Nicodemus and Being “Born Again”

2379445383–John 13:1-17

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.]

Art Class Evangelism

Monday morning I attended the first session of my collage class, taught by the wonderful artist Lora Jost. There were only three students, and at the end of the session, we each showed and explained the collages we had made.

One of my fellow students, a 20-something guy, explained that the small man in his collage represented feelings of sadness, darkness, isolation. The large hand in the collage represented the hand of safety, protection, help. It was the hand of God, which he had found to provide a sense of security and peace ever since he accepted Jesus.

This is the collage I created in class on Monday.

Awkward would be a good way to describe how I felt at that moment. And I have since wondered why I reacted this way.

I, like this young man, have found a sense of peace in my relationship with God through Jesus Christ. As a pastor, the proclamation of the gospel is my primary vocation. My heart should have rejoiced to hear someone share about their relationship with Jesus.

But my heart did not rejoice. My stomach dropped. Why?

Was it because this sharing was too intimate? Akin to someone I just met telling me about the great sex she had with her husband last night? And I’m really happy for them, but still . . .

Was my reaction because of a fear of the direction this might go? That he would proceed to sermon and altar call?

Was it simply a knee-jerk reaction to “evangelicalese”? Somehow the words “accepted Jesus Christ” automatically translated in my head to: “I get to go to heaven when I die, but you will go to hell if you don’t believe the same way I believe.”

Whatever the reasons for my negative reaction to this young man’s testimony, I would like my reaction to be different next time.

I want to value–rather than resent–the intimacies that are offered to me by other people. A glimpse–however dim–into someone else’s spiritual life is a beautiful thing.

And I want to trust others to have some sense of propriety and tact. Art class is not the place for sermons and altar calls; most people know this. And even if he had proceeded to ask us each if we had accepted Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world.

But mostly I hope my reaction is different next time because I need to get away from my aversion to “evangelical” language. For one thing, based on certain understandings of the word, I myself am an evangelical. For another thing, not everyone who uses phrases like “born again,” “saved by the blood,” and “personal Lord and Savior” think I’m going to hell. I should not rush to hasty assumptions.

Most importantly, I want to be able to use some (not all, but some) of that very language that causes the negative, knee-jerk reaction. I have accepted Jesus Christ into my life. I am a sinner in need of redemption. I don’t want to give up all the good words and phrases because some people use them in theologically inappropriate ways.

Maybe, as the class progresses, I will have a chance to learn more about this young man and his relationship with Jesus. Maybe I will have a chance to tell him a bit about my relationship with Jesus. Maybe we’ll both learn something–besides how to make a collage.

The Joneses and Evangelism

Friday night my husband and I watched The Joneses. It’s about a “family” that moves into a wealthy neighborhood for the sole purpose of marketing products. The cars, the golf clubs, the video game systems, the jogging suits, the frozen hors d’oeuvres—it’s all product placement.

The premise of the movie got me thinking about evangelism—the various ways people try to “sell” their faith. I remember hearing once that a successful high school para-church ministry had a very effective strategy: go into the school and recruit the popular kids; then those kids will recruit all the other kids. It’s the same strategy in play with the Joneses.

And it’s a strategy that flies in the face of the example set by Jesus. Fishermen, prostitutes, tax collectors . . . not exactly the Who’s Who of ancient Galilee.

Still, it’s not the popularity factor that bothers me the most. What is most disturbing about the Joneses is that they form relationships with people for the purpose of selling something. And I think that contemporary “friendship evangelism” techniques promote this same type of deception.

Yes, I know there is a difference between trying to get people to buy a flat panel TV and trying to get them to accept Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. Accepting Christ can enhance a person’s life immeasurably—both now and in the hereafter. (To be fair to the Joneses, though, I expect they really liked their TV and thought their neighbors’ lives would be better if they all had one.)

But the bottom line is that people want you to be in relationship with them because you sincerely enjoy being around them. Any ulterior motive–whether it’s selling sushi or selling Jesus—negates the friendship. Have you ever had a new “friend” who suddenly whipped out the Mary Kay catalog or the insurance policies or the Amway products? Ouch.

This is not to say that there is no acceptable way to sell products or to share your faith. If I walk into the hardware store, please, sell the me the whatchamathingy that goes on the doolybob in my toilet tank. If I walk into your place of worship or ask about your faith, feel free to tell me how your beliefs and practices will bring me joy and make me whole.

I think I have gained a new respect for the Latter Day Saints and the conservative Baptists who come knocking on my door. They believe that their faith will make my life better and they have come to tell me about it. I don’t agree with their theology (and I’m in the middle of dinner), but I respect the fact that they are up-front about their purpose.

There is a proper time and place for selling things. There is a faithful way to share about Jesus. By all means, if you love your iPod show it to your friends and tell them where they can get one. By all means, if your relationship with Jesus brings joy and peace and beauty to your life, tell your friends about it.

What strikes me as most morally repugnant about what the Joneses do is that they become friends with people in order to get them to buy stuff.  I simply don’t see how someone who becomes friends with someone in order to get them to go to a particular church or accept a particular set of beliefs has much of a moral high-ground over the Joneses.

Love, writes Paul, must be sincere.  Jesus calls us to love each other with nothing less than the love God has for us—a love that is pure, extravagant, and unconditional.