John 3:1-17; John 7:45-52; John 19:38-42
October 14, 2012
Alyce McKenzie, the 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 had picked up one of those women’s magazines and was reading something about supercharging her metabolism when someone sat down next to her. Which made her uncomfortable, because she was in the middle of a row of empty seats. Then a pamphlet appeared in front of her face, blocking the information about metabolism.
The pamphlet said, “How to be born again.” And sure enough, the inevitable question soon followed: “Have you been born again?” The earnest 40-something man wanted to know.
Now, I doubt that any of you are planning to engage in this particular type of evangelism any time soon, but just in case, 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.
After an awkward pause, the man said, “Well, have you?”
And so, 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.”
If she had said “yes,” the guy would have known how to respond. If she had said “no,” he would have known how to respond. But discussing salvation as a life-long process? He just took back his pamphlet and moved on.
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.
In his book, The Church after Christendom, author Stuart Murray suggests that there has been a shift in Christian thinking about conversion in the last couple of decades. People who are part of what we might label as “evangelical” Christian traditions used to have the same idea that this earnest man in the tire shop had–your salvation happened at a particular point in time when you accepted a particular set of beliefs. Being “born again”–your second birth–was just as dramatic and irreversible as your first birth.
But more recently, Murray suggests, there is a greater understanding within the church that our journeys toward faith are often more of a gradual process than one dramatic moment. That perhaps we are all being converted, being saved, being born again–which makes it hard to draw hard lines between those who have been born again and those who haven’t. We talk more about “process conversion” than “crisis conversion.”
I personally appreciate this shift in thinking, because my conversion was–and continues to be–a process. At my ordination interview, one of the Leadership Commission members asked me when I came to faith, when I accepted Jesus. He wanted a time and a place and maybe what I had for breakfast that day. Because becoming a Christian was, in his mind, an event. A life-altering event that I should remember as if it were yesterday. And perhaps he met Jesus that way. I should have asked him, afterward, about his story.
But I can’t give a time or a place for my conversion. I can talk about the household of faith in which I was nurtured. I can talk about my baptism. I can talk about some times when I felt particularly connected with God, some of the things God has done with and through me. I can talk about my call to ministry. But I can’t identify a date and time that I was “born again.”
And neither can Nicodemus.
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. Another 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 to Jesus at night.
He says, “You know, 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.
The next time we see Nicodemus is in John 7. The Pharisees are upset because the temple guards did not bring Jesus to them. “Good grief,” they say, “has this Jesus deceived you, too? All of us rulers know what’s what, but there’s some kind of curse on this mob that’s listening to all of his nonsense!”
Nicodemus is there. Nicodemus is a Pharisee. And I don’t know how the conversation in his head went. But eventually he speaks up. It’s not a bold defense of Jesus. But it is something. Nicodemus says, “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?”
Like I said, it’s not much. But it’s enough to turn the sarcastic ire of the Pharisees away from the guards and toward Nicodemus: “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.”
After this, Nicodemus only makes one more appearance in scripture. It is in John 19, after Jesus has been crucified. Nicodemus brings about seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloes and, along with Joseph of Arimathea, he wraps Jesus’ body for burial.
Is this the act of a man who has finally been “born again”? I don’t know. But it is surely the act of a man who has come to love Jesus deeply.
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 those radical conversion stories; there are people who hear the voice of Jesus, leave their boats, and hit the road; there are alcoholics who find Jesus and quit drinking that instant; thieves who get saved and give back all the money they stole; any number of Hollywood-worthy stories about being “born again.”
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.
And this path gives us new questions to ask of each other. Not simplistic “yes/no” questions like, “Have you been born again?”. But interesting, lovely questions like, “Where have you met Jesus?” “What do you think of him so far?” “How is your life different because of him?”
I suppose this approach won’t produce very good pamphlets. But I think it will make for more faithful and honest lives.