What does it mean to be “born again?” In today’s gospel Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” To this Nicodemus asks the logical question, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?”
I suspect many of us have asked the same question at some time or another. With the charismatic movement of the seventies and eighties, many of us were confronted with the question, “ have you been born again.” During this time period, it seemed that many around us were suddenly having spiritual awakenings, or better yet, moments of intense conversion. And if we had not experienced such an awakening, we began to feel judged, as if suddenly, we were now the lesser Christians because we hadn’t had that “special”experience.
One of my favorite commentaries on being born again came from a computer salesman during the eighties. While training the church staff on our newly acquired computers, she talked about a book she hoped to write some day titled, “Born again, but with Birth Defects.” I think her title hits the nail on the head when it comes being born again. While many people have experienced intense conversion experiences like St Paul did on the road to Damascus, or John Newton just before he wrote the words to Amazing Grace, what was unfortunate about being born again in the seventies and eighties was that many saw their moment of conversion as the completion of their spiritual journey.
For many of us, conversion happens over time, it is subtle,incomplete and devoid of thunder claps and voices from Heaven. Ours are more like that of the Ethiopian Eunuch who is discovered by Phillip while he is reading scripture and after hearing about Christ, seeks baptism. No thunder claps, no great moment of discovery, just a subtle recognition and acceptance of Jesus as the risen Christ and savior.
If we were to look at Nicodemus, his conversion was slow. Nicodemus appears three times in John’s Gospel. Twice he comes in the darkness of night to seek Jesus’ counsel or help. The third time he assists Joseph of Aramethea with the burial of Jesus. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus had a lot to lose if he went public about his desire to follow Jesus. His job, his standing in the community, perhaps even his family would be destroyed if he became a follower of Jesus in the light of day.
Despite the risks involved, Nicodemus is drawn to Jesus, seeks to be with him, and uses the shroud of darkness to help him meet his spiritual need. I don’t think there is anything really wrong with Nicodemus’ relationship with Jesus, but there is not a lot really right with it either. He ultimately gets his spiritual needs met, he has a relationship with Jesus, he gets his daughter healed, but the relationship lacks a certain mutuality. It lacks depth and authenticity. And, his relationship seems stuck in park.
For Nicodemus, his relationship with Jesus is both confusing and easy. There is faith, but there is no cost. In the early part of the last century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer would refer to this as cheap grace, the ability to accept the grace of God without cost, grace without the desire or openness to be transformed.
Many approach their relationship with Jesus like Nicodemus, their faith in Christ is kept hidden under the darkness of night. Many attend church on Sunday morning, but forget to carry the Gospel into the world Monday through Saturday. Many have active prayer lives at home, in the darkness of their rooms, with no desire to be part of community. For many, these limited relationships with God work, provide a sense of spiritual fulfillment, they are convenient and they are easy. But like the many who were born again a few decades back and Nicodemus, their journeys with God become stuck in time,they fail to grow or become spiritually mature.
As Jesus does with Nicodemus, God will honor whatever we are willing to give God of ourselves. But what God really wants from us is our whole selves. God wants to journey with us both when it is safe and when it becomes dangerous. God wants to journey with us both at night and in the daylight as well.
For Nicodemus, this was too much to ask. For each us, we,as individuals, each day have to decide how much we are willing to risk of ourselves for God. With risk comes opportunity. With every opportunity we accept, comes growth.
Martin Luther, when discussing the spiritual journey from conversion to death, coined the term sanctification. Sanctification is the process by which we grow in grace and become more Christ-like. Luther tells us, no matter how we come to Christ, whether it is through sudden conversion, or gradual acceptance, this is just the beginning, not the end point of our journeys with God. Conversion or being born again is the moment we come to trust in Christ and allow Christ to take our hands and lead us through the trials of life, all the way to the Kingdom itself.
As we enter this second week of Lent, I invite each of us to ask where am I in my journey with God. Have I become complacent in my journey, holding firm where it is comfortable and easy? Have I become like Nicodemus, and only seek God in the darkness of night when the risks are low and it feels safe?
The good news is, God will accept us wherever we are or however we are willing to approach God. The bad news is, we may not be experiencing all that God has to offer us.
Let us pray,
God of amazing compassion, lover of our wayward race, you bring to birth a pilgrim people, and call us to be a blessing for ourselves and all the world. We pray for grace to take your generous gift and step with courage on this holy path, confident in the radiant life that is your plan for us, made known and given in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.