Readings: Genesis 4.12.1-4a, John 3.1-17
There are phrases we use to sum people up and poke a bit of fun at them: ‘bleeding heart liberal’, ‘Gucci socialist’, ‘tree-hugger’; and in church, ‘smells and bells’, ‘happy-clappy’. (I wonder what’s the opposite of ‘happy clappy’? ‘Mumbly grumbly’, perhaps.) Some nicknames the victims are happy to adopt for themselves – ‘Tories’, ‘Methodists’, ‘Quakers’ – and today’s gospel brings us one of these double-edged phrases.
‘Oh,’ someone says about a workmate, ‘she’s a born-again Christian,’ meaning – I guess – that she not only goes to church (which the person thinks a bit weird) but actually takes it all seriously (which is seriously weird). And she herself may be happy to say, ‘Yes, I am a born-again Christian’, to show that faith is not just an extra thing she has in her life but something that defines her life.
You may ask, ‘Did I hear that phrase “born again” just now?’ You didn’t. It’s not there in today’s translation. The Greek word in John’s gospel (anōthen) is double-edged in another way: it means both ‘again’ and ‘from above’ but the English version has to go for one or the other. It’s like the film title ‘The King’s Speech’, which refers both to the way the king speaks and to the oration he has to give – a clever touch in English that may get lost in translation. The King James version goes for the familiar ‘born again’.
Many who do take Christian faith seriously, however, do not describe themselves as ‘born again’. It has bad vibes: giant rallies, svelte evangelists persuading people that they need to make a decision then and there, give their lives to Jesus, make a new start, turn away from the past – and be born again. It’s called crisis evangelism. Such a person may see the events on the news – British planes in action over Libya (for the first time since 1943?), engineers braving a stricken nuclear plant – and say, ‘These are genuine crises. Manufacturing a crisis someone’s mind seems a cheap shot. And anyway, true faith is about the whole person, head, heart and will, and you can’t do all that in one emotional instant. For me, coming to faith for me is not a sudden, “crisis” thing, it’s a process.’ Say that, you have most of the Bible behind you. Images in the New Testament for coming to faith are of seeds growing, buildings being built (and builders can take quite a while). Think of Abraham this morning, whom St Paul sees as a classic case of faith in God (Romans 4.1-17). How did he express this faith? By setting off on a long journey into the unknown.
So why does Jesus say to Nicodemus, ‘Unless you are born again you can’t see the Kingdom of God’? It’s one of many moments in John’s gospel when the person he is talking to quite misunderstands him. Just as next week we’ll see a woman at a well who thinks that the living water Jesus offers can be pulled up out of the ground, so Nicodemus thinks that being ‘born again’ must mean rewinding the thread of your life until it turns into an umbilical cord and pulls you back into the womb. And we may misunderstand Jesus too. His image does suggest total change, a new form of life; but where did we get the idea that being born was sudden, instantaneous? Some of us took hours to get out of the womb. Instantaneous? No doubt my mother wished it could have been. And the moment when you and I went into that quite long process of being born was itself at the end of a very long process; nine months long, the last time I checked. Sudden? And once you and I emerged from those two long processes into this bright new world we were helpless, totally dependent. It would take another, even longer process to get us to a point when we could do anything useful for ourselves.
Time; patience; false starts; setbacks; and then more time: these are the marks of birth and new life. It’s death that can be sudden. That’s what gives the stories preoccupying us at the moment their poignancy: that a human life, that rich thing so long in the making, can be ended in an instant, by a bullet in the desert or a wave from the sea. Being born is more like the long trek of Abraham than something that happens in the twinkling of an eye. Yet there is no doubt that there is a difference, a complete difference, between the life we live now and the life we lived in the womb. Being born, then, is a gradual process that makes a complete difference; so being born again may not be a bad image for the life of faith. Let us see how it might fit you or me.
- If I can say, ‘I am a Christian’, can I point to the moment when my life of faith began? Well, when does biological life begin? People disagree. Some say it’s at conception; others say it’s later than that but can’t agree just when. But there comes a point when everyone agrees that life is there.
- If you say ‘I have the beginnings of faith, but just now it’s tiny, fragile’, or if you sense some pressure upon you, feel you’re being pushed into something quite new by a force that’s stronger than you are; well, it sounds like something’s being born there; what might it be?
- Or does this sound more like you? ‘Things already feel very different, but I’m looking around rather bewildered and I need some help’.
And so we could go on. Let’s allow our imaginations to play with the words ‘born again’, that truly pregnant phrase, and see what comes.
A particular image may help me but not you, or the person next to you. That’s why Jesus and the writers in the Bible use many different pictures to get across what God is doing among us. We have two today: birth and travel. It doesn’t matter which you prefer, as long as you give time to let it grow in your mind. This season of Lent, when we remember Jesus in the wilderness, setting course for his ministry, is a good time to do that. Where am I on the journey to the place God has promised me? What stage has it reached, this new life that God is labouring to bring to birth in me? And if these questions sound a bit individualistic, me-centred, let’s look at another layer of meaning in this image of being born again.
Physical birth brings you out of a private world into a web 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 you are registered, sends people round to check how you are doing; in time it will probably 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. And all of us here, we belong to each other, not in the way of people who happen to like each other or happen to see eye to eye. We belong in the way that brothers and sister belong.
That makes this a good setting in which to tackle the questions I’ve described, which is why each year we run a course which gives people space to look together at these very questions. It’s called Exploring Christianity, we meet for the second time today and it’s not too late to join (that is a decision you can make here and now). Alternatively, there are people that the church has taken great care to train so that you or I can think aloud with them about these things: spiritual directors, clergy, Pastoral Auxiliaries, Readers. They are all here, in this parish. So let’s – in the best sense of the word – use each other this Lent. We owe it to each other. It’s what brothers and sisters are for.