2nd Sunday of Lent, 8 March 2020
Preacher: Canon Robert Titley
My aim this morning is to make the case for calling yourself a born-again Christian.
The phrase is used to poke fun at, say, someone who not only goes to church but actually take it seriously, rather as some people mock their earnest opponents as liberal snowflakes or uncooperative crusties. Sometimes, though, the victims claim the nickname for themselves – Methodist, Quaker and Tory all began as insults – and someone might plead guilty to being ‘born again’, as a way of saying that faith is not just a thing in their life but the thing that makes sense of their life.
But you ask, ‘Did I hear that phrase “born again” just now?’ You didn’t. The Greek word in John’s gospel (anōthen) means both ‘again’ and ‘from above’ but in English we have to go for one or the other, so we had ‘born from above’ in our version, while the King James Bible goes for ‘born again’. It’s like the film title ‘The King’s Speech’, which refers both to the speech the king has to give and to the way he speaks, a neat double meaning in English that may get lost in translation.
Now you may indeed take your faith seriously, but still won’t describe yourself as ‘born again’ because it has bad vibes: the big rally, the sleek (male) evangelist in shimmering suit persuading people that they need to say yes to Jesus, change their lives and Do It Now. It’s called crisis evangelism. We are not short of real crises – Syria, Covid 19, overheating oceans – and we have personal crises, and some these do require us to change our lives. But to manufacture an atmosphere of crisis you may see as manipulative.
And anyway, isn’t true faith is about the whole person, head, heart, will? You can’t change all that in one emotional instant. Coming to faith, you might say, is not a sudden, ‘crisis’ thing but a process. If you do, you have the Bible behind you. Faith images in the New Testament are of seeds growing, buildings being built (and that, as we recall in this our 800th anniversary year, can take a while). Think of that icon of faith, Abraham in the first reading. For him, faith means a very long walk into the unknown.
So why does Jesus say to Nicodemus, ‘Unless you are born again you cannot see the Kingdom of God’? Nicodemus, a flat-footed literalist, thinks that being ‘born again’ means rewinding the thread of your life until it turns into an umbilical cord and pulls you back into the womb. It’s one of several moments in John’s gospel when the person Jesus is talking to misunderstands him (we shall meet another next Sunday). But we may have misunderstood Jesus too.
His birth talk does suggest total change, a new form of life, but where did we get the idea that being born was instantaneous? No doubt my mother wished it could have been. And the moment when you and I began that quite long process of being born was itself at the end of a nine month process. Then, once you and I finally emerged, it would take another, even longer process to get us to a point when we could do much for ourselves. Time – patience – setbacks – and then more time. These are the marks of birth and new life, yet there’s no doubt that the life we live now is utterly different from the life we lived in the womb. Being born, then: a gradual process that makes a total difference. So being born again is not a bad image for the life of faith. Let’s see how it might fit you or me.
If you can say, ‘I am a Christian’, can you point to the moment when your life of faith began? If so, wonderful. If not, is that so important? When does biological life begin? People disagree, but there comes a point when everyone agrees that life is already there. If you are sensing some creative pressure in your life, if you feel you’re being pushed into something new, does this language of birth make sense of that? If so, what might this new birth be? Or do things already feel new, but your faith is rather wobbly on its legs? And we could go on. We can let our imaginations play with the phrase ‘born again’, that truly pregnant image, and see what comes.
An image is not a definition, and a particular image may help me but not you. That’s why Jesus and the writers in the Bible use different pictures to get across who God is and what God does. We have two today: Nicodemus and birth, Abraham and travel. Both are about time and patience, and it doesn’t matter which you prefer, as long as you give space to let it grow in your mind.
This season of Lent, when we remember Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, spiritual quarantine before the start of his ministry, is a time to do that. Where am I on the journey to the place God wants me to be? What stage has it reached, this new life that God has laboured to bring to birth in me? And if these questions sound individualistic, a bit me-centred, let’s look at another layer of meaning in the language of birth.
Physical birth brings you out of an intimate, private place into a world of belonging and commitment.
You have claims on others; in time they will have claims on you. You belong to them and they to you, simply because you are parent and child, brother and sister. The state has an interest in you, too: it demands that your birth be registered, sends people round to check up on you, then insists you are educated; in time it will ask you for money.
So if you and I are ‘born of God’ – ‘born from above’, the other meaning of our phrase – we belong to God, not because we have earned it, but in the way that a son or daughter belongs to a parent or carer. And we belong to each other, not in the way of people who happen to like each other and see eye to eye but in the way that brothers and sisters belong, though bound not by blood but by what Jesus calls ‘water and Spirit’.
The word identity comes to mind here – the answer I give to the question, Who am I? – something our culture sets a lot of store by. That too can be rather me-centred, but it shouldn’t be. You cannot fully answer the question Who am I? without asking Whose am I? Who do I belong to? Who has a claim upon me? No healthy society can avoid these questions, and one of the heartening things to come out of the coronavirus crisis has been the astonishing statistic that we have three million volunteers in health and social care, people who see the needs of others not as an irrelevance or a threat but as part of who they themselves are.
A healthy church will rejoice in this truth, that we have legitimate claims upon one another, both in our practical needs and also when it comes to exploring what God is up to in our lives. There are many people here, official and unofficial, at different stages on the journey of faith, that you or I can think aloud with about these things. So let us make good use of each other this Lent. We owe it to each other. It is what we were born for. Or born again.