall what she had done, where she had been, or what had happened. This got her into some sticky situations. She also dragged her husband and two teenaged kids into her situations as they tried to put the pieces together and help her deal with her mental illness.
Tara eventually learns that her multiple personalities began shortly after she had been sexually abused as a child by a stepbrother. She had blocked this trauma out of her memory. She had to do some digging to discover her past and get to the bottom of how her disease may have started. Her personalities, she and her doctors believed, were created to protect herself and used as an escape to deal with her childhood trauma. Her second life (or lives in this case!) became a disease, an uncontrollable means of avoiding who she was at her core. It was to the point where she didn’t know what was real and what was not. After years of different medications, doctors, and hospitalizations, Tara eventually decides to seek help at a long term treatment facility where she can continue to discover her real self and to handle life’s situations without her “alters” getting in the way.
We see it all the time in our communities today where people use drugs, alcohol, self-harm, pornography, anger, or putting up walls around themselves to escape the world or something that has happened to them. Trauma often leads to someone running from the realities of this world and into a potentially harmful made up world. But it is Jesus who invites us into a second life, a new life, by the Spirit who transforms and the water that cleanses, quenches our thirst, and makes us new. But in order to get there, we must begin by asking the question as Nicodemus does, “How can this be so?”
In this I find myself wondering, if I could do this life so far all over again, would I do anything differently? Would I have chosen different friends? A different college or seminary? A different vocation or career? Would I have chosen Christianity over Judaism again? I can certainly think of a few things I would have done differently, but I think that most of the big decisions I have had in my life, I would have made them again. I’m also reminded in this that we are never to get too comfortable with how we live or what we think we know about Jesus or our faith. Nicodemus approached Jesus as a Pharisee, one who thought that he had this whole life and faith thing figured out, but he became undone with Jesus’ words that he must be born again- to have a change of heart, or start from the beginning. Another way to look at it is that Jesus invites Nicodemus to have a fresh perspective on God and life in general.
When we become too comfortable in our faith, or our habits, or our decision making, or the way that we are living our lives, it is Jesus who comes along and challenges us to be born again. It is then that our eyes may be opened to the new things that God is doing in our lives and in the world. When we are too busy running to our second lives, it is Jesus who steps in and invites us not to another second life, but a new life in him. There is no limit to the amount of times we can be born again- as long as we are willing to say yes to the opportunity and what change and transformation may follow.
Our world has been full of sadness, violence, and disaster this week. We’ve had the earthquake in Nepal, and the rioting in Baltimore. We have seen people pulled out of rubble, many dead, but some miraculously alive. We have seen violent acts committed on the streets of Baltimore both from the rioters and the police. The local news has been revealing more and more to the public about the details of the IU student that was murdered and the man accused of killing her. Now, more than ever, we need a second life, not found in acts of violence or hatred or intolerance, but in the newness of life and the transformation of the heart that Jesus offers to us. We need a new start- a new beginning. A new chance for peace and reconciliation. Our communities, our world, our individual lives…we need the chance for real change. We need Christ. We need the peace, healing, and chances for real change that he offers. We need the reminder that our true selves are worthy of love and acceptance, and that we are capable of real change that affects not just us, but entire communities for the better.
Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus reminds us that we too need to step out of our second lives and into the newness of life that Jesus offers. This story reminds us that we still stand with Nicodemus and ask, “how is it possible to be born again by water and the Spirit?” We long for answers and fresh perspectives outside of what we have been taught our entire lives. We stand with him in front of Jesus, perhaps in the dark of night, and ponder what it means to have the courage to step outside of the parts of our lives that are in the dark, and into the Light of the World.
Nicodemus’ story has a happy ending. He is able to leave his second life- to leave the web of caution and uncertainly, and has stepped into a true second life, a new life, as one who believes. Do you have a second life? And is it time for you to step out of that web and into the real second life that Jesus offers? May you have the courage to be born again this day, and let the Spirit of God and the waters of transformation wash over you as God takes your hand and leads you into the newness of life. Amen.