I think it’s fair to say with a high degree of certainty that every one of us in this room at some point in history was born. In fact, most of us have some knowledge of the basic facts surrounding our birth. We know where we were born. We know the year we were born and the day we were born. Some of us may even know the time we were born. Yet even if you know the location, year, day, and perhaps even the time of your birth, does anyone here this morning remember the actual experience of being born? I mean, you were there! We’re not talking about an abstract concept or idea. We’re talking about an historical event of which you were one of the primary participants. And yet you have no conscious memory of that experience. The same could be said of the experiences of learning to walk and talk and tie your shoe.
My point is that the experience of being born and many of the crucial stages of our development are experiences we know occurred at some point in history. We know they happened because we are here today. We can talk and walk and tie our shoes. But we have no conscious memory of those things. We are not fully aware of how they happened.
In other words, we tend to think of being born as a one-time event, but it is actually a process that begins long before it is complete. It happens without our conscious effort. And from the perspective of human development, it is literally years before we have an awareness of what has happened.
What I’ve come to believe is that what is true of physical birth is often also true when it comes to spiritual birth. Spiritual birth is real. But just like physical birth, it is a process that begins long before it is complete. It often happens without our conscious effort. And it is usually some time before we are even aware of what exactly has taken place. This understanding of spiritual birth and spiritual growth is critically important, because for the last few centuries, American Christianity has attempted to define spiritual birth as a one-time event. And based on that one-time event, we have often separated people into categories. We have set up Christian spirituality as an “either/or” paradigm. Either you’re saved or you’re not. Either you’re going to heaven or you’re not. Either you’re a believer or you’re not. Either you’re born again or you’re not.
Now, don’t get me wrong, spiritual rebirth is real and it’s an essential part of what it means to follow Jesus, but I think it is more helpful to think of it as a process. And if it’s a process, we’re not always aware of what is happening. God is always working in us. God is teaching us. God is developing us. God is transforming us. But many times, only in hindsight do we look back and say, “Look at what God has done in my life.” We might even say, “How did that happen?” Because being spiritually reborn is a process. Today’s gospel reading from John can help understand what that means.