Saturday, March 14, 2015

Born Again?

            One day at recess, when I was in the fourth-grade, several classmates came up and asked me if I was a “born again” Christian?   They informed me that, according to the Bible, only people who have been “born again” are truly saved and going to heaven.  People might think that they were Christians, faithfully following Jesus, but if they had not been born again, then they were just fooling themselves and God would judge them harshly.

In the small southern town where I grew up, to be “born again” usually meant that the individual had experienced a dramatic, spiritual and emotional conversion, in which they heard Jesus calling them to repentance and rebirth.  Most of the “born again” Christians around me could identify the exact moment when they “truly accepted Jesus into their lives, gave Jesus their hearts, and promised to follow in his footsteps as one of his disciples for the rest of their lives.”  Frequently, these intense moments of conversion occurred at the end of a Christian Revival service, when the individual responded to a preacher’s “altar call” by sliding out of their pews, walking down the aisle of the church, and then kneeling at the altar as the preacher prayed for them. 

After further questioning, I determined that the church which my fourth-grade friends and their families attended was having a Revival that week.  At the revival service, my friends had responded to an “altar call” and “given their lives to Jesus,” as the revival preacher prayed and they knelt, crying uncontrollably.  Although I should have been happy for my fourth-grade friends’ spiritual awakening, I was actually annoyed—and, a little terrified.  You see, now that they were “real Christians,” my friends became somewhat arrogant and downright judgmental.  They kept telling me that if I did not have a single moment of conversion and become “born again,” then I was not really a Christian and I was not really saved.

I grew up as a Methodist preacher’s kid in North Carolina.  I was baptized as an infant, and I had been raised as a Christian all of my life.  I could not identify a transformative moment when I was “born again.”  I had always been raised in the faith; always been growing in the faith. I distinctly remember thinking to myself that God was not very fair, if it was true you  had to have a dramatic “born again” experience.  Since I believed that God was ultimately fair, I began to doubt what my fourth grade friends had heard in their church during that revival.

Then, several months later, as I continued to think about not being “born again,” it occurred to me that nothing had really changed in the lives of my “born again” fourth-grade classmates.  While they were different for a few days, before long they begin to return to their old selves.  Now, after several months, you could not really tell that they had ever been “born again” Christians.

            The Christian concept of being “born again” comes from our scripture reading for this weekend, John 3:  1-21.  The story begins with Nicodemus who was a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews in his community.  The Pharisees were very devout in their faith and very rigorous in following Jewish law and customs.  Representing the Jewish leaders of his town, Nicodemus seeks Jesus out at night, under the cover of darkness.  John, the Gospel writer, makes a point of emphasizing that Nicodemus approaches Jesus at night because for John, darkness suggests a separation (or, alienation) from God.

            Nicodemus begins by affirming Jesus.  He refers to Jesus as a “Rabbi,” a title of honor and he further affirms that Jesus must be “a teacher who has come from God.”  Unfortunately, at this point, Nicodemus stumbles in his approach to Jesus, by confirming that Jesus must be a great teacher because “no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  Earlier, in John 2, the Gospel writer has told us that Jesus does not trust those believers whose faith is based upon the miraculous signs that he does (2:23-25).

            As a result, Jesus responds to Nicodemus 3:3 by challenging him with a word puzzle:  “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”  This, of course, is the verse that grounds the claim that “true Christians” must be “born again” Christians.  However, this is one of those cases when the words say more than they appear to say.  The Gospel of John was written in Greek and the phrase looks like this in Greek:  “to be born άυωθευ”.  Now, άυωθευ has a double meaning in Greek, which cannot be captured in English.  The word can mean either, “again,” a reference to time or “from above, a reference to the Divine. 

It’s clear that in the story, Nicodemus interprets άυωθευ as meaning to be “born again.”  Nicodemus responds by asking “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

However, in understanding this passage, we must take into account both meanings.  The Gospel writer clearly wants us to understand that in his word puzzle for Nicodemus, Jesus is talking about being both being born again and from above.  Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”  As Christians, we normally associate “water” with baptism.  But, here, we need to remember that Nicodemus is not yet a Christian.  Rather, he is a Jewish Pharisee.  So, for Nicodemus, being “born of water” is a metaphor for physical birth from the womb.  In other words, as a Pharisee, Nicodemus would have understood Jesus to mean that one must be born physically and spiritually.

This realization prompts a cry of disbelief from Nicodemus, “How can these things be?”  At this point, the dialogue between Nicodemus and Jesus ends.  The remainder of the passage, 3:11-21, is a monologue by Jesus, as he tries to explain what he means by being born again and from above. 

Jesus begins his explanation by foreshadowing his future crucifixion on the cross.  He explains that “the Son of Man must be lifted up.”  John, the Gospel writer, understands Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension as one continuous event in which Jesus of Nazareth is revealed as the Messiah—or, Son of God.  Thus, at the crucifixion, Jesus is physically lifted up on the Cross and crucified, but in so doing, Jesus is also lifted up and exalted as the Messiah. 

This leads to what the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther believed to be the very essence of the Christian Gospel, John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

In the remaining verses, 3:17-21, Jesus elaborates on the meaning of John 3:16.  The key to interpreting these final five verses is to recognize that the verb tense is present—not future.  So, verse 17:  “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  Present tense—not future.  The verb tense is important here because it signals what theologians refer to as a “realized eschatology.”

The term, “realized eschatology” is just a fancy way of saying that in this verse God’s judgment and salvation of the world is underway now, in the present, initiated with Jesus’ first coming into the world.  God is not waiting for some future, cosmic end-of-the-world moment to redeem the world, although as Christians we look forward to that cosmic event, as well.  In a realized eschatology, the word “eternal,” means more than just a never ending existence.  It means more than simply living “to infinity—and beyond,” to quote the movie, Toy Story.   

No.  In a realized eschatology, “eternal life” describes a life lived in God’s unlimited presence and glory.  God sends the Son into the world in love to save the world here, now, in the present, today.  We respond to that love by living our lives in God’s Presence here, now, in this present moment, in this present world, knowing that God is already with us through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Messiah. 

Unfortunately, this “eternal life” is too much for us as broken, finite, sinful human persons.  Using Jesus’ metaphor of light and darkness, the light is too bright and we slip back into a grayness that is both light and dark.  Or, as my fourth grade classmates who had been “born again,” we slip back into the familiar routine of our daily lives, unchanged by God’s realized eschatology.

In the Christian year, we are currently in the season of Lent, that 40 day period of spiritual preparation leading up to Easter.  It is a time of penance, remorse, confession, and self-sacrifice.  It is a time to take stock of our lives and acknowledge how far we can slipped from the light of Jesus, back into the darkness and separation from God.  It is time to reclaim God’s realized eschatology and to be born once again.


Come, join us this Sunday, March 15th, as we explore further the story of Jesus and Nicodemus.  Our church is located at the corner of Main and Dawson Streets in Meriden, Kansas.  Our classic worship service starts at 10 am on Sunday mornings. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

On Being God's Gardener

            Although I intend to follow the lectionary for most of the Sunday’s during Lent, I’m going to break away from the lectionary in order to focus my sermon time on an important announcement that was shared with the Meriden UM community this week.  The announcement was that I have agreed to accept an appointment to become the next pastor at Christ UMC in Lincoln, Nebraska, effective July 1st—and a new pastor will be appointed to follow me here at Meriden UMC.

            In view of this completely unexpected development, I’ve decided that we would be better served if I preached on 1 Corinthians 3:  4-11.  Two key verses from this passage are vv. 5-6:

 “What then is Apollos?  What is Paul?  Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each.  I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” 

            Whenever we approach a passage from Paul’s First Letter to Corinthians, it’s a good idea to begin with the question, “What’s the conflict this time?”  As the first Christian missionary, the Apostle Paul established a church in the City of Corinth, which at the time was the capitol of Achaia.  After he was certain that the fledging congregation was well established, Paul traveled on to other areas, to spread the Gospel and establish new churches in those places as well.  As he traveled, Paul received updates about how things were going in Corinth, as well as in other cities where he had started churches.

            The news from the church in Corinth was usually bad.  Those Corinthian Christians were always in conflict with one another, about one thing or another.  In chapter 3, Paul addresses one of those controversies.  This particular controversy involves competing allegiances to two pastors.  The first pastor was Paul, himself, who began the church during his missionary journeys.  The second pastor was Apollos, who was a Christian Jew originally from the Egyptian city of Alexandria.  After Paul left Corinth to continue his missionary journeys, Apollos had come to Corinth for a time, preaching and teaching. 

            Difficulties arose within the church of Corinth, when some Christians began to say that they were disciples of Paul, while others who opposed them claimed to be followers of Apollos.  This led to an escalating division within the church.  In order to heal this division, Paul addresses the controversy in his letter.  

            Paul begins by appealing to the metaphor of a gardener.  Since Paul was there first, he claims for himself the role of planting the garden, which represents the church in Corinth.  Yet, recognizing the important role played by Apollos, Paul writes that Apollos watered the young plants which he had planted.  Then, he concludes the metaphor by writing, “For we [Paul and Apollos] are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.” (v. 9)

            At this point, Paul switches to the metaphor of a building. In verse 10, he writes, “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else [Apollos] is building on it.”

            I really appreciate Paul’s two metaphors when thinking about pastoral transitions in a 21st century church.  I believe that pastoral ministry is fundamentally about helping people make connections with the divine, with other persons, and with Creation.  Helping people make connections is a slow process.  Ordained clergy are frequently planting seeds which will not fully mature and produce fruit until after was have moved on.  So, for the nearly four years that I have served as pastor at Meriden UMC, I have tried to water the seeds and young plants which my predecessors have planted—and, I have planted some seeds of my own.  Or, following Paul’s metaphor switch, I have built upon the foundation laid by those who came before me as pastors of this community of faith. 

That is, I have been “Apollos” to my predecessors’ “Paul.”  In a few months, a new pastor will come to Meriden and become an “Apollos” to my “Paul.”  This is the same dynamic that has played out over and over and over in Christian churches down through the ages, since Paul and Apollos in the first Christian churches.

Perhaps ordained clergy get way too much credit when our churches are doing well—and perhaps way too much blame when things are not going well.  As Paul observes while talking about Apollos, “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” (verse 7)  Ultimately, it is God who powers our ministry and helps them be successful.  Whether it is ordained or lay, ministry is always about opening ourselves to become channels through which God’s love, power, and healing can flow, as God chooses.

 Come, join us this Sunday, March 8th, as we explore further what it means to become a channel through which God’s love, power, and healing can flow.  Our church is located at the corner of Main and Dawson Streets in Meriden, Kansas.  Our classic worship service starts at 10 am on Sunday mornings. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.