The Second Sunday in Lent
February 17, 2008
Genesis 12:1-4a Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
You must be born again. How do you feel when you hear that phrase? What runs through your heart and your mind? Do you quickly and easily embrace it? Does it make you wonder what in the world the questioner means? Does it turn you off? I cannot even begin to count how many times I have heard that phrase, although our translation for today chooses a different term. We hear tele-evangelists calling for people to be born again. We hear it from many pulpits.
And yet, it is not exactly what Jesus was saying.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born ἄνωθεν. This word in Greek had two possible meanings. It can either mean “from above” or it can mean “again”. If you take the time to examine many translations, both old and new, you will see that there is no agreement on which way is the preferred translation choice in this passage. And no matter which choice is decided, an important point that I think Jesus was trying to make is being missed in the translation.
As the NET Bible explains: “this is a favorite technique of the author of the Fourth Gospel, and it is lost in almost all translations at this point. The word ἄνωθεν is used five times, in this Gospel. In the latter three cases the context makes clear that it means “from above.” In today’s passage it could mean either, but the primary meaning intended by Jesus is “from above.”
Nicodemus chooses to understand it the other way, which explains his reply, “How can a man be born when he is old? He can’t enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born, can he?” The author of John uses the technique of the “misunderstood question” often to bring out a particularly important point: Jesus says something which is misunderstood by the disciples or (as here) someone else, which then gives Jesus the opportunity to explain more fully and in more detail what he really meant.”
Many of us are very familiar with that phrase “born again”. In fact, so familiar is this choice with its common use, I suspect that many have never even thought of a possible different meaning in this passage. For some, the idea of a different understanding of this passage in a different way could be difficult. Some people love these words, they for the very foundation for and explanation of their faith. It is a very popular way in evangelical circles to describe their relationship with Jesus. Others have heard them so much and so abused that we have grown the cringe when we hear them. As Herb Caen has said: “The trouble with born-again Christians is that they are an even bigger pain the second time around.”
People are told, “you must be born again” generally implying that your faith is insufficient if you have not experienced it in a particular way. But that is simply not true for two reasons. First because we all come to faith in the way God calls us. It is not one size fits all. Our faith does not have to fit someone else’s preconceived notions of how it must be experienced in their opinion.
Second it is misquoting Scripture. All we know from the scripture is that we must be born ἄνωθεν. It much more likely means born from above. God is not calling us to a particular evangelical experience in order to have faith. What God is calling us to do it to live as we have been born from above, born from God. We are being called to live as if God were our parents. We are God’s offspring. That is the new birth which Jesus was calling Nicodemus too experience.
The idea of being born again can be used to separate us as Christians. Being born from above, called to new life in Christ, is something all of us, no matter what our denominational background is can agree with.
I think clinging to the idea of being born again rather than embracing the concept of being born from above lets us off the hook. Clinging to being born again allows us to hold to the evangelical view of a one time, seemingly crucial event that is more important than living our life as if we have been born from above, with heavenly parents. Heavenly parents not unlike our own: eagerly watching, guiding, encouraging and loving.