Lent 2: Born-Again

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.

The text:

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?”

Screen Shot 2017-03-12 at 11.44.18 PMI 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.

 

Lent 1: Deuteronomy 8 and Matthew 4: Bread of Life

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Preparing for our Lenten Bible study at church, I’ve been reading Deuteronomy.  It’s the book Jesus quotes three times when he’s tested in the wilderness, and it recounts the 40 years of Israel’s wandering, the thematic template for Jesus’ desert experience and our own Lenten season.  In that sense, it’s a good place to start.

But it’s not, in my opinion, for casual reading.  Understanding what the authors and editors are doing, and why, is important for understanding any text’s value as Scripture.  But Deuteronomy presents objectionable, outrageous material early and often in its opening chapters, most notably the recounting of Israel’s conquest of Palestine and the slaughter of every Gentile man, woman, and child.

Christians believe that whatever the Bible is, God is most fully revealed in Jesus himself.  We believe that this revelation is present and ongoing; that it’s not confined to the Jesus of Scripture, that we know Jesus as a living, moving, communing, abiding God.  We must view all other means of knowledge about God and the life God shares with people through our first-hand experience with and in the presence of Christ here and now.

Not all self-described Christians will agree with everything about this hermeneutic.  There are many reasons for that, and I’m not interested in parsing them now.  For me, Scripture, if it is to be engaged, must be engaged through the lived experience of the presence of God in Christ personally and in community.

It’s hard for me to reconcile the slaughter of children with the Good Shepherd who says “suffer the little children to come to me.”  I grew up singing Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.  I follow the Christ who says it’s better that a person should wear a millstone around his neck and be cast into to sea than to cause a child to stumble.

The historical Jesus is, as we see in the Gospels’ desert narrative, clearly well-versed in Deuteronomy.  He silences the accusation and mocking scorn of the devil by recalling the promises of God.  When I preached on the passage from Matthew on the first Sunday of Lent, I made the point of saying that Christians of good will disagree on what and who the devil is, but that we’ve all been deviled by unfair accusations (Satan, from ha satan, means “the accuser”), by people or systems tearing us down for reasons that have little to do with us.  Many of us also contend with the lies and accusations of our own biochemistry.  Whatever the devil is, ontologically, the devil is certainly in the details of the arrows and barbs meant by broken people and unjust systems to bring us down, to have us believe we’re not who we know we are, that we’re not worthy of success or happiness or love or redemption.  Countering the lies of our many accusers with the promises of God helps us do in the desert places of life what Jesus did in his own wilderness journey:  recall and proclaim our true identity as people fashioned by Love in the image of God.

We’re meant to contend with all of these things, and I don’t believe we’re meant to gloss over the parts of Scripture (or of history) that we find rightly appalling through our eyes and Christ’s.  So I pushed through the conquest narratives and came to the requirements that God’s people take care of widows and orphans, that they deal honestly with all people, that the rich be given no special treatment, that the rights of the poor be upheld, that the resident alien is welcomed, enfranchised, affirmed.  Then come the woes for disloyalty, and I can’t help but think of the typical neoliberal political concoction that characterizes much of what passes for modern politics: aggressive, militaristic nation-building, nominally progressive domestic agendas, the promise of ruin to all who won’t fall in line.

But God’s not a neoliberal.  The God I know in Jesus doesn’t build empires. The Jesus I pray to died as an enemy of Establishment Religion and of the Secular State.  Where is he in Deuteronomy, a book clearly concerned with the consolidation of a centralized, theocratic nation-state?

Maybe it’s because I’m a Food Truck Pastor, but I think the answer is food. Specifically, manna, the bread from Heaven God gives the Israelites as a sign of his continuing provision.

Consider Deuteronomy 8:

1 Be careful to follow every command I am giving you today, so that you may live and increase and may enter and possess the land the Lord promised on oath to your ancestors. Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna,which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years. Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you.

Observe the commands of the Lord your God, walking in obedience to him and revering him. For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land—a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills.

10 When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. 11 Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. 12 Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, 13 and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.15 He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. 16 He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you. 17 You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” 18 But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.

And Matthew 4:

1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted[a] by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’[b]

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
    and they will lift you up in their hands,
    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’[c]

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’[d]

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.“All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’[e]

11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

*

Importantly, footnotes b, d, and e are all quotes from Deuteronomy.  Jesus says we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus himself is called the Word of God (John 1) and the Bread of Life (John 6).  We do not live simply by bread, but through Jesus, the full revelation of God, the true bread of heaven toward which manna points.

As Moses recounts the story of the Exodus in Deuteronomy’s narrative frame, he stresses the ways in which God appeared to the people of Israel on their wilderness journey: as a column of cloud leading Israel’s sojourn by day, a column of fire by night, as a bush brilliantly burning on Horeb but never consumed by its flame, as blinding light, thunder and glory echoing from Horeb over the plains.  He recalls how the people begged not to see God with their own eyes, believing with ancient mores that no one could see God and live.  In the passage above, he repeats twice in the space of of a few paragraphs that the gift of manna, meant to remind us that, as Jesus recounted, we do not live by bread alone, was an act of self-giving previously unknown to the people of Israel and to their ancestors with whom God first made covenant.

When I read that, I found something I could affirm.  “No one has ever seen God,” Jesus says, “but if we love God and love one another, his love is made perfect in us.”  Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus says that all who have seen him have seen the Father who sent him.  This is a reiteration of John’s opening chapter:  As the Word of God, Jesus is the full revelation of God, God with us, God living and breathing and walking, the bread of life who assures us of God’s provision, who bids us enter God’s peace, who gives himself freely in ways we seldom expect.