Born again in a 21st century context...

NOTE: I am back into my Wednesday study/writing groove after a few weeks caught up in grief, death and memorial services. It is good to be back! And today is so stunning in the Berkshires that my gaze out my study window keeps luring me outside... but not quite yet. So, as I have noted before, this is #5 in a series inspired by Brian McLaren, Peter Rollins and Marcus Borg with a serious dose of Thomas More tossed in this week. I am grateful for their wisdom, tenderness and faithfulness to the heart of Jesus. Here are my worship notes - and know you are always welcome to join us if you are in town at 10:30 am on Sunday.

Oh how blessed is the man or woman who has grown beyond their greed and put an end to their hatred and no longer nourish illusions. For those who delight in the law of the Lord – those who revel in the way things are and keep their hearts open both day and night – are like trees planted beside streams of water and bear fruit in due time…
Psalm One (with assistance from Stephen Mitchell)

Last week I came across a poem by Billy Collins twice: once in a new anthology of his creations I am exploring and once in an essay by Marcus Borg. Both times it caused me to pause like the psalm for today encourages and consider the way of the Lord within the fabric of my daily existence. It is called, “On Turning Ten.”

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light –
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chickenpox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
By drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.
It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I would shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

This is a poem that reminds us that we are changed by life, yes? Like the Psalmist said there is a rhythm to life that includes walking, standing and sitting – I would add falling, too – and as we enter this rhythm, things change: we learn to worry and fear, we are hurt and cause pain for others, we win and lose, discover how to trust in new ways, fall in love, have our hearts broken and so much more. Like St. Paul observed, “When I was a child I thought and acted like a child… but now that I have matured I have put childish things away.”

That is to say that we have been born again – maybe not in the way we usually think about this expression – but we have experienced a dying and a rising in our existence. Indeed, doesn’t it “seem only yesterday that I used to believe there was nothing under my skin but light? If you cut me I would shine. But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life, I skin my knees. I bleed.”

Frederick Buechner has observed that most of us have experienced this change and transformation because most of the time we “live our lives from the outside in rather than from the inside out.” And that is what I want to talk about with you today: living from the inside out – engaging life in a new way – being born again – so that we might nourish the kingdom of God within and among us.

+ One of the central truths about Jesus is that he invites us to live in a way that integrates the personal and the political, the spiritual and the secular, the inward and the outward.

+ He understands that not only do we come from God in the beginning – and ache to remain in that love throughout our lives – but that often our lives become lost or alienated from God’s love. We are wounded – or broken – confused and even bewildered by the severity of real life so that over time we not only lose our original blessing and innocence, but start living from the outside in.

No wonder the heart of his ministry turns things upside down: that’s the only way to be reunited with God’s love. “Take it from me,” he tells us in this morning’s Gospel, “Unless a person is born again – that is, born from above – it is not possible to see what I am pointing to: God’s kingdom… Don’t be surprised that I tell you that this new birth must take place because what I am talking about is ‘out of this world,’ so to speak… so pay attention.” (John 3)

Those two ideas – being born again and God’s kingdom – are critical. But all too often, they have been high jacked or held for ransom in ways that are alienating and confusing. So, let’s talk about both so that we not only reclaim their spiritual and practical insights for our generation, but also experience the blessings of those sacred trees by the river who bear good fruit in due time, ok? And there are three insights I want to share with you about the words born again.

First, it is a way of talking about how God creates a new heart with us.

+ Do you remember the psalm we used throughout much of Lent – Psalm 51 – that began: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me?”

+ What about the words from Jeremiah that were inspirational for the Protestant Reformation: “The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah… and it will be when I put my law within them – when I write Torah on their hearts – then I shall be their God and they shall be my people?”

To speak of being born again, you see, is a poetic way of describing our new and clean hearts born of God’s grace. It is short hand for the experience of returning to God’s love. “How blessed, indeed, are those who delight in the love of God – who have grown beyond their greed and put an end to their hatred – they keep their hearts open both day and night and become like trees planted near flowing rivers.” First, to be born again spiritually is to return to God’s love and experience what it means to have a new and clean heart within us.

Second, to be born again describes a spiritual ebb and flow that takes place throughout our lives if we are paying attention and is not a single or solitary event. Marcus Borg writes: The phrase “born again” occurs only twice in the New Testament. But the notion, often expressed in the language of dying and rising – death and resurrection – is utterly central in early Christianity and the New Testament as a whole. In fact, dying and rising and to be born again are the same root image for the process of personal transformation that is at the heart of the Christian life: to be born again involves death and resurrection. It means dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of living, dying to an old identity and being born into something new – a way of being and an identity centered in the sacred, in the Sprit, in Christ, in God.

Are you with me? Do you see the connections? To be born again is to let one identity and heart die so that another more God-like heart can rise within. Consider these passages from the Scripture:

+ Jesus once told his disciples: If you really want to follow me then you must deny yourselves, pick up your cross and follow. Now we know that there was a literal truth to this, but it is also highly symbolic, too, yes? What’s he asking for: a change of direction, a death of sorts and a life of obedience and servant hood?

+ At another time he said: Those who want to save their lives will lose them and those who lose their lives for my sake will save them. This is born again language, right? The paradox of obedience and freedom, dying to bring life, letting go so that God can be found.

First, being born again speaks of new hearts being cleansed by God’s grace. Second, it describes a way of living – dying and rising with Christ – that keeps our hearts centered in God grace. And third, being born again suggests that a new way of living emerges from clean and loving hearts. Look at what happens in the classic born again text we are using today: it is filled with symbolism, insight, nuanced spiritual humor and so much more. First, Nicodemus, a wealthy and influential Jew, comes to Jesus – a poor, itinerant Palestinian preacher – at night. An interesting combination, yes: old meets new, the rich realize the poor have some-thing valuable that can be shared, dark meets light, confusion journeys towards clarity?

Second, both men seem to be talking past the other: Nick is trying to understand the new way of Jesus but doesn’t know how to think symbolically; and Jesus – well, Jesus seems to keep changing the subject – which only intensifies the confusion of dear Nicodemus. “Unless you are born from above,” Jesus keeps saying, “you just won’t be able to see the kingdom of God.”

+ Nicodemus is a literalist – Jesus speaks in poetic metaphors.

+ The old one speaks of the flesh, the new one sings about the spirit.

The man of the night is afraid of the light, while the light of the world tries to shine something of God’s grace wherever he goes. And the language of the Bible plays this tension up in spades. Literally the words of Jesus mean born in the flesh a second time as well as to born spiritually from above. “Which is it?” demands Nicodemus, to which Jesus says, “Yes.” And no matter how precise the old man tries to get with his outmoded words, he continues to miss the point.

Because, you see, as Thomas More observes in his new book, Writing in the Sand, the change Jesus is describing – the metanoeo we so often translates as repentance – is greater than morality or far more important than our feelings. “Meta means ‘after,’ or sometimes ‘beyond,” writes More.

We use the word meta-morphosis for a worm becoming a butterfly – so just imagine the difference between those two beings – the worm and the butterfly – and that is the meta involved here: a profound, basic and unmistakable transformation in our living… If you were to go through all of the Gospels and retranslate this one word repentance, in all its various forms, substitute "a shift in vision or a discovery of a new world of meaning," you would discover an altogether different take on these ancient writings. Your task would be to live a different life, not just feel bad about the mistakes you have made or live in fear of punishment…. Indeed, you would come to realize that repentance – being born from above – is the way in which you enter the very kingdom of God.

Next week – which is the Feast of Pentecost – I’m going to talk with you about living in the kingdom: making our clean hearts, new minds and born again lives visible in the real world. But that is for later… right now let me just put it like this: When our eyes are opened to God’s grace, not judgment it is like we have been given a second chance – a new life – and we have been born again and born from above. “If you don’t go through this change of heart and mind, then you aren’t in the kingdom no matter how long you’ve held membership in this or any other church…”

+ You can believe whatever you want – you can say the historic creeds 100 times a day – and give this congregation thousands of dollars each year.

+ You can be a good boy – or girl – pay your taxes on time, love your momma and Jesus and America, too just like Tom Petty said...

“But if you don’t escape from your default reality and enter a new way of living – if you aren’t really baptized in the existential sense and not just in a formal ritual – then you are outside of the kingdom.” (More, p. 22) In the Jesus life, beloved, the kingdom life – the born again life – clean hearts lead to new ways of living:

+ You show wisdom by trusting
+ You handle leadership by serving
+ You handle offenders by forgiving
+ You deal with money by sharing, enemies by loving, and violence by suffering

For in the Jesus life there is a new attitude towards everything and everybody… and you handle repentance NOT be feeling bad, but by living and thinking different.

Comments

SGF said…
Very, very cool! No disagreement from me :-)

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