Born Anew

The Lenten theme of the United Methodist Church this year is “Living Our Baptismal Calling.” I opened this discussion back in January when we celebrated Jesus baptism. Today I want to explore what it means to be “Born Again,” or “Born Anew” as I prefer. We will look at three questions: What has this phrase meant in scripture and history? What is the cultural significance of this phrase? And what meaning can we give this phrase in our life and in the life of our church.

So let's begin at the beginning, in Genesis. I have asked some of our choir to help with the readings, so we might hear from different voices. The first passage is based on Genesis 12: 1-4. God is speaking to Abram.

Reading 1:

Reader 1: Go from your country
Reader 2: I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you.
Reader 1: Go from your kindred:
Reader 2: I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.
Reader 1: Go from your father’s house.
Reader 2: I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse.
Reader 1: Go to the land that I will show you.
Reader 2: And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

In Genesis, God is calling Abram to be born again. The call to be born again is the call to leave everything familiar and begin a new life in an unknown land far away. This is no ordinary journey, not even a pilgrimage. On a pilgrimage, people set out to a new place or a holy place to learn something and return where they came from with some new insight for living back home. Abram’s call is to leave everything familiar, to completely start over, be have a completely new life. There are no certainties. Abram doesn't know what this new land and new life will be like. He has only God's promises. His experience is something like the experience of the millions since Abram who have immigrated to other countries, including the vast majority of the population of the current United States , including all our ancestors. When Abram answers God's call, he steps out in faith. He is, in sense, born again and he will become someone entirely new. That process of becoming a new person took a long while and, as you remember, it was not a straight, smooth road. But because of his faith, Abram eventually became Abraham, father of a great nation and our spiritual ancestor.

Now let's skip forward about 2000 years or so and turn to Paul's letter to the church in Rome, Romans 4:1-5 and 13-17 to see what he had to say about this idea of being born again.

Reading 2:
1 So what are we going to say? Are we going to find that Abraham is our ancestor on the basis of genealogy? 2 Because if Abraham was made righteous because of his actions, he would have had a reason to brag, but not in front of God. 3 What does the scripture say? Abraham had faith in God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. 4 Workers' salaries aren't credited to them on the basis of an employer's grace but rather on the basis of what they deserve. 5 But faith is credited as righteousness to those who don't work, because they have faith in God who makes the ungodly righteous.
13 The promise to Abraham and to his descendants, that he would inherit the world, didn't come through the Law but through the righteousness that comes from faith. 14 If they inherit because of the Law, then faith has no effect and the promise has been canceled. 15 The Law brings about wrath. But when there isn't any law, there isn't any violation of the law. 16 That's why the inheritance comes through faith, so that it will be on the basis of God's grace. In that way, the promise is secure for all of Abraham's descendants, not just for those who are related by Law but also for those who are related by the faith of Abraham, who is the father of all of us. 17 As it is written: I have appointed you to be the father of many nations. So Abraham is our father in the eyes of God in whom he had faith, the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that don't exist into existence.

Romans reminds us of what may have become by now an “old Protestant saw”—we are justified by faith and not by works. Abraham was judged to be righteous because of his faith, not because of his good deeds. We may hear this with really understanding its meaning. Indeed, it may have become so familiar that we can hardly hear its actual message at all. Our new life in God's family comes about through God's grace and our faith, not our heritage, not our family and not our good deeds. If fact, most of our towering Biblical heroes, including and especially God's beloved David, were not always “good people.” But they loved God and had faith in Him and God's grace never failed them.

Paul offers all of us, if we will truly hear him, a powerful critique of the way many of us live our lives with God and each other. Do we treat our relationship with God as something earn we by what we do, by “being good” or at least “not being bad” on the basis of some checklist of good or bad behavior? You know the saying, “rules are made to be broken.” And so as long as we are living by the Law, that is by rules, we will always come up short. On our own, we can't hit the mark of perfection.

Do we ultimately measure our relationship with God using some “career ladder” or “success chart”? We go to church every Sunday. We even go to Sunday School and are present every time the doors open. We are materially successful. We give to the church and other charities. We check all the “good” boxes. But when we rely on our own merit, we will always come up short. On our own, we can't hit the mark of perfection.

Abram was judged righteous not because he was good, or not bad, or because he was successful, or because he had the right ideas. He was judged righteous because he trusted God enough to keep going where God led him, even when that meant a long journey for him and his family to start over in an unknown land far away. That’s faith!

Now let's hear what Jesus had to say.

Reading 3: John 3: 1-17 (CEB)
1 There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader.2 He came to Jesus at night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him."3 Jesus answered, "I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it's not possible to see God's kingdom."4 Nicodemus asked, "How is it possible for an adult to be born? It's impossible to enter the mother's womb for a second time and be born, isn't it?"5 Jesus answered, "I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it's not possible to enter God's kingdom. 6 Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit.7 Don't be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.'8 God's Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don't know where it comes from or where it is going. It's the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit."9 Nicodemus said, "How are these things possible?"10 “Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don't know these things?11 I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don't receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you don't believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?13 No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One.14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.16 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won't perish but will have eternal life.17 God didn't send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

Why “born anew,” or “born again” as the King James language says, or “new birth” as John Wesley called it? Nicodemus was confused. Some scholars suggest that the confusion comes from the fact that the Greek word for again might also mean “a second time” or “from above.” And Jesus clarified that he meant “from above” or being born of the Spirit. However, Jesus and Nicodemus were likely speaking Aramaic, in which there would be no confusion of the words. So, as with much scripture, we are left to find the intention of the gospel writer that goes beyond the literal story. Maybe the confusion was inserted to emphasis the point. As a matter of fact, this is only one of two places in the New Testament in which the phrase “born again” is used. The other is 1 Peter 1:22-23 22 As you set yourselves apart by your obedience to the truth so that you might have genuine affection for your fellow believers, love each other deeply and earnestly. 23 Do this because you have been given new birth—not from the type of seed that decays but from seed that doesn't. This seed is God's life-giving and enduring word.

So this phrase “born again, new birth, rebirth, born anew” is scarcely mentioned in the Bible, yet it has become a foundation of understanding ourselves a Christian. When we accept God's gift of grace into our life, our mind, our heart we become a new creature, one not measured by rules, but one redeemed and accepted into God's family. When I was born, I became the child of my parents, Clara Nelle and John Park Taylor. Some children acquire additional parents through adoption, re-marriage, foster parents and guardians. But when I am born of the Spirit, I become a child of God.

But, unfortunately, this phrase “born again” has another side in our culture. The term was picked up in the late 60s and early 70s by those Christians who were beginning to identify themselves as “evangelicals.” Now before this time, I thought all Christians, by definition, had been born again and all Christians were supposed to be evangelical, that is share the gospel story with others. But these new evangelicals used the phrase “born-again” to refer to a certain kind of conversion experience, accepting Jesus in order to be saved from hell and have eternal life in heaven. Moreover, these new evangelicals began to use the term used to distinguish “true belivers” from other “lesser” Christians. So the question “Have you been born again?” became a litmus test, to determine if a person belonged to the right group of Christians. Beginning with Jimmy Carter, the question entered the political area. It became identified with exclusiveness, rather than inclusiveness. In the view of some, Catholics were not “born again;” Episcopals were not “born again;” Methodists were not “born again” because we didn't share that particular tradition of salvation and baptism. “Born Again” became a term that I ran away from and only returned to because it is the Lenten topic for this Sunday.

So you see, I changed the title from “Born Again” to “Born Anew.” Is there a difference and what difference does it make? In my mind, “born again” has acquired too much cultural baggage to be meaningful. It suggests a one-time, dramatic action; a baptism by immersion. It suggests exclusion, not inclusion. It suggests something that “I” must do to be saved.

But doesn't God tell me over and over throughout the Bible from Genesis to Revelation and throughout history that “I” can do nothing to save myself. From the beginning, in the story of Abraham that we read today, we see that God is initiating action and we are called to step out in faith, not knowing where our journey will take us. Just as I could not initiate, direct or complete my physical birth, I cannot initiate, direct or complete my spiritual birth. To be born of the Spirit, is to accept God's gracious offer of a new life, to become His child. So new birth, rebirth, is the beginning of a life lived differently. It is starting over, just as Abraham did, just as Jesus called Nicodemus to do. It is the beginning of a life lived with our focus lifted to God's purposes. Being born anew is a process that happens every day. It happens when we pray, when we read scripture, when we hear the Word from others, when we perform acts of love and charity, when we sing, when we worship.

Our baptism, by whatever tradition it was received, is a public acknowledgement of an inward, personal, spiritual experience. It is the outward sign of our new birth, our new life in the Spirit. When we remember our baptism, we are remembering that we have been received into God's household, as his child and that we inherit his promises. The new life we have received is here and now. We don't have to wait until we die to receive it.

It occurs to me that the concept of new birth is also applicable to the church. If we cannot save our own souls by our actions, good deeds, right living, then how can we, even with our collective efforts, save our church. We can't. But God can. Can the church be born anew? Let me repeat what I said earlier, but this time, think about our church. To be born of the Spirit, is to accept God's gracious offer of a new life. So new birth, rebirth, is the beginning of a life lived differently. It is the beginning of a life lived with our focus lifted to God's purposes. Being born anew is a process that we must engage in daily. It happens when we pray, when we read scripture, when we sing, when we worship, when we love and serve.

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