January 1, 2017

Audio:
Beginning Music, Kelly Talim, violin
Sermon
Closing Music, Jeffrey Chapman, flute

 

Genesis 12:1-3
The Lord said to Abram:
Leave your country, your family, and your relatives and go to the land that I will show you. I will bless you and make your descendants into a great nation. You will become famous and be a blessing to others. I will bless anyone who blesses you, but I will put a curse on anyone who puts a curse on you. Everyone on earth will be blessed because of you.

Abram was seventy-five years old when the Lord told him to leave the city of Haran. He obeyed and left with his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, and all the possessions and slaves they had gotten while in Haran.

John 3:1-8     CEV
There was a man named Nicodemus who was a Pharisee and a Jewish leader. One night he went to Jesus and said, “Sir, we know that God has sent you to teach us. You could not work these miracles, unless God were with you.”

Jesus replied, “I tell you for certain that you must be born from above before you can see God’s kingdom!”

Nicodemus asked, “How can a grown man ever be born a second time?”

Jesus answered:

I tell you for certain that before you can get into God’s kingdom, you must be born not only by water, but by the Spirit. Humans give life to their children. Yet only God’s Spirit can change you into a child of God. Don’t be surprised when I say that you must be born from above. Only God’s Spirit gives new life. The Spirit is like the wind that blows wherever it wants to. You can hear the wind, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going.

 

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Have you been born again?

That is an awkward question, isn’t it?

If someone asks you if you have been born again you immediately begin calculating the fastest way to get out of the conversation. How do I answer? Do I answer? Do I just say “Yes?” Do I say, “No?” Do I give a dismissive response? Do I engage this as a serious conversation about how I understand my own faith? Am I up for wherever this is going to go?

Born Again is one of those churchy phrases. My series of sermons is based on Marcus Borg’s book, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and How They Can Be Restored.

Since it is the new year, the first day of the new year, January 1 being a Sunday and all, I thought born again would be a fun phrase to engage.

I grew up in a church in which people identified as “born again.” As a kid I remember hearing that children’s song over and over, “Bullfrogs and butterflies, ye must be born again!’ It wasn’t enough to be a Christian, you needed to be a “Born Again Christian” or you weren’t really a Christian. You were lukewarm.

God spits out lukewarm Christians like stale coffee.

Born again Christians had said the sinner’s prayer, had received Jesus into their hearts and knew how to speak a certain kind of Born Again lingo. Not far behind the Born Again lingo is the Born Again theology of an inerrant Bible, the second coming of Jesus, belief in miracles, heaven and hell, and that Jesus died for your sins so that you could be born again.

Not far behind Born Again theology is Born Again politics, that had specifically to do with outlawing abortion, opposing gay rights, evolution, anything that smelled like socialism, the United Nations, and being in favor of using the military to solve international disputes.

For born again Christians or evangelicals who are black, the politics are quite different. This summer an ABC news poll said 37% of all Christians are born again or evangelical.

Two-thirds of American Blacks describe themselves as born again, but unlike their white counterparts, only 24 percent of them consider themselves to be politically conservative whereas 44% of white Born Again evangelicals say they are conservative politically.

Being born again is a way to identify oneself. Associated with the term are in general but with significant exceptions, conservative political viewpoints, social viewpoints, and theological viewpoints.

There is a great deal of baggage attached to the question, “Are you Born Again?”

The easiest way to determine if you are born again is whether or not you use that phrase to describe yourself to others.

Being born again is a way to distinguish some Christians from other Christians.

The loss for Christians who do not identify as born again because of the baggage that goes with it in terms of politics and theology, is the metaphor of spiritual rebirth and the biblical story found in John chapter 3.

The point of Marcus Borg’s book and my series of sermons is that because of identity politics we have lost vocabulary that could have value in helping us articulate our spiritual experience.

The phrase born again comes from the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus in John chapter 3. The famous phrase is John 3:3. Here is how some different translations render this verse:

King James Version:

Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

New International Version( NIV)—evangelical translation–

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)—mainline protestant translation–

Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’

Contemporary English Version (CEV) —

Jesus replied, “I tell you for certain that you must be born from above before you can see God’s kingdom!”

New Jerusalem Bible (Roman Catholic) —

Jesus answered: In all truth I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.

Notice the difference? Did Jesus say born again or born from above?

Well, he didn’t say either because he didn’t speak English. The New Testament was written in Greek.   John has Jesus speak in Greek.  The word in Greek is anothen. How do we translate it into English?

There are several uses of the word, anothen, in the New Testament.

Sometimes it has a temporal meaning. It is about time. Anothen means from the first or from the beginning.

Here are two verses, one from the Gospel of Luke and one from Acts, the same author:

Luke 1:3
3 it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from [anothen], to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus;

Acts 26:5
They have known for [anothen], if they are willing to testify, that I have belonged to the strictest sect of our religion and lived as a Pharisee.

In the above cases anothen means from the beginning or from the first.

Anothen is used only once by Paul:

Galatians 4:9
9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back [anothen] to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again?

This seems to mean again. Turn back again, turn back to what was before again.

At other times, anothen has to do with spatial imagery. It means the top or above.

Matthew 27:51
51 And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from [anothen] to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split.

and its parallel in Mark 15:38

38 And the veil of the temple was torn in two from [anothen] to bottom.

Sometimes the spatial metaphor top or above has a theological significance. This is from James.

1:17
17 Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from [anothen], coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.

3:15
15 This wisdom is not that which comes down from [anothen], but is earthly, natural, demonic.

3:17
17 But the wisdom from [anothen] is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy.

Finally, The word anothen occurs four times the Gospel of John. Twice in this passage, both times by Jesus

3:3
Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born [anothen].’

3:7
Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born [anothen].”

Then again on the lips of Jesus in

John 3:31:
He who comes from [anothen] is [anothen] all, he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is [anothen] all.

Then in

19:11:
11 Jesus answered, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from [anothen]; for this reason he who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.”

Again is not the right word there, but above is. Having done that, what is the best way to translate the passage in John 3:3 and John 3:7, above or again?

In the passage, as is common with John, Jesus speaks and people don’t get him. They take him the wrong way. They take him literally when he means to speak figuratively.

Jesus says you must be born [anothen] which is above like he is from above. Nicodemus takes him literally or woodenly. How can be born a second time and go back into my mother’s womb?

Jesus is speaking about spiritual things, above things, and Nicodemus is a wooden literalist, not getting Jesus, in the dark.

That is the marvelous play on words used by the author of John.

What is Jesus saying?

It depends on your theology. Are you a Presbyterian or a Baptist?

Are you predestined or do you choose?

If you are born from above or not born from above, you are or you are not.

If you can be born again, then you can do it.

I find both of those interpretations distasteful.

It is distasteful because kingdom of God which is the point or the goal of the whole being born thing whether it is again or above is often seen as a place you go (ie. Heaven).

What if instead the kingdom of God is not that at all but is within us or among us as Jesus says elsewhere in Luke or spread out upon the earth and we don’t see it as in Thomas, or is something akin to Martin Luther King Jr.’s Beloved Community, that is something present here and now as opposed to away and then?

The being born from above or again is not a ticket to heaven but an experience of the sacred and the holy in the present.

It is the experience of life as grace and gift.

It is an invitation to a life of heart, of courage.

Where I have changed in the religion I learned and received is a difference in understanding of whatever God is. It used to be for me that God was a punitive judge you had to please by doing stuff like being born again or whatever.

It took a while but I don’t think that way any longer. If I use the term God and I am actually quite wary of the word because to me the word must if it means anything must mean something exquisite. I would rather not believe in god at all than believe in a god that is shallow, mean, petty, or simple.

If we want to talk about God, I am not against that, but at least let’s talk about God in a way that is more interesting than our basest instincts, as a placebo for our fears and insecurities.

Let God be exquisite.

Let God be worthy of wanting to be born of God’s Spirit—a Spirit above—to be born into anew each day.

Maya Angelou did not call herself a Christian. When she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom she said in an interview:

“I’m always amazed when people walk up to me and say, ‘I’m a Christian.’“I think, ‘Already? You already got it?’ I’m working at it, which means that I try to be as kind and fair and generous and respectful and courteous to every human being.”

Maya Angelou, from my perspective was a deeply spiritual person, and what I mean by the word spiritual there is that she was a person of integrity, a person who had lofty values and sought to articulate them through her poetry and live them in her body.

For her God was exquisite.

What did it mean for her to be born from above, born of Spirit, born of God, in essence a child of God?

This is what she said in an interview in a New Orleans newspaper, The Times-Picayune, about a year before she died in 2014. She said:

Well, I believed that there was a God because I was told it by my grandmother and later by other adults. But when I found that I knew not only that there was God but that I was a child of God, when I understood that, when I comprehended that, more than that, when I internalized that, ingested that, I became courageous.

I dared to do anything that was a good thing. I dared to do things as distant from what seemed to be in my future. I became a translator in Serbo-Croat in Yugoslavia, and I conducted the Boston Pops. I taught at the Habima Theatre in Tel Aviv in Israel, and I worked as a journalist in Egypt with the only English news magazine in the Middle East. All of that, and I come from a little village in Arkansas, smaller than Picayune, (laughs) and I was a young black woman, trying to do all the good things.

When I was asked to do something good, I often say yes, I’ll try, yes, I’ll do my best. And part of that is believing, if God loves me, if God made everything from leaves to seals and oak trees, then what is it I can’t do?

Maya Angelou talking about being a child of God. She didn’t use the phrase born again, but I think that is what she means.

When she understood, comprehended, but more than that, when she internalized and ingested that she was a child of God, born of God,

then she became courageous.

That to me is why I don’t want to hand over ‘born again’ to a single version of Christianity. I want to reclaim it. I want that metaphor to guide and challenge my life.

I want to be born again, born from above, born to a way to a Spirit of being courageous.

Courageous is an exquisite word. It comes from the Latin cor which means heart, big of heart, large of heart, full of heart.

But when I found that I knew not only that there was God but that I was a child of God, when I understood that, when I comprehended that, more than that, when I internalized that, ingested that, I became courageous.

I’ll take that. If that is the gift offered by the best of our spiritual tradition, I’ll take that. As we face a new year with many unknowns before us, and as we are conscious of a fresh start, a resolution, new resolve, I’ll take what Maya Angelou articulated.

Dare to do anything that is a good thing.

If that is what it can mean to be born again, then yes, I will sign on….

Amen.