Out on a Limb: Born Again . . . and Again . . . and Again
February 27, 2000
Ezekiel 36:22-26, John 3:1-12 The Rev. Ralph DiBiasio-Snyder
Introduction to the Scripture:
What is at the heart of true religion? What is the bottom line of
faith? Is it right thinking about God: saying the right
words, believing certain doctrines? Or is it right living:
being good people ethicly Or Is true faith having the right
experience of God: a feeling in your heart of God's
forgiveness and power, hearing of God's voice? Thinking, acting,
feeling . . . all three? The two readings for today point us toward
an answer. The first, from Ezekiel, is in the context of God rebuking
the people of Israel. They had wandered from their right religion,
but despite that, God says, he will save them, to show the greatness
of God to the nations. The last verse is especially important: A
new heart I will give you.
The second reading tells of a late night visit to Jesus paid by one
Nicodemus, a strictly religious man who nevertheless needed something
more. Verse three contains the phrase found in my title:
Born again. It is better translated as you will hear born
from above. Born again, born from above, born anew: what does
that mean, exactly? You'll see that Nicodemus, being the first to
hear the phrase, was as confused about it as some of us still are!
Listen now for God's word to us today.
Have you ever heard of Billy Sunday? If you had lived a hundred years ago, you would know who W. A. - Billy - Sunday was! For Billy was one of the most colorful and effective evangelists of the early 1900s, preaching revivals all over the country. Before he "got religion" he was famous as a baseball player, with the Chicago White Sox, once winning a game by stealing second, third, and home on three successive pitches! But one day in downtown Chicago while hanging out with some of his buddies, he heard a brass band playing on the street corner, inviting people to come to the Pacific Garden Mission to hear some Gospel preaching. In his own words Billy says, "I turned and left that little group on the corner of State and Madison streets and walked to the little mission and fell on my knees and staggered out of sin and into the arms of the Savior." Born again. Billy was a born actor with what one writer calls "an uncanny ability to scare the daylights out of sinners." He once attracted nearly 1.5 million people to a ten-day campaign in New York City, where he boasted a convert count of 98,264 souls born again.
In 1908 some of the churches of Oshkosh wanted to invite Billy to come and lead a revival here. At a congregational meeting the matter was debated, and some were for participating, and others were against it. In the end we decided, "that under the present circumstances . . . it is inexpedient for this church to join in the proposed movement to invite Mr. W.A. Sunday to conduct Evangelistic services in this city." That is, we politely opted out.
That's not too much of a surprise for us here today, is it? True enough, this church was born out of the revivalistic fervor of the Second Great Awakening that sent preachers out west to Wisconsin to Christianize the settlers of towns like Oshkosh. In the early years revival meetings were not unusual at all, as in 1857 when (our records read) "on February 10th Reverend Parker of Michigan . . . preached twice a day until March 9th. Over a hundred [sinners] were hopefully converted and more than fifty backsliders reclaimed." That is, born again. But in the 1880s this church moved out of the born again camp and into the mainline Protestant, liberal camp, and there we have camped ever since!
So why this talk today of being born again, and again and again? Why go out on a limb to address Billy Sunday or Billy Graham for that matter?
I do it because, first, like it or not, Jesus himself talked about being "born again," "born from above." And if he thought it was important, then we had better pay attention to it. And secondly i want to talk about this today because many of you work with or live beside or go to school with people, or have relatives, who talk a lot about being born again, and those people would hope you to have that experience for yourself. And there are those in this church - some of you - who have had such an experience. You've told me about your born again experience, and you wonder what does this church believe about it? Is it safe to talk about here? To help us all - born again or perhaps born again but don't realize it - learn a bit more about the whole matter I offer these few thoughts.
First, my pedigree, theologically speaking. I was raised in a household that believed in being born again. Every service at church was aimed at the closing few moments when we would be asked and invited and begged and cajoled and pled to come forward to be born again before it was too late. How do we know, we were asked more than once by the preacher, that we wouldn't walk out that church door and be hit by a car? We of course didn't know, and it only made sense to before going out that door to be hit by that car one would go to the altar and be born again, before as I say it was too late. This I did - more than once. Maybe that's why I was never hit by a car leaving church! Who knows? At any rate I tell you that story to say that when it comes to evangelical or fundamentalist theology I have been there, and know it from the inside, and so perhaps have some legitimacy to speak about it.
I also want to say that the last thing I want to do today is to make light of anyone's experience of God. As fun as that sometimes is, and I am guilty of doing it myself, making fun of how other people understand faith does the body of Christ no good. My intention today is to stimulate thought and discussion, and to do that I hope to offend people on both sides of the issue - just a little bit!
Let us first look at the text, beginning with how the old King James Version of verse three says it: "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Seems simple enough! And we of course agree with Jesus, don't we. What choice do we have - this is Jesus here speaking, and the most liberal among us will not want to take lightly anything Jesus says. Even such a mainline, liberal group as the World Council of Churches, after all, has the simple creed, "Jesus is Lord." So when Jesus speaks we need to listen, and here I and my fundamentalist friend can say together a decisive AMEN! to this and to verse 7, "Ye must be born again." So far so good.
But of course the problem is a bit deeper, isn't it. For just what do those provocative words - Ye must be born again - mean? The struggle to understand Jesus began the moment he uttered those words. Nicodemus - a member of the Pharisee sect, the fundamentalists of that day, folks who like their religion taken very literally - Nicodemus took a stab at understanding Jesus, asking, "Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb, and be born again?" You can imagine Jesus rolling his eyes, "No - I don't mean literally born again!" No, says Jesus, you must be born anew spiritually - and here the New Revised Version read today is helpful - you must begin a spiritual life - "born from above," born of the spirit.
But what on earth - or in heaven for that matter - does that mean? Here's what I think Jesus wants us to know. Jesus saw people living their lives devoid of any spiritual dimension, as if God were nowhere to be found. Even religious people - deeply committed to zealously keeping the rules of religion, Pharisees like Nicodemus - can live on a purely material, earthly plane, completely oblivious to God's Spirit all around us. We can be so materially consumed that we pay no attention to the law of God, still less the love and grace of God. And to change from that - to begin to believe the message of Jesus that the reign of God, the power and demand and love of God is here and is to be embraced - that change of mindset is so radical a change that it is like being born again, this time from above, spiritually. The difference between living as Jesus did, with his radical lifestyle, his radical trust in God, and unwavering commitment to being truly righteous, not just superficially righteous - the difference between his spirituality and the way religious people like Nicodmus lived was so great that is was like the difference between living in the womb and being pushed out into the world. The text, note, gives no definition, no description whatsoever of an experience associated with being born anew, again. There are no prescribed words to be said, no feelings that must be felt. There is no implication that this is a single event or a long, slow process of coming to a new awareness, living in a new realm. The point being made is that we creatures so bound to the earth and to the things of our lives need to be awakened, made alive, to the realities of God's Spirit if we are to follow the faith of Jesus. How that happens, when that happens, the means by which that coming to life happens to each of us is not addressed in the passage. Only the importance of a radical change of heart and mind.
The danger that I have seen and experienced in "born again" theology is the assumption that everyone must have the same experience of God. Everyone, they seem to say, will find God using these words, in this setting, and they will feel this way, or else that experience is deemed invalid. There is great danger in prescribing to God how God will work! God refuses to be put into any box, be it fundamentalist or liberal. Did you notice that wonderful verse 8? "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 with everyone who is born of the Spirit." You may just as well try to predict and control the winds as to pretend that you can predict how God will work in the lives of people. "Born again" people tend to try to do that when they think that their experience of God must be my experience of God, or it is illegitimate.
There is another danger in "born again" religion. And that is when it implyies that this decision to be born again happens but once and for all. Would that it were that simple! Faith, at least for me, demands daily renewal, daily vigilance, or else I can very quickly slide back (remember those "backslikders" mentioned in 1857?) into a purely material world, a world without the Spirit, a world removed from God. Spiritual renewal must be on-going, and daily.
There is another danger in a faith that overemphasizes a "born again" experience, and that is when being "born again" has to be some great emotional upheaval: the feeling of guilt, an act of repentance, the rush of forgiveness, a exhilaration of soul. Sometimes that happens. But the problem is, what happens when the feelings wane, the visions fade, the exhilaration is gone? If your religion is dependent upon some kind of feeling of God, an experience that lifts you above the mundane realities of daily life, when those feelings are gone, so too is the faith. And you may then decide that the whole affair was bogus in the first place, or you may pursue more experiences, going from meeting to meeting, in search of a mountaintop experience to match the one that first brought you to faith.
But while those are some dangers in what I am calling "born again" religion, there are some things to be learned from it too.
First, born again religion has a sense of urgency in it that we in more liberal settings lack. Sometimes we forget, or are never told, that there is a need for decision in faith: times to make choices about how we live and why we live, and where our priorities lay, what we believe, and are we really serious about following this man Jesus after all? Theologian Harvey Cox once said that "Not to decide IS to decide." In this context that means that never deciding to live by faith means that we have decided NOT to live by faith in Christ. Jesus certainly went around demanding decision: take a stand, make a choice . . . follow me now, even if that means following him to the death. Evangelical churches are good at challenging us to decision, and there are times in life when the decision must made.
Second, born again faith reminds us that we are, when all is said and done, creatures with great spiritual need. We need, in the words of Ezekiel, a "new heart." "I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh." We stand in need of grace, forgiveness, and evangelical faith can teach us that.
And third, "born again" religion insists on the immanence - the nearness of God. God, they tell us, is not removed from this world benignly watching from some distant galaxy, hoping for the best, yet powerless, unreachable. Sometimes that's how we picture God, you know. Born again Christians challenge us to encounter God here and now. "How dare you," that can justly say to us, "limit God to work only in certain ways, distant and removed and always merely cerebral!" Maybe, just maybe the experience of a living God is possible. At least we ought to allow God that option!
But not only can we learn from our born again sisters and brothers. They can learn from us too. They can learn that first of all God works in a variety of ways. Like the wind, God's Spirit will work in the world and in our lives as God wills, not how we expect. "How dare you limit God," we can say, "if you insist that only certain experiences using certain words are the only ways God can be known."
Second, we can challenge them to a faith that is outwardly focused. Sometimes conservative Christianity can become a kind of born again narsicism preoccupied with my relationship with Jesus, what God can do for me, how God makes me feel, how God answers my prayers, how big my heavenly mansion will be.
Third, we can remind them that faith is not once for all, but daily choices, a thousand made every day to live in the way of Christ as that way unfolds for us each day.
And last, born again Christians and the rest of us too can learn that God works in all kinds of ways - mysterious ways, odd ways to us, bizarre, unpredictable ways. God can never tamed. Not by fundamentalists or by liberals. God's grace just might be revealed to you someday when you are secretly watching Billy Graham on TV, or hearing a gospel song on the radio, or when politely listening as your born again neighbor witnesses to you. Or you might be surprised sometime by God's unspeakable glory listening to a Bach mass, or watching the sunset, or hearing the laugh of a child. God might show up in a movie or a play, in a bum on the street, some sentimental novel, a street preacher; who knows? God might even appear here in some way that so shakes your life that looking back on it you'd have to say that you've been born again! Amen.