Being Born Again – (John 3:1-17)
One day, when I was in my college years, I was reading the newspaper in the library lobby. A guy whom I had never met before approached me and asked, “Hello, I have a couple of questions for you. Do you believe in Jesus?”
Well, assuming he was doing something relating to campus ministry, I answered, “Yes, I do.”
“Are you saved?” —“I believe so.”
“So you are, of course, born again, aren’t you?”
The questions the guy asked made me feel uncomfortable because it felt like he was measuring my faith with those questions.
When you hear the word, “born again,” what do you think of or feel? I guess this term may be a bit heavy for some or many of us. Unfortunately, sometimes the notion of being born again is used by some Christians to make themselves feel more Christian and others feel less Christian. Moreover, sometimes being born again is very narrowly defined in some Christian circles as if it is the same as receiving the gift of the Spirit, particularly the gift of tongues. But it is a very rich and comprehensive notion. And it is at the very center of the Christian life.
The notion of being born again is central to the New Testament, and we find one in John’s gospel today. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, looking for answers. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
It’s not a question, but Jesus knows Nicodemus has a questioning heart. Jesus looks him straight in the eyes and says, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
“How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” Nicodemus doesn’t get the symbolic meaning of this language. He takes the metaphor of being “born again” literally and wants to know how one can possibly return to the womb.
Jesus answers, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (3:5-8).
Jesus emphasizes three times here that to be “born again” is to be “born of the Spirit.” To be born again is to enter new life in and through the Spirit – a life centered in the Spirit. What Nicodemus needs is a spiritual rebirth, an internal rebirth, “a personal transformation.” This is what we all need and this is what we are talking about now.
You see, in order for one “to be born again,” death should come first. To be born again involves “death and resurrection,” “dying and rising.” If you read the Gospels and the rest of the New Testaments carefully, you can find that the notion of being “born again” is often expressed metaphorically in the language of death and resurrection, dying and rising.
For example, in the gospel of Mark chapters 8-10, in the story of Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem, Jesus speaks of following him in 8:34: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Here, the cross was a symbol of death in the first century. Now we tend to interpret the word “cross” as a loose metaphor for whatever suffering or inconvenience might come one’s way, but it meant death at that time. So to follow Jesus means to follow him on the path of death. And to make sure that we understand this metaphorically, Luke in his gospel adds the word “daily” to the phrase to “take up their cross.”
And in Mark 8 Jesus speaks of his own impending death and resurrection three times. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering… and be ‘KILLED,’ and after three days ‘RISE’ again” (8:31).
The point is that Jesus spoke about dying as the path to new life, and that to follow Jesus is to follow him on his path – the path of dying and rising, of death and resurrection. That’s the path of being born again – the path of personal transformation.
Also, in Galatians 2:20, Apostle Paul writes about himself. Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ.” Here Paul speaks of himself as having undergone an internal death. Then he continues, “It is no longer I who live,” which means no longer I, the old Paul, who lives. “But it is Christ who lives in me.” Paul has been reborn in Christ.
Let me sum up this notion. To be born again is a metaphor for personal transformation. It comes through the path of death and resurrection, dying and rising – dying to an old identity and being born into a new identity – a new identity centered in the Spirit, in Christ. For Paul, that is a new creation. “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; look, new things have come into being!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Then why do we need to be born again? To answer this question, we need to understand the human condition. In the story of Garden of Eden, there is a charming reference to Adam and Eve enjoying the intimacy with God as God used to visit them in the cool of the evening. Genesis 3:8 says, “[Adam and Eve] heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” You see, they had an easy relationship with God.
But as you know, sin entered through their disobedience. As soon as they ate the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they became self-conscious; they experienced themselves not only as separate from God but also, because of their sin, as alienated from God. So when God called to them and said, “Where are you?” they headed for the woods. They had to hide from God because the loss of the intimacy and union that they had enjoyed with Him in the paradise was so painful.
Now the problem is that, like Adam and Eve, that’s what we all go through. What we experience is to be without the true source of happiness, which is the kind of intimacy with God that Adam and Eve had enjoyed before they fell. We feel we are separated, alienated from God. The natural result is that we become so anxious and concerned about our ‘self,’ frantically searching for happiness in the wrong place: where there is more success, pleasure, security, power, recognition… It results in living a life of profound self-centeredness—a life of self-concerns, self-preoccupation, believing that we can find happiness or the meaning of life when we gratify our self-centered desires.
After all, metaphorically, we live our lives outside of paradise, “east of Eden” – in a world of estrangement and self-preoccupation. Traditionally we call it a life in bondage to the power of Sin and death. This is the human condition. And that’s why we need to be born again.
The born-again experience can be some kind of sudden and dramatic events, as in the case of Saul who encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus and became Paul. But for the majority of us, being born again is not a single intense experience, but a gradual process. Dying to an old identity and being born into a new identity is a process that continues a lifetime.
As it goes on throughout a lifetime, it can occur each day. Apostle Paul says, “I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily!” (1 Corinthians 15:31). “I die daily” echoes Jesus’ command to those who want to follow him: “take up their cross daily” (Luke 9:23). Martin Luther also spoke of “daily dying and rising with Christ.”
In his book, The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg comments, “The born-again metaphor applies to a micro-rhythms of daily life.” Let me tell you how it applies to a brief moment in a day for me.
In the course of a day, I sometimes realize that I feel burdened in life or I feel distant from God. You know, to me it is the time when I am so terribly caught up in some activity or kidnapped by some worry or striving that I forget God. When I notice in that moment that I am forgetting God, I do a simple thing. I simply remember God, remember that God is present right here and right now.
This act of remembering God can come with a simple exercise, like a breathing exercise. I breathe in and out consciously and touch each breath with my mindfulness.
Sometimes I look around, trying to be aware of the beauty of nature; as I look at the sky, trees, or birds, I say in mind, “present moment, wonderful moment.” Sometimes I pray, “God, I am entirely yours. Do with me according to your heart.”
In any case, daily remembering God or reminding ourselves of the reality of God can raise us up momentarily out of our self-preoccupation and burdensome confinement.
At this point, I’d like to make this clear. To be born again is the work of the Spirit. We cannot make it happen, either by strong desire and determination or by learning and believing the right beliefs. But we can be “INTENTIONAL” about being born again. We can midwife the process. Then what can we do?
The answer is simple, though challenging. We should become intentional about deepening our relationship with God. Remember? We are all already in relationship with God because God is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without Him; in God we live, move, and have our being.
Though God is “Mystery,” there is nothing mysterious about paying attention to our relationship with God. We do so in the ways we pay attention in human relationship: by spending time in it, attending to it, being thoughtful about it – through the simple means of worship, prayer, spiritual practices, and a life of compassion and justice (ministry and mission). You know, I mentioned this last week, but we cannot emphasize this too much.
As we pay more attention to that relationship through those means of practices, our relationship with God will get deepened. We will experience transformation. We will experience daily dying and rising with Christ.
My friends, we all need to be born again and again and again, daily and even moment by moment. This is at the heart of the Christian life.
In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.