Sunday, March 20, 2011

Born Again Episcopalians

Second Sunday in Lent (Year A)
Genesis 12.1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4.1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17
Sunday, March 20, 2011 – Trinity, Redlands

What we’ve got here is failure to communicate. (Although, frankly, it’s not that uncommon in the Gospel According to John). Nicodemus comes to Jesus and butters him up by commenting that it is obvious that Jesus comes from God because of the signs he performs. This is the type of thing Jesus doesn’t like to hear. It’s not about the outward signs, but rather about the bigger picture – the kingdom of God. So, Jesus attempts to correct Nicodemus’ position by saying “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (Jn 3.3). Misunderstanding what Jesus is trying to say, Nicodemus starts talking about “being born after having grown old” and questioning how a grown person can be born of his mother’s womb a second time. Maybe you’ve had similar experiences. You say something and the other person seems to completely miss your point and goes off in some other direction. When this happens, my initial reaction, my inside unspoken reaction, is “what are you babbling about?” I don’t know if Jesus had that same reaction, but he really tries to explain things so as to make Nicodemus understand. We don’t know how Nicodemus reacts or if he ever gets what Jesus is saying.

I don’t know who to feel sorry for: Nicodemus for not getting it or Jesus for trying and trying to no avail. Jesus is apparently talking about some spiritual birth or renewal. So why is Nicodemus babbling about the physiological impossibility of a grown person being born again? Is Nicodemus so dense that he can’t see that Jesus might be speaking metaphorically? But in reality, it is sort of understandable why there is this misunderstanding – understandable if you look at the original Greek text. When Jesus says, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” the Greek word translated as “from above” is anōthen, which actually has two meanings. One meaning is “from above,” as is translated in the NRSV text and as clearly intended by Jesus. And the other is “anew” or “again,” which is obviously the meaning Nicodemus latches onto. So while Jesus meant “born from above,” Nicodemus heard “born again.” Both meanings are technically correct linguistically. But theologically? While Nicodemus and Jesus were pretty far apart in their respective meanings and interpretations of the terminology being used, I think that theologically they were on the same page.

Now as Anglicans, the term “born again” does not generally appear in our descriptions of our spiritual journeys. In fact, many in our tradition, as well as others in our society, have a hard time with the concept, may be leery of what is meant, and have a knee-jerk reaction against the term “born again” and those who talk about the need for such a conversion experience. Now admittedly, there is a segment of evangelical Christianity that firmly believes one must have a “born again” conversion experience in order to be a true believer in and follower of Jesus Christ. While the specifics of such an experience may vary slightly among particular groups, there is, nonetheless, a special emphasis on said experience and its significance. I mean in no way to disparage our brothers and sisters who hold such views. But I think our reaction to such views is more in response to the often overzealousness with which they are expressed; to the fact that a specific and rigidly defined experience is required; and to the sense of being judged and even condemned if we have not had such an experience.

But the reality is that the concept of being “born again” has been a part of Christian history dating back to day one, perhaps in large part due to our friend Nicodemus. Throughout our history, to be “born again” was understood as a spiritual awakening or regeneration through the sacrament of baptism. So, we are all, by virtue of our baptisms, “born again.” In our baptismal liturgy, we even use the language of dying to self and being brought to new life in Jesus Christ; of receiving “the Sacrament of new birth;” that we are “reborn by the Holy Spirit;” that we are “cleansed from sin and born again;” that we are “raised . . . to the new life of grace.” It’s all there, right in our Prayer Book.

Now, of course in today’s Gospel Jesus speaks of a radical new birth from above – one that focuses on our spiritual being – not that which is born of flesh but that which is born of spirit. And maybe Nicodemus got a little hung up on the physicality of being “born again” or “born from above.” But I think there may be something to be said for Nicodemus’ somewhat mistaken notion of being “born again” as imagery for what Jesus was really trying to get at. There are some aspects of the imagery of physical birth that could apply to the spiritual rebirth that Jesus talks about and that we ourselves experience.

First, the physical birth that Nicodemus envisions is literally a birth out of water. When a baby is born, it must travel through water, the amniotic fluid, to be born. So too is our being “born again” in the sacramental sense a birth out of water. Through the sacrament of baptism, we enter into the water as a sinful being, whereupon we die to that sinfulness, where we die to self. And then we emerge from the water, “cleansed from sin and born again” through the Holy Spirit.

Second, prior to being born, the fetus lives in the darkness of the womb. At birth, the baby comes forth from the womb into the full light of day. This dichotomy of light and darkness is an important feature in John’s Gospel, where he frequently uses the imagery of darkness to represent the realm of unbelief and the imagery of light to represent the realm of belief. In the course of our spiritual journey toward new life in Christ, we travel from the darkness of unbelief that the secular world tends to promote, from the darkness of our own unbelief in God and Christ, into the full light of faith and belief. We emerge into the light and grace of God as revealed through his son. And perhaps most importantly, we move from proclaiming and practicing our faith in a dark private place to proclaiming and exercising our faith in the full light of day. We move into a place of wanting to share our faith with others and to manifest it through our actions in the world around us.

Third, when a child is born into this world, it is generally given a clean slate upon which to build its life. Of course there are cases of babies born addicted to drugs or inheriting some sort of medical condition that may impede or encumber the individual’s development. But generally we are born into a life open to unlimited possibilities. When we are “born again” in Christ, we too are given a clean slate. As we emerge from the waters of baptism, our sins are washed away and we are given a fresh outlook, as clear and unencumbered as a baby’s life. But unlike physical birth, this new existence we are given in our new life in Christ is not just limited to the remainder of our normal human lifespan. For in our new life in Christ we are promised and given eternal life. While we may not know what that really looks like, just think of the possibilities eternal life has in store for us!

Fourth, those of you have experienced childbirth, and the rest of us who have either been present or seen videos know that giving birth is a pretty messy process. There is the stress, strain, and sweat of labor. There is the water breaking. There is the newborn child emerging in amongst water and blood. There is screaming from the mother and crying from the baby. The process of being “born again” can also be messy. Not always, but it has the potential. There is not the physical messiness of corporeal birth, but more of an emotional and spiritual messiness. As we are born to our new life in Christ, as we enter into a new way of being on our spiritual journeys, there is often the mental and emotional labor involved in shifting from one perspective to another; of moving from unbelief or serious questioning to a position of belief, faith, and trust in God. There is the uncertainty and maybe even discomfort of getting used to this new way of being, of shedding old practices and taking on new ones, maybe even of ridding our life of old friends and making new ones. Screaming and crying can quite often be a part of the process.

And finally, we are not born alone. Someone needs to give birth to us. In the physical birth process, our mother obviously provides us with life, drawn from and issued forth from her own life. And there is usually someone present to midwife the process. So too in the process of being “born again.” We cannot do it alone. We need someone to birth us into our new life. And of course that happens by the grace of God. The new life that we are being born into is a gift from God that flows from and through the Spirit and is made possible only through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through his death and resurrection, Christ defeated the bonds of sin and death and opened the way for the eternal life we are to receive. And as we move into new life, we need the help of our fellow Christians, who midwife us through the process and guide us into the fullness of what it means to be Christian.

The key to the process of being “born again” is given to us by Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson. “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit” (Jn 3.5). We know that water means baptism, and we’ve already talked about the place of baptism in the process of being “born again.” And in five weeks we will experience it first hand as Emily and Matt go into the waters of baptism and come out “born again” into the Body of Christ. The place of Spirit is a little more mysterious. Jesus uses the imagery of wind to describe Spirit: “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” (Jn 3.8). What Jesus is saying is that the Spirit is mysterious and beyond human knowledge, and is certainly beyond human control. The way the Spirit deals with each of us and works within each of us is as unique as we are. All that we can do is to open ourselves to allowing the Spirit to live and move and have its being within us.

It seems to me that Lent is a good time to do this. As I commented in my Ash Wednesday homily, Lent is not about enduring some discipline for six weeks, but is instead about trying on and discovering those disciplines and practices that will support and sustain us over the long haul – that will support and sustain us in our spiritual lives, our relationship with God. Lent is about opening ourselves up to the Spirit, allowing the Spirit to work in the deep recesses of our lives, and seeing what happens. And I can assure you that what will happen is that the Spirit will move you ever closer to the fulfillment of God’s mission through Jesus Christ – that God loves us and all humanity so much that he sent his son so that we might be given eternal life. That’s what it truly means to be “born again.” All we have to do is accept the invitation and to be open to the possibilities of what being “born again” can mean in our own lives.

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