On this day when time in a sense is born again, I begin with a question Have you ever been "born again?”
It is a question that in my family was somewhat common to ask or hear asked. My parents were part of the born again movement which reached its peak in the 1970's and 80's.
The term “born again” comes straight from scripture. I just read it to you. Jesus tells Nicodemus, you must be born again.
The Common English Bible which I read from translates it, “Born Anew” which I kind of like.
Either way, there are two births according to Jesus in his discussion with Nicodemus. There is the physical, human birth from a mother’s watery womb here on earth. This the "born of water" Jesus mentions. And then there is a second birth, "born of the Spirit," a spiritual birth that is sourced in heaven, sourced in the Spirit of God.
Jesus is pointing to that second birth, and is saying that birth is vital for the heavenly life, the eternal life.
For those who want to be part of the community of God, for those who want to be part of the community that will see heaven and heaven brought to earth, a spiritual birth, being born again in the Spirit is required.
In the context I grew up in, there was another question sometimes asked – when was your spiritual birthday? It was a way of asking when were you born again? It may sound sort of silly. But it does highlight the importance of the born again experience in the Evangelical context. And there’s something to learn for us.
What I am saying here is that we shouldn’t ignore Christ’s teaching to Nicodemus. Even us Mainliners should embrace this call to be born anew.
You don’t have to be an Evangelical to consider or even internalize Jesus’ words. We can be proudly open and affirming UCC, mainline Christians and embrace the language of being born anew.
The question is how, right? How do we claim being born anew while holding to a moderate to progressive view of the Christian faith? That question of what a Born Anew UCCer looks like will be the theme for the next few Sundays.
For the rest of our time today, let me ask the question why? Why is being born anew important to us here. In many ways, the hymn we will sing answers that, but let me just say this here and now:
We live in an age of a Nicodemus approach to faith.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, so to be conspicuous about his curiosity about Jesus. As a respected, educated person, he doesn’t want to be seen seeking out Jesus, a lowly Galilean itinerant preacher. He doesn’t want people knowing about his appreciation and admiration of Jesus. And he certainly isn’t about to put aside his pride and follow Jesus.
See, Nicodemus believes in his self-sufficiency and status more than he does in God’s grace and love. He believes he’s won God’s favor through sheer self-will and good deeds. What's more, he believes he is being a good leader by assuring Jesus passes his own God self-sufficiency test.
But Christ tells Nicodemus that is not what God wants first and foremost. Jesus says God wants a transformed heart, a reborn spirit, not merely self-improvement or an enhanced spiritual state.
Us mainliners tend toward the Nicodemus way of things, don’t we? We don’t wear our heart on our sleeves. We don’t necessarily hide our faith, but we keep it close to the vest, as they say. In our increasingly secular world, we sometimes maybe hide our love for Jesus, our faith in and following of Christ.
Like Nicodemus, and as New Englanders, maybe we cling to the ideal of self-sufficiency, and hold onto our good deeds as something qualifying God's favor.
I’m not condemning anyone here. But I do want to say that as with Nicodemus, Jesus might say to us, what I want most is your heart. I want spiritual transformation. I want a letting go of ego and pride so I can be born in you.
Years ago I left the Evangelical faith. I upset folks in my family when that happened. They still pray for my salvation. And I'm still recovering from the wounds from that part of my childhood. But I cannot help but to carry the Evangelical sensibility with me. I also carry memories of teachings. One such memory is a quote from the minister I grew up hearing. He said the Christian life is not me working hard to please God. The Christian life is Christ’s life working through us.
That Christian life of Christ’s life working through us begins with Christ being born in us. Christ born in us - that is what born again means. And then Christ grows in us and Christ’s life works through us.
So I end as I began – are you born again? I pray the answer is a yes and a proud yes.