The Rev. Dianne O’Connell

First Congregational Church

March 20, 2011

Genesis 112:1-4a

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

John 3:1-17



The Born Again Experience

            Good morning.  It’s the second Sunday of Lent and such a pleasure to be standing before such an impressive congregation of Born Again Christians! And it’s my prayer for each of us that we be born yet again before the end of our worship service.  I can sense a current in the room, “Oh dear, I’m afraid she still doesn’t quite understand the Congregational Way.”

            It’s true, in recent history, say since the late 1960s, born again has been a religious term more widely associated with the evangelical Christian renewal movement than the descendants of the white-steepled, New England Congregationalists. But as the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus reveals in this morning’s scripture lesson, it’s not just today’s Jesus People who can claim to be, or aspire to be, “born again,” we should, too. Jesus suggests that if we hope to see or understand the Kingdom of God, we must experience this state of being, this born-again-ness.  So it’s pretty important.  Some translations say “born from above,” but that makes the idea no less significant.  If Jesus says that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again or being born from above, then I tend to want to take a close look at this issue.             

It probably will not surprise you that there are several religious interpretations of the phrase “born again” and none of them involve a biological rebirth – except perhaps for our cousins, the reincarnationists.

            The development of our Christian faith actually has two fronts:  first, the changes that our faith brings in us as individuals, and second, the changes our faith brings to the world around us, the Kingdom of God.  The born-again part, for me, has to do with the process by which these changes come about. For me, the study of scripture and internal conversations or meditations with Jesus play a part in both. The process and the results of the process are spiritually rejuvenating – often providing me with the feeling of a definite fresh start, a clean slate.

This, of course, is not the only way of seeing the matter. Throughout most of Christian history, to be "born again" was understood as to occur at the time of baptism. Baptism automatically conferred the status of being “born again.” Roman Catholics, Anglicans and the Eastern Orthodox feel this way. Beginning with the Reformation, (and that includes us Puritans) most Protestants associated being “born again” with the individual conversion experience. One repents of their sins, states their belief in the saving grace of Jesus Christ, is saved from eternal hellfire, and lives forever with Jesus.

            Our understanding of what it means to be born from above, or born again, has continued to evolve.  The experience for most of us is not a one time, flash of light, but rather an on-going process during which we, as individuals, change direction, change our focus, and intentionally move toward a new way of engaging life.  Another way of saying it is that we renounce sin, or our old ways of doing things, and follow Jesus, who shows us the new way of doing things.  The whole process takes time.

             For me, I can recall an instance along the way which I would consider a small but important spiritual milestone. I can still feel the amazing release and joy I experienced when I first took a Meyers-Briggs personality test in seminary.  When the results were explained to me, I almost cried.  Even though only seven percent of the world thought and responded to things like I did, it was still okay to be an INTJ (which stands for Introverted Intuitive Thinking Judging.) The test doesn’t tell us who we are, but it does provide clues as to how we process experience, how we protect ourselves from others, and how we get what we want.

           The best thing I remember about being an INTJ was that it was okay.  In fact, all of the various personality types were okay.  Furthermore, there were a lot more INTJs in seminary than in the general population.

Not everyone finds Jesus in the Meyers-Briggs test, but for me, Jesus was there.  His message being, “Let me show you a little about yourself.  You’re not broke.  You’re just a different model than some of the others.  Let me show you how to make this model work more effectively. Let’s take a look at that Instruction Book again.”

The whole experience affirmed my decision to quit my job, leave half my family behind in Alaska, and move to California, all for the unlikely purpose of becoming a Presbyterian minister.

I had felt a bit like Abram and Sarai in the Genesis reading this morning when the Lord told them to “leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you…”  I needed reassurance on several levels that I had not gone a little mad.

On the surface, we would not think that Nicodemus would have a self-image  problem. Nicodemus was a learned man, a man who knew the law and the prophets.  Probably a member of the Sanhedrin. And yet he has found the more he knew of these texts, the more something seemed to be missing.  He wanted to talk to this healer/teacher but he didn’t want anybody to know about it.

Jesus meets with him and tells him that he needs to start over again, experience a radical change of perspective. The law is still important, but let’s look at it through different lens.

What is born of flesh is flesh, Jesus says, what is born of the spirit is spirit. It’s like a second birth, a spiritual evolution.

Then Jesus says something really strange: '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 of everyone who is born of the spirit.”

Wind and spirit are virtually the same word; Jesus' point is about the nature of faith.  The law is one thing. Confining, for sure. The spirit on the other hand is free.

Jesus is talking about a new birth of the spirit, and this new birth is something we cannot do alone, only with God can such rebirth occur.  Only God can give us new life; only God can transform us into people of faith. God’s Spirit, like the wind, blows when and where it wishes, and when the Spirit blows into our lives, we are transformed into God’s children. 

Here’s where we move into Focus No. 2 – faith and society.  Focus No. 1, remember, was faith and the individual. No. 2 – faith and society.

            “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Is “the world” to be understood as just a collection of individual souls? Or is “the world” to be understood as something more complex than that?  Society, as a whole, perhaps?  The Kingdom of God on earth, perhaps?

Society was important to Nicodemus.  Here is a wealthy and powerful man who comes to Jesus by night because he is afraid to lose face by associating with this Galilean healer. He has an image to uphold. It is not possible to separate the Christian faith from a radical critique of our society.  Personal salvation, personal spiritual rejuvenation, is possible but it must also include the interests of all people and the whole of creation.  Society itself, the world, must evolve, experience a change of heart, a spiritual rejuvenation and then it, too, will be saved.

             Nicodemus was a sincere religious seeker. A student who uses his precious study time to “expand his search beyond the standard texts…and distractions of the day.”

            Nicodemus was a member of the religious institution of his day, yet a mover of theological boundaries. Willing to risk leaving behind past ‘truths’ as he and his colleagues  have been taught and know them, in order to explore something new.     

            What would we do differently if given half the chance? How would we grow up differently? How would we re-edit the story of our life?

            The story of Nicodemus is an invitation to be curious about life. To rethink and re-construct assumptions, to look to the future through the eyes of new possibility. To be born anew, metaphorically! To consider how life might be different!

            In the spirit of  Nicodemus, may the Lord protect the curious in each of us. May he place us in the company of earnest and compassionate teachers, of whatever faith tradition, whose openness defines a new community of hope and grace. May he give us the courage to dare to know the Source of Creativity - ‘God.’

It is Lent, the time of reflection leading up to Easter. Marcus Borg and Jon Dominic Crossan are the two Biblical scholars featured in the DVD series the Dine and Discuss group is viewing every second Tuesday.

        These gentlemen tell us, "Good Friday and Easter, death and resurrection together, are a central image in the New Testament for the path to a transformed self. The path involves dying to an old way of being and being reborn into a new way of being. Good Friday and Easter are about this path, the path of dying rising, of being born again."

            The “born-again” experience is too central to the faith to just eliminate it from our vocabulary because some of our Christian friends experience it differently than we do. Our responsibility may be to develop our own definition of what it means, for us, to be “born again.” 

For me, it’s a spiritual transformation process which brings us closer to God with a sure knowledge of God’s acceptance and love; acknowledges our shortcomings both as individuals and as a society – provides a basis for a genuine plan for improvement, makes us more cognizant of and committed to Jesus Christ and our purpose in life, and well, gee, the whole thing results in, like, being Born Again!  We are not only allowed, but encouraged, to stop, re-evaluate, and change direction throughout our lives.

It’s call also called spiritual evolution and may it happen to each of us, time and again, now and forevermore.  Amen.

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