This week, the Lectionary gives us another view of the Transfiguration, or the Nicodemus story from John 3:1-17. Having talked about the former just a few weeks ago, we went with Nicodemus today.
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
Born-again is a loaded term. For many people (even Christians) not raised in evangelical settings, it’s a by-word for holy-roller, holier-than-thou, judgmental caricatures so often associated with some strains of what we’ve come to call “conservative Christianity,” or with certain kinds of religious experiences and conversions. I’d suggest that these definitions, though popular short-hand, don’t capture the whole story.
The passage claims that all who would see the kingdom of God must be “born-again.” Nicodemus, incredulous, asks Jesus how he can enter again into his mother’s womb. That’s not unlike a person who has been a Christian since birth asking “I’ve been a Christian for all my life. What could it possibly mean for me to be born-again?”
I visited Ellis Island recently, retracing the steps of my great-grandparents who came to the United States from Italy almost 100 years ago. Copies of their naturalization papers are among my most cherished possessions. In a political and legal context, naturalization is a process by which resident aliens are granted all the rights and privileges of natural-born citizens. Through naturalization, in the eyes of the law, it has become as if my great-grand-parents had been born here. They were born, of course, in Southern Italy, but were born-again, politically and legally, in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania. This rebirth was part of longer journey that started in their small farming village, continued on their ocean passage, their intake and processing, their settling in Allentown and so on. Naturalization wasn’t the culmination of their immigrant story: it was the beginning of their full participation in the legal and political life of their adopted (now native) home.
When Jesus says that all who would see the kingdom of God must be born again, I think he means something not unlike a spiritual naturalization; a deliberate alignment with the ethics and mercies of the kingdom of God regardless of our origins and settings. We’re called to be naturalized into these things, to invite the Spirit of God in to remake us (to give our heart to Jesus, as some of us would say), to align our priorities with God’s. What is true religion, the Scriptures ask? To love mercy, to do justice, and to walk humbly with God. To love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Even our enemies. Even those who persecute us. Those later points are likely not the native ethics of most people, but they are the native ethics of Jesus and of the kingdom of God. Embracing them is a radical reorientation of our priorities, pieties, and politics. Like being born anew. Like being born again.
I know that this reflection doesn’t speak to the anxieties of immigration or the ethics of assimilation. But it has been a helpful metaphor in my context for thinking about ways Christians uncomfortable with what “born-again” has come to mean can reclaim what is an essential image of the faith. Yes, it means having Jesus in your heart. It might mean a moment of conversion or a lifetime. One thing it is not is an invitation to perpetual Christian infancy. Be born again, but be born again to grow, to let the Spirit of God build the ethics and instincts of Jesus in you. Pledge allegiance to him, and to the poor, to the widow and orphan, to all on the margin, not because Jesus said so, but because you’ve grown no longer able to do otherwise.
UPDATE: Bob Stevens’ comment below does a good job of rounding out some of the anxieties that come not only with the term “born-again,” but also of the experience of or, even now, stigmas surrounding, immigration. Check it out.