"Are you a Christian, or are you a Born Again Christian?"
I can say I can remember exactly the first time I ever heard this question, or under what circumstances the question was asked, but I can remember my answer:
"Ah yes", the typical loyal reader of this blog muses, "the kind of in-depth response I've come to expect 'From Bryan's Office'. Thank you Reverend Bucher."
Yeah, I know it's not the most intelligent thing I've ever written, but it does give you good insight into my state of mind. I was genuinely confused. I mean, what on earth is the difference between a Christian, and a Born Again Christian? And what the heck was a "Born Again Christian" anyway?
I didn't grow up in a church where that kind of terminology was ever used. I'm a life-long United Methodist. While there are some UM churches that talk that way, most of them don't. It's not a phrase that's used much. "Are you a Christian, or a Born Again Christian?"
I do remember though, that because of my response, the person asking the question began to clarify what they meant by, first, opening ridiculing me for not knowing what "Born Again Christian" meant, and second, by telling me that I probably wasn't really a Christian because I wasn't a "Born Again Christian". I didn't know what it meant to be "Born Again".
Now, me not being the sharpest tack in the drawer, after this exchange ended, I was still somewhat confused. And being that in those days there was no internet, and to my knowledge we owned no concordance of any kind, I had to go to my Living Bible (which really wasn't a Bible, but was actually a paraphrase) and just started reading the Gospels, until I found it. Jesus, talking about being born again:
1 After dark one evening, a Jewish religious leader named Nicodemus, a Pharisee, 2 came to speak with Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "we all know that God has sent you to teach us. Your miraculous signs are proof enough that God is with you." 3 Jesus replied, "I assure you, unless you are born again, you can never see the Kingdom of God." 4 "What do you mean?" exclaimed Nicodemus. "How can an old man go back into his mother's womb and be born again?" 5 Jesus replied, "The truth is, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. 6 Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives new life from heaven. 7 So don't be surprised at my statement that you must be born again. 8 Just as you can hear the wind but can't tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can't explain how people are born of the Spirit." 9 "What do you mean?" Nicodemus asked. 10 Jesus replied, "You are a respected Jewish teacher, and yet you don't understand these things? 11 I assure you, I am telling you what we know and have seen, and yet you won't believe us. 12 But if you don't even believe me when I tell you about things that happen here on earth, how can you possibly believe if I tell you what is going on in heaven? 13 For only I, the Son of Man, have come to earth and will return to heaven again. 14 And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so I, the Son of Man, must be lifted up on a pole, 15 so that everyone who believes in me will have eternal life. 16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. 17 God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but to save it.
There was that phrase, again and again again: "Born Again". Or in Greek, "gennao anoqen" meaning to be converted or excited by God or from above by heaven. Converted or excited by God or by heaven, by the Spirit, or pneuma, which means "breath of God".
You must be born again. Huh?
I don't think I need to feel bad that I don't understand what the phrase "born again" means. Nicodemus, the Pharisee who Jesus describes as a "respected Jewish teacher", doesn't get this either. I think that's what Jesus has done to Nicodemus, and many of his colleagues. The miracles that have been witnessed by himself and others like him, not stories of miracles, but actual first-hand accounts, have convinced the religious experts of his time that Jesus is for real. So "for real" that he's shaken their confidence in what they thought they knew about God, what God wanted, and what God could do.
I understand this. I hate it, for example, when people leave the church I serve as a pastor to go to another one. It gnaws at me. I wonder what it is that church, or that pastor, has, that we, or more aptly, I, don't. Of course, I don't think twice when people leave another church to come to the one I serve. It's just when you are rejected that you have second thoughts about where you've come from and where you are going.
And that is where, at least Nicodemus is on this dark night when he has come to Jesus. Jesus can heal the lame and make the blind see. He appears to possess a power that Nicodemus, despite all his study, piety, faith, and devotion, does not possess. This, to put it in highly enlightened and educated theological language, "messed up Nicodemus bad".
But while Nicodemus comes earnestly looking for answers, Jesus in turn, appears to be toying with the man. Nicodemus comes out of sense of respect, hence the use of the phrase, "Rabbi" or "Teacher". More than likely, in a world that respected age and theological education, Nicodemus as a "Jewish religious leader" would have most likely normally been the one who people referred to with this kind of respect. There is a definite sense that right now, though, he is, unlike other Pharisees, not asking questions to trip up Jesus, or to get answers that could be used to embarrass him later. He is convinced Jesus knows something he doesn't, and he wants that information.
But in turn, Jesus doesn't return the respect. He seems to realize that his response, "unless you are born again you will never see the kingdom of God" will confuse Nicodemus. And when that confusion comes to the surface, Jesus openly mocks the man's education and position, and then to add insult to injury, tells Nicodemus that if he doesn't understand what "being born again" means, then what the heck has he been doing with all of the time he's spent becoming a "religious leader".
Who knows why Jesus does this. The exchange doesn't appear to discourage Nicodemus. It's John who tells us that after Jesus is crucified that Nicodemus comes with Joseph of Arimathea to collect Jesus' body to put it in the tomb. I'm guessing that Nicodemus realizes that what Jesus is doing to him, he and his Pharisaic brothers were doing to the masses: making them feel uncertain about matters regarding the Lord so as to put them in the position of needing their expertise. Maybe Jesus just wanted to give Nicodemus a taste of this, to help him understand how this kind of interchange on matters of faith makes people feel.
In any event, Jesus doesn't leave Nicodemus in the dark. He tells him that if he wants to be born again, born of water and the Spirit, that he must believe him. He must believe Jesus. To believe that humanity, in all of its pain and suffering and sin, must gaze upon him if they want to be saved from evil, and saved from themselves.
So... what does this mean?
Let me tell you a story. Years ago while I lived in Goshen, Indiana, one day a new coffeehouse opened up in town. Now hear me when I say this.... I dig a good cup of coffee. Out in my freezer is about three or four different blends grown all over the world that are all delightful to the palate, while also gentile on my sensitive-yet-sizable Bucher stomach. So when I got the call from another Coffee Achiever
that there was a new coffeehouse in town, I didn't have to think twice when he asked if I wanted to go. I just grabbed my coat, and headed out the door. The proprietor of this new coffeehouse had hired a young woman, Olga, from what was then the only coffeehouse in town to run the place. She had left a good job and a well-run establishment to come run this new business because in her life she had two loves: coffee and Jesus, and not in that order. Seems that the new coffeehouse was a "Christian" coffeehouse, and what made it so largely rested on the person who made our coffee that day.
My friend and I started meeting that place, The Refinery, every Tuesday morning, and each week Olga was there to greet us. She taught me the difference between a Sumatran and Nicaraguan blend. She taught me why a shot of expresso has to be served within minutes of being brewed. I learned a lot about coffee from her. But because she had lived a difficult life changed profoundly by Jesus, you could also sense her passion about keeping open a place that people could come and hear local Christian entertainment, or hold a Bible study, or hear some teaching, or read one of the latest Christian texts, or even, on occasion, receive a little advise from a young woman who knew a little about what it meant for Jesus to change a life. It was Olga's passion and energy that drove that place, and as long as she ran it the business only grew.
But finally, one day, she decided to move closer to home and go back to school.
The owners tried hiring new people, and even filled in themselves on occasion, but too many mornings the help didn't show up, or didn't know what they were doing, and, perhaps most damagingly, seemed to rise only as high as the minimum wage they were earning. Finally, after a four or five months without her there, the place closed. Without Olga's passion, energy, expertise, vision, and commitment, that coffeehouse folded like a house of cards.
Jesus says that Nicodemus needs to see his role as a religious leader in a new, fresh way. Instead of teaching people about the laws and rituals of his religion... instead of being judgmental about how people were living their lives, Nicodemus had to see himself as somebody who helped people encounter the living God. The creative, passionate, energetic power which brings hope and healing that is the love of God.... or as Jesus called it, the Spirit of God.
We get a clearer picture of what the Holy Spirit is in Acts 2. Up that point, the force and sheer will behind Jesus' message had been Jesus. Despite the presence of disciples and followers, and a lot of committed people, really nobody else had the kind of drive to tell others about Jesus and connect them to him, than Jesus did. And after Jesus died, rose again, and ascended into heaven, that critical factor - the relentless passion that Jesus brought to reconcile people with God - was missing. When finally after forty days of waiting after the ascension, God gave the Holy Spirit, we're told that those who received the Spirit were emboldened, willing and able to communicate the message about the Good News of Christ to anyone and everyone. For lack of a better term, the Holy Spirit is the relentless passion of God, the force of His will, meant to give hope and healing to all. The Holy Spirit restores people because the disconnect they feel between the God who created them, and themselves, is eliminated.
The Spirit is like the passion, energy, and love Olga brought to that business every day. With her, that coffeehouse was a dynamic place, but without her it sank. The same, it appears with the church, and ourselves. Without that passion, energy, love, vision.... however you want to describe it... without God's spirit touching our hears and filling our lives, not much happens.
Too often organized religion gets in the way of itself. While I served on conference staff, and then worked in a teaching congregation, over a six year period I was in literally hundreds of churches with hundreds of different pastors. Most of these churches were dead, or dying, and had contacted me because they were fearful that some time very soon, they were going to be closing their doors. You know they were desperate, because they were calling me to help them figure out how to turn things around. During these consultations, I'd do a lot of listening and observing, and what I discovered was that these churches, at some point or another, became disconnected from God's spirit.
Some of these churches got hung up on being the personal chapels for one or two or a few families who called it home. As long the place was open to these families for worship, or for special occasions like baptisms, funerals, and weddings, everything was fine. But when members of the family or families that called this "their church" began to move away, or as generations passed, just quit coming around, the church suffered. As a result, the families wanted to keep the church open, but didn't want it to change from it had always been.... a venue for the family's social interaction and enculturation. God had long taken a back seat to the family, or the families, and now nobody could remember to the early days of the church when he drove their mission and purpose.
Other churches got hung up on ritual and liturgy. Doing worship a certain, proscribed way that had been deemed appropriate and correct by a religious institution or leader. This isn't to say that rituals or liturgy are a bad thing. At the same we worship, down the street from us is a small Greek Orthodox church that has becoming a meaningful house of worship for a dedicated group of people. The imagery and symbolism, coupled with the ancient liturgy, connects them not only with who God is, but also fills them with awe at how great, and mysterious, the whole idea of God is. At its best, this is what ritual and liturgy do: articulate the basics of the faith, while embracing the mystery and majesty of an omnipotent, omniscient God. But too often, the ritual and tradition can become ends unto themselves, as if by doing them something important has happened in the spiritual world. The idea is to be moved by the Spirit, but the reality is going through the right motions because that's what you think you should do... so the ends become ends unto themselves.
And still, other churches have become legalistic and judgmental. Christians need to be principled. It's a part of always being at the ready to be of service to God. You demand high standards of yourself as a gift to the living God. But the fine line between being principled, being discerning, and being judgmental occurs when we demand the same of others that we demand of ourselves, even though they never asked us for that favor.
Being "born again", as Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, meant to be a person dedicated to connecting people with God's renewing Spirit, as opposed to being a person dedicated to connecting people to rules, laws, texts, rituals, and traditions meant to unify a community. To seek God's healing so that we might be made whole, and emboldened to go where he leads us so that others might hear of this restoration also, as opposed to connecting people to religious rhetoric which seeks to make complete sense of a God who will not be boxed or caged.