I remember back in the 1960s, there were people on every street corner confronting people who were passing by. “Have you been born again?!” they would shout at us. It is still a question people in certain Christian groups ask of other people, and it comes across as a threat, not an invitation.
Many of us never knew then, and still don’t know now, how to respond. Such people were always looking for us to have a dramatic encounter, a specific high point in our faith lives. They were looking for us to be able to name a moment in time when we stopped doing bad things and gave our lives to Jesus. There is even a specific prayer one is supposed to pray as proof of this event. The questioners were looking for a moment when we felt born again. If we didn’t have one, then we were going to hell, in their judgment.
The trouble with asking this question of Lutherans is that we know we have many such moments during a lifetime. Sometimes, one particular moment stands out, but for most of our lives, there are many opportunities to be born again. For example, every Lent, we are encouraged to “return to the Lord.” And, when we do, we feel a bit born again.
Fortunately, many years ago, I figured out I could use one or two answers to please the person who wanted to know when I had been born again. I tell them I was born again 2,000 years ago on the cross, or on March 14, 1948, the day I was baptized at St Luke’s Lutheran Church in Chicago. Even though this is not the answer they want, they leave me alone after this response.
The recognition of a specific “aha” moment in my spiritual life is not what Jesus is looking for when he talks about being born again or born from above. When Jesus talks with Nicodemus, he is hoping Nick will be open to a new way of thinking about God.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, so he was very familiar with scripture, with the hundreds of commandments, and the thousands of explanations of the commandments. He knew how to apply the familiar traditions in new situations. I think he is curious about Jesus, and wants to know more about him. Jesus’ way of giving new interpretations to old traditions challenges and intrigues him. At the same time, Nick is not sure what other Pharisees will think about him talking with Jesus, so he comes at night, when it is less likely others will notice.
Nicodemus has been taught that it is important to obey the commandments in order to keep God happy, and therefore to receive God’s blessings. Jesus invites him to think differently, to think about God from a new point of view, from a point of grace.
Even today, we think, we believe, that we must be good enough for God to love us. We must be on our best behavior so God will let us into heaven. Yes, even Lutherans who claim to rely on grace fall into the trap of believing we must earn God’s love. Life becomes doing enough good things so we can get into heaven. We fear God won’t love us if we aren’t good enough.
But, that’s just it. There is no way we can be good enough for God to love us. Even when we don’t intentionally sin, we still sin. We think prejudiced thoughts about other people. We don’t believe everyone is worthy of God’s love. We cheat and lie in little or bigger ways. We don’t trust God, so we tell God how to fix something. We want to peek into the future and know what is coming. And so on.
Because we don’t really trust God, each and every time we re-commit ourselves to receiving God’s grace, God’s mercy and forgiveness, it is like we are being reborn. And each and every time we offer someone else mercy, forgiveness, we are offering them God’s grace and inviting them be reborn, too.
For the story today, I have a video. A few years ago, I discovered a collection of videos from Thailand that were intended as commercials to promote kindness. There are subtitles, but I am not sure you all can read them. And the first part goes pretty fast.
So here’s the story: There is a store in the market, owned by a family. A boy is caught stealing some medicine. The woman yells at him, but the man asks if the boy’s mother is ill and the boy nods. The man sends the daughter to get some vegetable soup to give to the boy. 30 years later the man is still helping poor people, and suddenly becomes ill. The daughter watches as he falls to the ground. …
I think you can understand the rest of the story. As you watch, look for the moments of grace, and for times when people in the video may have been reborn. Let’s watch.
What did you notice? Where was grace? In the giving of food, to the child and to the old man. Where was the possibility of being reborn? In the receiving of food and medicine, and the bill paid in full.
When have you felt reborn? When have you offered someone grace, so they could perhaps be reborn? Being reborn gives us the opportunity to grow closer to God, so as you consider this Lent how to “return to the Lord,” I suggest you ponder the ways in which you have been and could now be reborn. Amen