A sermon preached at a mid-week Communion service in a small and aging church in which many people are feeling marginalised by the “message” and projects of their evangelical lay pastor.
Raise your hand if you’re a Christian? … Now raise your hand if you’re “born again”… Just as I thought: a disparity. Which disappoints me hugely, but doesn’t surprise me. Instead of being a term that all Christians can and should own, “born again” has become a phrase that some Christians claim for themselves – and then deploy in very un-Christian ways against their sisters and brothers in Christ.
In the US, you get this phenomenon at its worst, because it’s associated with Christians who have an ultra-conservative cultural and political agenda. You’ve probably heard of the American Religious Right. But as a wag has perceptively put it, this bloc is neither – it is bad religion and it’s hardly ever right. Indeed with its virtual identification of being an American with being a Christian – the US as “God’s own country” – it is downright idolatrous. Fortunately, the UK has been spared this kind of distorted faith. Unfortunately, we have not been spared the abuse of the term “born again”.
Above all – yes – the way the term is used by some Christians to make themselves feel more Christian and others feel less Christian or not Christian at all. Apparently it is not sufficient to say you that you have been baptised and believe; that you pray and seek to follow Jesus; that you are a committed member of the church and involved in its activities. No, all that is not enough. No, to be a “real” Christian, you’ve got to have a special conversion experience, usually dramatic and often dateable, which you can put in the form of a “testimony” and talk about publicly, punctuated with the requisite biblical phraseology. Otherwise you’re suspect.
And then there is this: because the focus is on personal experience, everything else that is important about Christian faith gets marginalised. Evangelism is largely reduced to inducing the “born-again” experience in other people, and then getting them to join so-called “Bible-believing” churches, while faith basically becomes a “fire insurance” policy, a get-out-of-hell-free card. And because the emphasis is on personal salvation, there inevitably follows a minimising of action for justice and peace, as well as a commitment to ecumenism, as intrinsic to mission.
The huge irony is that all this is quite unbiblical, for justice for the poor, peace on earth, and a passion for the unity of God’s people – these are fundamental biblical themes. Justice is the central message of all the great prophets – Amos, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah. And the theme of the ministry of Jesus is – what? The kingdom of God – the reign of God, the realm of God – which is a corporate concept and refers to the establishment of shalom, not just in souls but in bodies, not just for individuals but for the world, and not for some future ethereal realm but for the here and now. Or do we need reminding of the manifesto of Jesus, proclaimed in his inaugural sermon in Nazareth, his “mission statement” if you like:
God’s Spirit is upon me:
God has chosen me to preach the message of good news to the poor;
to announce pardon to prisoners and the recovery of sight to the blind;
to liberate the crushed and oppressed;
to announce, “Now is the time of God’s action!”
And St. Paul, following Jesus’ prayer “that they may be one” – again and again the apostle pleads passionately for unity in and between early Christian communities.
That is what mission is about: not about me, me, me, saving my butt and getting folk past the Pearly Gates, but about witnessing to the fact that in Jesus Christ God is reconfiguring the whole universe, inviting people to join in his cosmic project of reconciliation, and encouraging churches to demonstrate God’s peace by living together in unity. J…’s experience of coming to faith, P…’s experience of coming to faith, my experience of coming to faith – these are no doubt different. But this vision of the one church and the new creation – that is what binds us to Christ and moves us to obedience.
So to be “born again” – well, look at the famous text…
First, note how Jesus begins by referring to “seeing the kingdom of God”. So right from the get-go we’re not talking about personal salvation and getting to heaven, we’re talking about the new world that is God’s work in progress.
Second, Jesus tells Nicodemus that “no one can see the kingdom of God without” (John 3:3) – without what, exactly? In the Greek of the text, “without being born anothen”. What does anothen actually mean? Nicodemus obviously takes the word to mean “again” – hence his puzzlement at the idea of entering the womb twice. And rightly so – he’s got the wrong end of the semantic stick! Much better to take anothen to mean “from above”, which is, in fact, overwhelmingly its usual meaning. Then what Jesus is telling Nicodemus links perfectly with what John tells us in chapter 1, where we read that Jesus, the incarnate Word, gives to all those who believe in him the “power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man but” – of what? – “of the will of God” (John 1:12-13), the God who, in John’s heaven-and-earth, up-and-down theological cosmology, is “above”. And then what Jesus tells Nicodemus also links perfectly with what John tells us at the end of chapter 3, where in a single verse (31), he refers to Jesus himself as “the one who comes from heaven” (v. 31c) and “the one who comes from anothen” (v. 31a), which clearly means not “again” but “above”. Thus not “born again” but “born from above” turns out to be by far the better translation of anothen – as, in fact, many Bibles in English now acknowledge.
But look, I’m not the word police! By all means let us speak about being “born again”. It’s actually a quite fantastic image, which vividly speaks to the point that Jesus is making to Nicodemus, namely that being a Christian involves a transformation. To speak of being “born again” is not a problem – unless you make it a problem by reducing its meaning to a specific experience that all Christians must have or they are not “proper” Christians. Being “born again”, or “anew” or “from above” – they are all powerful metaphors of faith, but people come to faith in all kinds of different ways, through all sorts of different experiences. The how of faith is not important, only the that of faith is crucial, a faith that changes people for sure, but a faith that finally demonstrates its authenticity not in private experiences but in public actions. Crying “Lordy, Lordy!” isn’t the test of faith – so Jesus concludes the Sermon on the Mount – but doing the will of my Father (Matthew 7:21) – that is the crux of being a Christian. As St. Francis told his followers: “Spread the Good News. Use words if you have to.”
It’s rather like weddings and marriages. Maybe you’ve had an amazing wedding, right out of Hello magazine; maybe it was a simple affair, the registrar and a few friends. No matter: both couples are wed, the one no more or less than the other. The real question is: however elaborate the wedding, however personalised the vows, what will you make of the marriage?
So the next time anyone asks you if you’re born again, don’t be intimidated; rather, boldly, proudly, and simply affirm, “Of course! I’m a follower of Jesus! Are you?”