Rev. Dr. Alyce McKenzie, professor of preaching and worship at Perkins School of Theology, was sitting in the waiting area of her local discount tire store. She was reading a magazine when a pamphlet appeared in front of her face: “How to be born again.”
“Have you been born again?” The earnest 40-something man wanted to know.
Now, just in case you are planning a similar evangelism mission, I’ll give you a pointer. Do not ask a seminary professor if she has been born again. Unless you have time to listen to the answer.
McKenzie answered: “I’m glad you asked that question. I’ve been reflecting on Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John chapter 3 and I don’t think Jesus means ‘born again’ as if it were some emotional lightning strike that once it’s over, we speak of our salvation in the past tense, like, that’s done, now I have that checked off my to-do list. I think being born again calls for our participation, and I think it’s a lifelong process.”
It is interesting, really, that this phrase “born again” has become Christian-speak for being saved, for accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior. Interesting that so many people use this phrase to imply a dramatic conversion moment. Because the phrase comes from Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, who most certainly did not have a dramatic conversion moment.
To begin with, we should clear up this whole “born again” issue anyway. The Greek term used can mean “born again” or “born from above.” From the context in John, it seems pretty clear that Nicodemus takes it to mean “born again”–”surely a man cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb.” Jesus appears to mean “born from above”–not re-entering your mother’s womb, but being born of water and the Spirit. So if someone approaches you in the waiting room and asks if you’ve been “born from above,” at least you’ll know they’ve studied the Greek.
But born again or born from above, either way this is not a one-time dramatic conversion for Nicodemus. To begin with, we know that he came to Jesus “at night.” Which indicates some hesitation, some sneaking around. Rev. Dr.Margaret Hess calls Nicodemus the “patron saint of the curious.” I like that.
In his first encounter with Jesus, Nicodemus is not buying anything. He is not there to be convinced, to sell all he has and follow, to pray the prayer of salvation. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night to ask questions. To see this wonder-worker for himself and form his own opinions.
He comes at night because he does not want his buddies to know what he is doing. He might not even be sure he wants to do what he is doing. But he is curious. He wants to know more. And so he goes.
He says, “You know, Jesus, we’re all pretty impressed with these miracles you’ve been doing.”
At which point Jesus drags him into a bizarre conversation about being born from above, which is probably not the conversation Nicodemus was expecting to have. And suddenly the Pharisee Nicodemus, “Israel’s teacher,” becomes the student. Except he’s not even sure what it is he is supposed to be learning. The last words we hear from Nicodemus in this scene are: “How can this be?”
He is baffled and befuddled. Not what the earnest man in the tire shop had in mind when he asked Alyce McKenzie if she had been born again.
It is interesting to me that Nicodemus’ initial encounter with Jesus becomes the identifying feature of Nicodemus. In John 7, he is presented as “Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier.” And in John 19 he is identified as “Nicodemus, the man who had earlier visited Jesus at night.”
Even though we don’t know what Nicodemus believes about Jesus; even though Nicodemus himself might not know what he believes about Jesus; he is, nonetheless, defined by his encounter with Jesus. That initial conversation with Jesus under the cover of night means something to Nicodemus. It changes him–somehow, slowly, it changes him.
I know that some people do have radical conversion stories. I also know that there are also a lot of us Nicodemuses. Those of us who are curious. Who want to ask questions and then need time to wonder about the answers. There are some of us who, after years of knowing Jesus, still aren’t sure exactly what we think about him. We don’t know exactly what we believe.
And yet, he has changed our lives. Slowly. Somehow. We are more and more defined by our encounters with him. More and more motivated by our love for him.
And this, too, is a path of discipleship worth walking. A story worth telling.
[This post is excerpted from a sermon. You can read the entire text here. Also, check the blog index for more worship material related to this week's Lectionary readings.]