Debunking Religion: Born Again?”

July 7, 2013


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
July 7, 2013

“Debunking Religion: Born Again?”
John 3: 1-17

For 11 years, a man named Merhan Karimi Nasseri was a man without a country. For 11 years he lived in a Paris airport. Now, I’ve been to the Paris airport a couple of times, and I’ve never seen any living quarters there! Nasseri had no passport. He had no citizenship. He had no papers that would allow him to leave the airport or fly to another country. He had been expelled from his native country of Iran. Then he was sent away from Paris because he lacked documentation. He said his Belgian-issued refugee document had been stolen. He flew to England but was denied entry and sent back to Paris.
When he was returned to the Paris airport in 1988, airport authorities allowed him to live in Terminal 1, and there he stayed for 11 years – writing in a diary, living off of handouts, cleaning up in the airport bathroom.
Finally, in 1999 the situation reversed and French authorities presented Nasseri with an international travel card and a French residency permit. Suddenly he was free to go anywhere he wanted. But when airport officials handed him his walking papers, to everyone’s surprise, he simply smiled, tucked the documents in his folder, and resumed writing in his diary. He was afraid to leave the bench and table that had been his home for 11 years. As the days passed and he refused to leave, airport officials said they would not throw him out of the airport, but they would have to gently and patiently coax him to find a new home.
Chicago Tribune, Sept. 21, 1999

All these years later, Nasseri is still in Paris. It took a long time to get him to leave the airport and he still talks about those days with nostalgia.
We continue our series on “Debunking Religion”. Today’s topic is what it means to be “born again”. When I looked up the words “born again” on the internet, I received 4.5 million responses.
It’s a popular question! What does it mean to be born again? Most of the websites I looked at answered it in this sort of way: Being “born again” means that you accept Jesus as your Savior, change your life, and then receive salvation from God, which means when you die, you go to heaven.
But, hold on. There’s a lot more to the story than that. So, let’s look at the most notable Biblical text about being “born again.”
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.”The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
‘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.
‘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. John 3: 1-17 NRSV
The Nicodemus story brings up an important question for people through the ages – How are we to understand people who profess faith in the signs and words, but whose actions show something different? Or in modern terms – how do you deal with people who “talk the talk” but don’t “walk the walk”? Ever met one of those folks? Ever felt that way yourself?
For fun, let’s imagine the Nicodemus story as a stage play. Let’s start out with a completely empty stage. A single spotlight illuminates Jesus. The only other character on the stage is Nicodemus, who hovers at the edge of the light but never steps fully into the light. He has a short dialog with Jesus, but he stays in the shadows. Nicodemus’s last words are “How is this possible?” After this, Nicodemus strangely fades from the scene; we are never told what happens to him.
It is as if he gradually fades back into the night from which he came. He’s like Nasseri at the airport. At this point in the story, Jesus addresses the audience – his words are no longer addressed to a single individual but to a group for which Nicodemus is only the representative. “In very truth,” Jesus says, “we (plural) speak of what we know, and testify to what we have seen, and yet you all (plural) reject our testimony.” The use of plural pronouns causes the story to cross over into the life and experience of the community of faith for whom this Gospel is written. The “we” here is the church, and the “you” represents the detractors of their day.
In order to answer the question, “What does being ‘born again’ mean?” we have to start with some basic questions: the who, what, where, and why of the story.
What was the setting?
It is one of the interesting facts of history that the gospel of John became the favorite gospel of many Gnostic churches. That means that John uses symbolic conversations to separate those who understand Jesus’ work from those who do not. There are clearly some who know the secret and many who do not. The secretive language in John’s stories is only to be understood by those who are “children of light”.
Who was John writing to and what was his purpose?
Based on what John writes, we can postulate that there was a growing problem in John’s church. At the time, they were a sect within Judaism and worshipped in the local synagogue. But this state of affairs was coming to an end; Christians were being banned from the synagogue, and were finding themselves adrift without a religious home. They had not yet developed the idea that they could survive outside the synagogue, yet they were not being allowed to continue as Christians within the synagogue. John addressed this not as a physical problem – the problem of a building – but as a spiritual problem – a crisis of faith. Remember Merhan Karimi Nasseri, afraid to leave the safety of an airport home.
Have you ever had the feeling of being without a church home or even a home in which to live? How did it feel? That unsettled feeling is the basis for the question about being “born again.”
How does John use words to give the reader hints to the riddle?
This story in the gospel of John is one of a number of sequential stories in which there is misunderstanding. The first misunderstanding is in John chapter 2. After the cleansing of the temple, the Jews ask for a sign and Jesus responds, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews clearly don’t understand what Jesus is talking about. Instead they argue that it is impossible to rebuild the temple, which had been under construction for 46 years.
The second misunderstanding is our text for today – when Nicodemus asks how one can be born again.
The next misunderstanding is in John chapter 4 when Jesus offers the Samaritan woman “living water”. She asks him how she can get this living water without the tedious work of going to the well each day, pulling water out of the well and carrying it home. These misunderstandings are a trademark of the writer of the gospel of John. If you read the entire gospel, you will find 18 misunderstandings in only 16 chapters. John uses these misunderstandings to separate the reader from all the characters who just don’t get it. Johns draws us in by using these metaphors and misunderstandings so that we feel empowered to follow Jesus when all these characters in the stories are still bumbling around without a clue!
Nicodemus asks “How can a person be born when they are old?” This question in itself helps us understand the riddle. This question asks how age can meet youth, established religion of the Jews meets the emerging new movement of Christianity, and how tradition meets freedom. Nicodemus is not only asking how a person who is old can be born again; he is asking how a Jew can become a Christian; he is asking how one changes from following the rules to being free in grace; he is asking how a person set in their ways can find new ways of living. He is speaking for all of us who get stuck in ruts that are not good for us, but from which we are afraid to move.
• Relationships that do not feed us
• Overeating, drinking to excess
• Arguing about the same thing over and over again
• Old habits that do not serve us well
And Jesus knows that these are not only physical and emotional problems – they are spiritual problems.
Who was Nicodemus?
He was seems to represent the many Jews in Jerusalem who believed in Jesus because they saw the signs he was doing. The text tells us that he was a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews – a very respectable religious leader. Yet, he came to Jesus in darkness and he doesn’t seem to understand Jesus’ riddle. Nicodemus represents those who are almost ready to believe but cannot find a way to completely change his/her life around… In a way, Nicodemus is a stereotype, a kind of person who knows he needs to find a new path, but feels inadequate in his faith to make the leap.
What does being born again mean?
The words “born again” are meant to be a riddle. It’s actually a Greek pun. The Greek word used here is “anōthen”, which means both “reborn” and “born from above”. It can refer either to physical or spiritual birth. Nicodemus makes an honest mistake and thinks that Jesus is talking about physical rebirth. His misunderstanding, however, separates him and marks him as one who doesn’t have enough faith.
Now we get to the crux of the matter. Nicodemus represents all those who know with their minds, and learn the scriptures, and think about their faith, and even attend church, but do not have the deep level of faith that changes lives. Being “born again” means there is a radical change – one that dramatically changes a person’s life, their social location, even how they relate to others.
Remember that in Judaism, a child was born into a clan. Being birthed meant being a Jew. In our family, there is a rule: If you are born, you take piano lessons. That’s what it means to be birthed by Robin. And although all of my children took piano lessons for years, only one of them became a competent pianist. Apply that illustration to being born into any other family. What does it mean to be born to your parents? And when you became an adult, you have choices to affirm and incorporate those elements into your life or to leave them behind. Being born again means putting away some of the clan aspects of life and learning to live a new way. It literally means being rebirthed into a new community. I know my boys would have liked to have been born again and not have to take piano lessons! Remember that the community to whom John was writing was being kicked out of their church home. They were floundering about spiritually, not knowing who they were or where they were going to go. Have you ever felt that way?
What does being born again mean, then? It means finding a new home, a new way, and a re-vitalized life.
Being born again means if you were an abused child, not carrying on the abuse and hurting other children.
Being born again means that if you were born into a family with a lot of resources building up that you learned how to share more and more money with the less fortunate.
Being born again means that if you were brought up to think less of some person because of their race, religion, or other aspect of their life, then when you grew up you realized that we are all God’s children.
Being born again means putting away alcoholism and other addictions and learning how to live without using and abusing those crutches.
How can we apply this story to our lives today?
So, today, I want you to think about what you were taught and what you grew up believing that doesn’t fit with Jesus’ teachings. In what aspect of your life should there be a rebirth? What would it look like if you were able to stop those old ways and create something new? A caution here: some people would like you to believe that being born again is a one-time deal accomplished through a testimony or a prayer. That’s really a simply answer to a much larger question. I believe that being born again is a constant process of personal introspection, a commitment to think differently, and an openness to change – again and again and again.
How can we be born again? The Nicodemuses of the world might be able to say all the right things, but until they put their lives on the line for their faith, they are still people who “prefer darkness to light”, or “airports to freedom”. Interestingly enough, the next time we hear about Nicodemus, he is assisting Joseph of Arimathea with Jesus’ burial. In fact, we are told that he brought one hundred pounds of myrrh and aloe to preserve Jesus’ body – a highly symbolic act. Nicodemus went from the guy in the shadows … to carrying 100 pounds of embalming fluid to preserve what was left of Jesus.
What is left in your life that needs to be re-born?

Bible References

  • John 3:1 - 17