Again, Part I: The Transformation of Self
(This sermon is also available in audio.)
I invite you to join me in a brief moment of prayer. I am going to use a prayer from St. Augustine.
The title of my sermon today is "Born Again." I see my sermons today and tomorrow as a two-part series, as two parts of a whole, and both parts are equally important. Today I'm going to speak about the personal transformation that lies at the very center of the Christian life, and I am going to speak about that by talking about being born again. Tomorrow I'm going to speak about the social transformation that lies at the center of the Christian life by preaching about the kingdom of God. Together these two well-known phrases from the New Testament--"born again" and "the kingdom of God"--can provide a vision of what it means to be a Christian in our times. I turn to today's topic, Born Again, the personal, individual, internal transformation at the center of the Christian life.
I want to begin by acknowledging that I think it's unfortunate that we in the mainline denominations have tended to let our more conservative Christian brothers and sisters have a near monopoly on the language of "born again." I think there are a number of reasons that we have done that. The language might be a bit hot and heavy for us, perhaps. And most of us have known at least one person who was born again in a singularly unattractive way. From your laughter I can tell you know exactly what I mean. When the born again experience leads to an even greater sense of self-righteousness or judgmentalism, it's not the born again experience, or there's an awful lot of static in it. Moreover, sometimes being born again is very narrowly defined in some Christian circles as if it's the same as receiving the gift of the Spirit, particularly the gift of tongues. Or it's defined even more narrowly, yet, in the left-behind novels that have been on the New York Times bestseller list of the last several years, those novels about the rapture and the second coming. In one of those novels that I've read, believing in the rapture and the imminent second coming of Jesus is defined as the meaning of being born again.
But it is a much broader notion, a much more comprehensive notion than any of these narrow meanings. It is, as I've already said, at the very center of the Christian life, and I think we need to reclaim it. And so, in my sermon today I'm going to speak about its centrality, its meaning, and its application to our lives.
The classic born again text is, of course, the story of Jesus and Nicodemus at the beginning of the third chapter of John's Gospel, which happens to be the lectionary text for the second Sunday of Lent this year. Let me briefly remind you of some of the details of this well-known story. It is rich in symbolism, missed connections, and double meanings as so many stories from John's Gospel are.
It begins with Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night, and already we have the first symbolic touch. Nicodemus is in the dark. And darkness and light are central images in John's Gospel. The Christian life is about coming in out of the dark and becoming enlightened. And Nicodemus addresses Jesus in flattering, but, I think, sincere terms. He says, "We know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one could do the signs that you do unless he were from God." Jesus responds in such a way as to suggest it's not about signs, it's not about miracles, it's about being born again. Specifically, Jesus responds by saying, "Very truly I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above."
Here we have the first of the double meanings. The Greek phrase translated born from above also can be translated born again. Translators have struggled with whether to translate it as born from above or born again, but it's clear that the author of John intends both meanings. To be born again is to be born from above, to be born of the Spirit.
Now it is Nicodemus' turn again. He doesn't get it, and he asks, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into one's mother's womb and be born again?"
Nicodemus takes Jesus' words literally. Nicodemus is a literalist. And so, Jesus repeats himself. "You must be born from above. You must be born again." And then, Jesus adds, "The wind blows where it chooses." Here we have the next double meaning; in fact, a triple meaning, because the Greek word translated as wind, pneuma, also means breath and spirit. So, Jesus is saying, the wind blows where it chooses; the breath of God blows where it chooses; the Spirit blows where it chooses. He continues: "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."
That's the classic text. As I recall, "born again" occurs only one more time in the New Testament, but the notion, even though not the phrase, is utterly central to the rest of the New Testament. We see it in the New Testament's emphasis upon death and resurrection, dying and rising, as a metaphor for the psychological spiritual process, the psychological spiritual transformation at the center of the Christian life. This language of death and resurrection, dying and rising, is central to Jesus, the Gospels, Paul and John.
In the Synoptic Gospels [Matthew, Mark and Luke] we see it highlighted, especially in the great central section of Mark's Gospel that both Matthew and Luke take over--that runs from Mark 8:27 through the end of the 10th chapter of Mark. It is the story of Jesus' final journey to Jerusalem. Mark turns it into a metaphorical narrative of what it means to follow Jesus, of what discipleship means.
Three times in that great central section, the Jesus of Mark speaks of his own impending death and resurrection in Jerusalem. After each of these three predictions of the Passion, as they are called, Jesus speaks of following him on that path--perhaps most famously in that verse: "If any person would come after me, let that person take up their cross and follow after me." To follow Jesus is to follow him on that path of dying and rising, death and resurrection.
We also find it in Paul in more than one place, but perhaps most compactly in the second chapter of Galatians. In Galatians 2:20, Paul writes about himself. Listen to how the language works. Paul writes, "I have been crucified with Christ." (Paul speaks of himself as having undergone an internal death.) Then he continues, "It is no longer I who live." (No longer I, the old Paul, who lives.) "But it is Christ who lives in me." Paul has been reborn in Christ.
In a way, John's Gospel as a whole, not just the Nicodemus text [focuses on this theme], but one verse crystallizes it from the 12th chapter. It is the well-known verse where the Jesus of John says, "Unless a grain of wheat is cast into the earth and dies, it will not bear much fruit." We are told he is referring to his death and resurrection.
This path of death and resurrection is also what the journey of Lent is about. Lent is about participating in that final journey of Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem. This path of death and resurrection, of dying and rising, is what being born again means. What does this mean in terms of its application to our lives? Somewhat abstractly, it means dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being. It means dying to an old identity and being born into a new identity--an identity in the Spirit, in Christ, in God.
Why do we need to be born again? I think we all do for two somewhat closely related reasons. The first of these reasons is because of something that happens to us very early in life, perhaps in the stage of infancy and certainly in the pre-verbal stage by the time we are toddlers. It's that emerging awareness of the distinction between the self and the world. If you have very good parenting, perhaps it takes a while for that awareness to emerge, because the world seems like an extension of yourself. You get hungry; you get fed. You get wet; you get changed. You get lonely and cry; you get picked up. But at some point, that awareness of the distinction between one's self and the world emerges, and with the birth of self-consciousness--self-awareness--the natural result is that one becomes anxious about the self. One becomes concerned about the self, focused on the self.
I think this is in a way one of the central meanings of the Garden of Eden story, the story of the fall. We begin our lives in paradise as it were, with a sense of undifferentiated union with what is life in the presence of God--life in the garden of delights--and the birth of self-consciousness begins our existence east of Eden. This is something we all go through.
The second reason is because of the result of growing up. By the time we are adolescents, perhaps earlier, our sense of who we are--our sense of identity--is the produce of our socialization, the product of our culture, the product of all those cultural messages we get while we're growing up. We feel okay or not okay about ourselves to the extent that we measure up to all of those messages that we've gotten. Our identity is grounded in that. Thus, we fall further into the world of separation, alienation, comparison, judgment of self, and of others. We identify ourselves with what the contemporary Benedictine spiritual author, trainer and contemplative prayer Thomas Keating calls the false self--that self that is a reflection of culture; that self whose identity is grounded in being a certain kind of way.
The whole process of being born again is about dying to that false self and being reborn into our true self. Being born again involves dying to that identity, dying to that way of being, and born into an identity centered in God, Christ, the Spirit. This experience can be sudden and dramatic. It is for some people. Some people can name the day or the week or the month in which they felt a radical change in their lives occur in relationship to God. But for the majority of us, I suspect, it is a more gradual and incremental process, a process that goes on throughout a lifetime--perhaps a process that occurs several times in a lifetime in periods of major transition. Indeed, it is even sometimes a daily rhythm in that daily remembering of God or reminding ourselves of the reality of God that can raise us up momentarily out of our self-preoccupation and burdensome confinement.
The spiritual mentor of my childhood as a Lutheran, Martin Luther, speaks of daily dying and rising with Christ. That often fits my experience. We can even be intentional about this process. Indeed, I see this as the central meaning of spirituality. There's nothing terribly mysterious about spirituality. Spirituality is paying attention to our relationship with God. Spirituality is about becoming intentional about this process of being born again. You can't make it happen, but you can be more open to the blowing of the Spirit, to the wind that moves where it will by being intentional about the process.
That is what the session of Lent is about, about being born again, about following the path of death and resurrection, about participating in Jesus' final journey. To become somewhat more concrete as I move toward the final part of my sermon, some of us may need to die to specific things in our lives--perhaps to a behavior that has become destructive or dysfunctional, perhaps to a relationship that has ended or gone bad, perhaps to an unresolved grief or to a stage in our life that it is time to leave, perhaps to our self-preoccupation, or even to a deadness in our lives. (You can die to deadness.) It is possible to leave the land of the dead. So, the journey of Lent is about being born again--about dying and rising, about mortality and transformation.
On Ash Wednesday, as you all know, we Christians are traditionally reminded of our own mortality in a very vivid way. As the ashes are marked on our foreheads in the sign of the cross, we hear the words spoken over us, "Dust thou art and to dust thou wilt return." This is a reminder not just of our physical mortality, but of the very path of Lent itself. We begin this season of Lent not only reminded of our death but marked for death, and that path of death is about our transformation.
The journey of Lent is about being born again by participating in the death and resurrection of Jesus, about that journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. The journey of Lent with its climax in Good Friday and Easter, is about embarking on the way of Jesus on that path of mortality and transformation that is at the very center of the Christian life. When you think of it, who of us does not yearn for this? Who of us does not yearn for a fuller connection to life? Who does not yearn for an identity that releases us from anxiety and self-preoccupation? To be born again, it seems to me, corresponds to our deepest yearning. May we this Lent experience that internal transformation that is at the center of the Christian life. May we experience being born again.
Copyright 2002 Dr. Marcus J. Borg
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