At the height of the Jesus Movement in the 1970’s in America, we had a “born again” President, Jimmy Carter, and we had the beginnings of the modern Church Growth movement and the start of what would become the megachurch movement among religious Americans.
We also had a New York Times Best Seller by Rev. Billy Graham called “How To Be Born Again” (1977).
While I know many of those who grew up outside the Evangelical Protestant subculture in America may look at all this like it happened on another planet, the truth is this ideology is a subtle subtext to all religious discussion and experience here in America. To be ignorant of this reality is to be effectively unable to communicate with the vast majority of the population of this nation. Not really an effective plan for actually sharing the riches of our faith to the general population!
But what did Dr. Graham mean by “born again?” Where did he get such a phrase and why did it come to be a shortcut phrase used by millions to describe their religious experience? I’m glad you asked.
It actually comes from our Gospel Lesson today in John 3:1-15. While some translations say “born again” in John 3:3 and following verses, the better translation of what Jesus told Nicodemus is “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3) Sounds like something pretty important. I don’t know about you, but I truly do want to see the Kingdom of God.
The scene in our Gospel Lesson is fascinating. It’s late at night. Nicodemus is one of the members of the ruling council of the Jewish people in Jerusalem. He is a Pharisee and he is a good and honest man. He is a religious scholar and a teacher for the nation, and he sneaks off to see Jesus under the cover of darkness because he wants to find out more about this Man and he wants to avoid appearing to take the Lord’s side. You see, Jesus has already gotten a reputation of causing the religious leaders to be “agitated” with Him.
Nicodemus starts out like most conversations start with those whose agenda is not quite upfront. He begins by flattering Jesus, and Jesus dismisses the flattery outright and tells Nicodemus he has to be “born from above” if he ever hopes to be in the Kingdom of God. And Nicodemus doesn’t get it!
Jesus presses further and tells Nicodemus he has to be “born of water and the Spirit” (v. 5) and reveals that if a person isn’t born of water and the Spirit that person won’t enter the Kingdom. Nicodemus shows he still doesn’t get it by asking a biological question. Jesus confronts this religious teacher and allows Nicodemus to see just how far off his theological training is. What a shame when the religious leaders themselves are too dull to embrace what should be obvious to them. How will they lead their own people under their care if they are so disconnected from the deepest wisdom of the faith?
Jesus is trying to get across to Nicodemus and, by extension to us, that we have to enter into a continual relationship with God if we are ever going to be prepared to experience the gift of eternal life as heaven. It’s relationships, not fact gathering, religious philosophy, or even rule keeping, that allows us to be not just born on earth, but also “born from above.”
Today, as you make your choices in your daily life, do they reflect your active and growing relationship with heavenly things? Is your life reflecting your continual “yes” to God’s presence in your life? Far from the elementary notion of “poof” you’re saved or “born again,” the timeless faith offers us a more serious and mature path to spiritual re-birth. We are given the spiritual tools, physically manifested in the sacraments of the Faith, to continue to spur us on to a consistent faithful life. Are you on that path? Just as you gestated in the womb of your mother physically before your birthday, so now are you spiritually “gestating” in the Womb of the Mother (the Church) to see you “born from above” on that Day when our true selves are revealed to the whole universe?
Your New Year offers you such a participation in the life of the Spirit within the Body of Christ and all you need for a healthy “re-birth” lies at your feet. Participate in this timeless Life and watch as you grow ready for a heavenly life that begins right now.