12 March 2017

Born Again and Again

Second Sunday in Lent

Ninety miles north of Catonsville Presbyterian Church, about twenty miles northeast of Lancaster, PA, is the town of Ephrata.  There’s a National Historic Landmark there known as The Ephrata Cloister.  This religious community was founded in 1732 by Conrad Beissel (1691-1768), a German Pietist who emigrated from Germany, in 1720.  Pietism was a movement in German Protestantism that sought to reform the state supported Protestant churches.  Pietist groups, which gathered to read the Bible and to pray, were not sanctioned by the state churches.  Pietists were interested in personal piety, in personal spiritual growth and development.  Beissel had a religious experience, and not long after that he was forced to leave Germany, in 1715.  He made his way to Germantown, Pennsylvania (outside Philadelphia) and then to Ephrata, where he became associated with the Anabaptist Brethren.  

The Ephrata Cloister, Ephrata, PA
Beissel eventually organized a religious community for people who were interested in a spiritual life, living apart, cloistered away from the rest of society.  At its height, there were about 400 residents of the community.  They lived and worked and worshipped together.  They held all things in common.  There were celibate members and entire families living together.  If, today, you walk through the cloister graveyard, you will find on many gravestones three dates: the date of birth, the date of death, and in between the two—the date when that member was born again.

Born again.  Are you born again?  It’s a designation that’s probably foreign to most Presbyterians and Mainline Protestants, although some would describe themselves this way.  The phrase became popular in 1976 when President Jimmy Carter started talking about being born again.  I remember, back in the 1980s, being asked, “So, when were you born again?”  The question made me feel uncomfortable.  No one had ever asked that of me before.  I knew what he was getting at. He wanted to know about my conversion experience, when I confessed Christ as Lord and became a Christian.  He wanted the date and time. 

But, I grew up Presbyterian!  My family, on my mother’s side, has been Presbyterian since the sixteenth century in Scotland; on my father’s side, Hungarian Reformed from at least the early nineteenth century.  I was in church every Sunday as a boy.  I never once missed a day of church school—and I have the perfect attendance awards to prove it.  I was a deacon when I was high school, an elder when I was in college.  But no one, ever, told me that I needed to be born again.  

Horace Bushnell
Like many Presbyterians, I suspect, I was the product of the nineteenth century Sunday School movement, shaped (in part) by the teachings of the Protestant theologian Horace Bushnell (1802-1876).  Known as the “father of American religious liberalism,” Bushnell was suspicious of pietism and religious awakenings and revivals.  In his classic work, Christian Nurture (1847), Bushnell said that children raised in authentic Christian homes and churches simply, naturally grow up to be Christians. “[A] child grow[s] up never knowing when he wasn’t a Christian.”[1] According to Bushnell, there’s no need for a dramatic conversion experience or a radical decision of faith.

If you can relate to this, if this was your experience growing up in the church, if this is still your take on the faith, if you’re like Nicodemus—someone who grew up in a faith community, nurtured in the faith, never having known a time when he wasn’t a child of Abraham—then you can imagine how he felt when he heard Jesus say, “Very truly”—in other words, “Pay attention!  This is the way it is!”—“I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born again” (Jn. 3:3).

This is, obviously, where the designation originates.  It’s the only place in the Bible that speaks about being born again.  John 3:3.  One verse.  That one verse has generated an entire sect of Christians who identify themselves as “born again,” as if it were a separate type of Christian.  Generally speaking, born again types are viewed with suspicion in American society.  I sometimes hear people say, “She’s one of those Born Again Christians.”  Or, “He’s, you know, one of those Born Agains”—meaning, fanatic, enthusiast, zealot.  Several years ago, comedian Dennis Miller was asked,  “Born again?  No, I’m not. Excuse me for getting it right the first time.”

The American novelist James Baldwin (1924-1987) had this to say about the Born Again.  He was raised in a Pentecostal church, but later left Christianity altogether, due, in part, to the hypocrisy of many American Christians and churches that operate more like country clubs.  In an “Open Letter to the Born Again,” from September 1979, Baldwin wrote, “The people who call themselves ‘born again’ today have simply become members of the richest, most exclusive private club in the world, a club that the man from Galilee could not possibly hope—or wish—to enter.”[2]

So, what do we do with John 3:3?  Skip over it?  Disregard it?  Some Bible translations, such as the NRSV, try to put distance between the text and these associations with conversion.  The NRSV reads, “…no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  The Greek word here is anothen, which can mean born “again,” or born “from above,” or simply “reborn.” 

What is Jesus getting at here?  First, he wasn’t asking Nicodemus to change his religion.  He wasn’t asking him to leave Judaism to become a Christian.  The designation “Christian” didn’t exist in Jesus’ time.  However, Jesus was explicit that something had to be converted within Nicodemus; something had to change, come alive, be reborn within him.

Nicodemus shows up in the middle of the night because he doesn’t want anyone seeing him.  He’s a leader of the Jewish people, a man of deep faith.  He’s the religious expert.  He’s an institution man.  He represents the tradition.  He has power, authority.
He’s been tracking Jesus’ teaching and movement for some time.  He knows that God is up to something in him, but not sure what.  My guess is that he goes to Jesus at night because he’s curious.  He has a lot of questions and he wants answers.  At first, Nicodemus tries to butter him up, by saying, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” (Jn. 3:2). 

Jesus, knowing all of this, avoiding this, not really listening to his flattery, throws out this non sequitur, about being born again!  Nicodemus, thrown for a loop, confused, says, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 

Do you see what’s happening here?  Nicodemus is being literal, concrete.  He has no imagination.  And because he remains there, because that’s where he often hangs out in his faith, he can’t see, can’t perceive, can’t hear, can’t discern what Jesus is trying to show him.  Nicodemus is stuck in his own limited, small, inherited frame of reference.  Jesus is trying to get him to think spiritually, or “heavenly” (Jn. 3:12).  Jesus invites Nicodemus to perceive through metaphor.  Jesus is trying to break open his reality through the use of symbolic language.  In this text and throughout John’s Gospel, we find Jesus trying to lift us to an altogether different paradigm.  So Jesus says, “Very truly”—This is the way it is!—“no one sees the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  What is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of Spirit is spirit.  Don’t be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born again.’  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. 3:5-9). 

Jesus is trying to expand his horizon of meaning, to increase his awareness of the Spirit’s movement in his life.  Nicodemus, even more perplexed, says, “How can these things be?”  Then Jesus said, “You’re a religious leader of God’s people. You’re supposed to know this.  You’re supposed to know something of the way of God. “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (Jn. 3:10).  That’s a good question.  Why doesn’t he understand “these things”? 

Why don’t we understand “these things”?  How does anyone understand “these things”?   Maybe, because we get stuck in ruts, religious ruts.  We get trapped by what we know (or think we know).  We have our opinions, our cherished beliefs, and hold on to them for dear life, despite how irrational they may be.  They serve us well (or think they do).  Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1771-1834), poet, critic, and philosopher, once referred to the “film of familiarity.”  The familiar can become a film over our eyes.  In “consequence of the film of familiarity,” he writes, “and selfish solicitude, we have eyes yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.”[3]

Perhaps Nicodemus forgot that the Spirit moves through the world, moves through our souls, in order to remove the “film” that prevents us from seeing, in order to birth something new in us, something not known to us naturally, according to the flesh.  “What is born of the flesh is flesh” (Jn. 3:6).  The Spirit, though, comes to bring life, God’s life, true life, rich, abundant, meaningful, life-giving life (Jn.10:10)!  And the Spirit brings light. John 3 begins with Nicodemus arriving in the middle of the night, but Jesus is the light who reveals God’s love, the one who shines in the darkness. As John says at the beginning of his Gospel, “In him was life and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it” (Jn. 1:4-5).

Light.  The writer Susan Sontag (1933-2004) once said, in talking about the art of writing, “Information will never replace illumination.”[4]  Nicodemus goes looking for information.  Jesus is all about illumination.  His presence illumines.  “As Jesus speaks, the light of the world enters the darkness of Nicodemus’ ignorance.”[5]  In love, Jesus comes to illumine our awareness so that we come to see the kingdom of God in him—and then through him our perceptions of God, the world, and ourselves are transfigured and transformed.  This is the Spirit’s doing!  And when this happens in our lives—and every time that it happens—we are born again and again and again!  Illumination, enlightenment, revelation, the transfiguration and transformation of knowledge, perception, experience are all required—all the time, until the end of our time, until, beyond time, we are completely transformed by the light of Christ’s presence, no longer seeing in a mirror dimly, but knowing fully, even as we are being fully known by Christ (1 Cor. 13:12).

Illumination, not information.  There’s a huge difference between wanting to know about Jesus and knowing Jesus. There are a lot of people who know about Jesus.  Fewer actually know him.  Nicodemus arrives searching to know about him.  Jesus gives of himself; he presents himself to Nicodemus.  Jesus meets him where he is and begins to cultivate a deep relationship. 

Contemporary theologian Sarah Coakley (b. 1951), one of the brightest theological minds today, said, simply, “To know God is unlike any other knowledge; indeed, it is more truly to be known, and so transformed.”[6] In the end, Nicodemus came to know something new about God.  He was known and so transformed.  That’s what love does.  Love sees us and then opens our eyes to see.  Citing again James Baldwin, Baldwin said, “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of things you don’t see.”[7]  That’s what Jesus did for Nicodemus.  In love, Jesus opened his eyes.  And what Nicodemus discovered changed him.  The encounter gave him a new life.  The next time we see Nicodemus in John’s Gospel is at the tomb.  John tells us that Nicodemus bought about seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloes, along with other spices.  Then he and Joseph of Arimathea, together, reverentially wrapped Jesus’ body (Jn. 19:38-40) and placed it in the tomb.

Maybe there’s a Nicodemus in each of us, especially those of us who say that we believe and trust in God. Like Nicodemus, people of faith need reminding that the Spirit is always moving through our lives and the world.  In order to see God’s kingdom, to see God’s work in the world, to see Jesus, to see how God works through pain and suffering and even death, to see the Son of Man lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness (Jn. 3:14-15) to realize there on a cross—there, of all placesthe love of God that comes not to condemn, but to save the world (Jn. 3:16-17), to see all of this requires the Spirit.  

Apart from the Spirit’s work you’re stuck with the literal.  You’re left with a man who died on a cross—which wasn’t all that unique in First Century Palestine. 

But to see on the cross the Word made flesh, to see love suffering in love, this requires the work of the Spirit.  It requires being reborn; perception illumined again and again, as the Spirit washes away the film of familiarity.  It requires new eyes, new hearts, new insights, all of which yields new life. It’s only then that we are born again—and again and again as the Spirit stirs us and moves us and allows us to see what God is doing in the world and for the world, as the Spirit invites us to share in all of it!

Today, I’m not reluctant to say that I’ve been born again.  I have to define what I mean by this, of course. I’m born again and being born again and again and again.  Technically speaking, if you think about it, everyone who has been baptized by water and the Spirit, everyone who confesses a belief or trust in Christ, everyone who affirms with the apostle Paul, “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to Godself” (2 Cor. 5:19), has been and is being born again, has been and is being born from above by the Spirit.  Why?  Because we, like Paul, have come to this realization and are bold to make this confession and seek to follow him to our dying days, because time and again and again the Spirit has led us to make this confession. We know this to be true.

Yes, the Spirit opens our eyes.  The Spirit opens our hearts.  The Spirit’s wind flows across our skin and animates our lives—and changes everything.  Not once, but again and again and . . . .

Image:  Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), Study for Nicodemus Visiting Jesus, 1899.

[1] Christian Nurture is still in print.  An online version may be found here.
[2] James Baldwin, “Open Letter to the Born Again,” The Nation (September 1979), 
[3] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographica Literaria (1817), chapter XIV.
[4] Susan Sontag, “The Conscience of Words,” At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2007).  A summary of this essay maybe be found here.
[5] Allen Dwight Callahan, “John,” in True to our Native Land: An African American New Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress Press), 189, cited in Jaime Clark-Soles, Reading John for Dear Life: A Spiritual Walk with the Fourth Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 29
[6] Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
[7] James Baldwin, “The Black Scholar Interviews James Baldwin,” Conversations with James Baldwin (edited by Fred L. Standley and Louis H. Pratt), cited in Debby Irving, Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race (Elephant Room Press, 2014), v.