Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Birth Certificate

This morning, we get a mini-preview of Sunday’s gospel lesson. Although not exactly the same, today’s reading from John (2:23-3:15) overlaps almost completely. And I’m preaching on Sunday, so it gives me a chance to think and write about the lesson ahead of time. There’s a danger in that, though, and I must confess that I’d rather revisit a lesson during the week after a Sunday sermon.

As I read the lesson today, my focus falls on being born again. Jesus and Nicodemus have a back-and-forth about being born again, and, although they dance all around it, no one ever says for sure what it means.

Jesus answered [Nicodemus], “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of flesh is fles, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’” (John 3:3-7)

Thanks, Jesus. Don’t marvel at the whole “born anew” thing? Well, it’s pretty amazing, and, unless I’m missing the point completely, I’m with Nicodemus on this one. How? How are we to be born again? Water and Spirit? What does that mean? Baptism? Is that all? Surely there’s something more to it than that. You’ve chosen the birth analogy, which brings to mind labor and struggle and total newness, and, while those things may be impregnated within the baptismal rite, they aren’t obvious. Perhaps I could tease out those aspects of baptism, but I suspect there is more to this “being born anew” than a little sprinkle and a Trinitarian formula.

I remember a fellow seminarian taking issue with the phrase “born-again Christian.” He said, “There’s no such thing as a not-born-again Christian. To be a Christian is to be born again. Why would you use ‘born-again’ as a qualification of one’s Christianity?” He makes a good point, but I can see it from two very different and possibly opposed perspectives.

If you call yourself a Christian but don’t show evidence of new birth, perhaps you’re not a Christian after all. Perhaps you’re the person Jesus has in mind when he says, “Unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Maybe really being a Christian, which necessitates new birth, is more significant than simply saying the words and calling oneself a follower of Jesus.

Then again, if you think of yourself as a Christian, maybe you’ve already been born anew, and that’s what new birth really is. Maybe as a Christian you “inherit” a new ancestry—a new way of being, by which you are “born” as a son or daughter of God rather than the son or daughter of your biological parents. Maybe simply thinking of oneself as a child of God is all it takes to be born anew.

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