The New Christianity,
Part 5: Born Again and the Kingdom of God (2/22/05)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
The first four parts of this series on the New Christianity have had a distinctly theological orientation. They have been, for the most part, philosophical—theoretical. And that is to be expected. Look at the subjects we’ve covered: The Bible, faith, God and Jesus. These are the core elements of Christianity. The way a person thinks about these things defines the core beliefs of one’s Christian faith. And to embrace a New Christianity, one must first decide what one thinks about the Bible, faith, God and Jesus.
Today we move a bit more into the practical world. We’ve talked about the ideas behind the Christian faith; but what about the Christian life? What does it mean to be a Christian, especially after we’ve challenged the way many Christians think about the Bible, faith, God and Jesus?
There are two ideas we will consider this morning—ideas that directly affect the way a person lives out the Christian faith. These ideas are the notion of being “born again,” and the meaning behind the phrase, “the Kingdom of God.” And as we have in the past four sermons, we will follow the outline of Marcus Borg’s latest book, The Heart of Christianity, as we go.
Let’s consider the way people often view being born again and the Kingdom of God. For many, the whole idea is that we are created in such a way that if we do not have a radical experience sometime in our lives—a born again experience—and accept Jesus as our personal savior, we will go to hell. But, provided we are born again, we will go to heaven when we die, and another name for heaven is the Kingdom of God.
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That is pretty much the basic religious belief of the majority of modern Christians. Theologically speaking, many of us have a problem with that. We cannot envision God as creating people with the intention of sending them to hell. And while the average guy who has not entered into a personal relationship with Jesus falls far short of the glory of God—just like everybody else—does that mean he is worthy of an eternity of anguish and torment?
What would that say about God? That view may be in line with the judgmental God who sits on the clouds and capriciously maneuvers human beings through life, but it does not fit well with the God of Love. It does not fit well with Eternal Spirit who calls creation into being and sustains you and me moment to moment. The God we sought a few weeks ago—the God of love—the God of Jesus Christ—would hardly create a universe in which almost every person who ever lives would be sent off to eternal torment.
One could say that it is hard to imagine a God of Love creating this world we live in. There is a lot of pain and anguish among the people of this world, and God’s awful silence in the face of that pain is not reassuring. Still, our faith tells us that we can trust God. Remember the second week of this series when we talked about faith as trust—trust in God. We know, at our deepest level, that the pain of this world passes in time, and that God’s peace, and God’s love, and God’s mercy go on forever. And our heartfelt faith places us in the arms of a God who loves us through our mistakes—not a God who sends most of us to hell for worshipping the wrong way, or even for not worshipping at all.
So what do we do? If our God is not the God of judgment, do we throw away the idea of being born again, along with the Kingdom of God? No! In fact, we can hardly call ourselves Christians if we do so, because these were central ideas in Jesus’ ministry. In fact, Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God more than any other subject. In parable after parable he said, “The kingdom of God is like…” and proceeded to talk about mustard seeds and foolish maidens and lamps filled with oil and dozens of other things that leave us often confused and always pondering. But for all the mystery surrounding it, the Kingdom of God is the central element of Jesus’ teaching.
But something funny happened on the way to the kingdom. Well-intentioned Christians took the kingdom that Jesus talked about and projected it into the future. The kingdom became some place that exists beyond the grave. And they decided that the only way to get there was to be born again.
The problem is, thinking that way takes the core message of Jesus and turns it upside down. It creates a world whose purpose is to be escaped. It claims that people are evil—hell-bound—and that the entire purpose of life is to correct that problem. Life in this world becomes nothing more than a prelude to the great symphony that awaits us in the future.
But wait a minute! Is that the message of Jesus? Is the Kingdom of God about which Jesus spoke a future heaven? No. Jesus’ Kingdom of God is something that exists in this world, right here, right now. That is not to say there is nothing to our being but these mortal lives. Jesus did indeed believe there is an afterlife. But he sure didn’t say much about it!
Here is what we can say about the afterlife according to the teachings of Jesus. First, we do not cease to be after our earthly bodies die, because Jesus specifically told us that he goes to prepare a place for us, and will take us to himself. Second, we know it is very different from life on earth. We know this because when he argued with some Sadducees—a sect that did not believe in the afterlife—he told them there would be no marriage in heaven, and that people would become like angels. So it is different from life in this world.
Third, we know that the people who are smugly convinced they have figured out how to go to heaven are in for a shock, because in Matthew’s famous scene with Jesus separating the sheep and the goats, the people who go to heaven have no idea why they are going. They simply fed the hungry and clothed the naked and helped the poor. They didn’t do it for a reward. They did it because it was the right thing to do. On the other hand, those who were confident of their ultimate destinations—those who had dotted all the religious “i’s” and crossed all the religious “t’s”—were in for a big surprise.
Now, scholars argue about whether Jesus really did say any of those things about the afterlife. But one thing is certain. He didn’t say much else about it. It just wasn’t much of a concern for him. If you add up the all the words of Jesus, you find that he spent less than one percent of his time talking about the afterlife. And if we don’t reclaim anything else of the original Jesus as we seek to create our New Christianity, let us at least reclaim Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God. It is right here, right now. The Kingdom of God is found in the gift of life, and in the love we feel for life itself, for one another, and for God. We enter into the Kingdom of God not at death, but while we live. God takes care of the Kingdom on the other side of the grave. That is beyond our control. What we are called to do is take care of—to enter into—the Kingdom on this side of the grave. And how do we do so? How do we enter the Kingdom of God? By being born again.
Okay, I’m thinking we were doing just fine until I said we have to be born again, and then I lost a bunch of you! And I don’t blame you! How many times has somebody walked up to you and asked, “Have you been born again?” or “Have you been saved?” And how do you respond to such a question? I know what I want to do. I want to run. I want to look over the shoulder of the person who asked me that question and say something like, “Look – it’s Elvis!” and disappear before they turn back around.
I’ve found I have two choices when this question is asked. I can either say, “My faith is very important to me, and the idea of being saved—of being born again—is a complex and nuanced theological idea. Can we take a few hours, sit down together, and discuss the intricacies of our theological differences?” Or, when asked that question, I can just say, “Yes.” “Yes I have. I’ve been saved. I’m a born again Christian.”
My experience is that we both walk away from that encounter much happier if I choose the latter option. Anybody who asks such a question is not going to be swayed by anything you or I have to say. In fact, entering into that dialogue is the equivalent of spending a few hours banging our heads against a concrete wall. Oh, every now and then we forget how frustrating it is, and try to reason with the person who asks us that question, which only proves that we’re slow learners. And I have the bruises on my head to prove it! So, my advice to each of you is simple. Remember how Nancy Reagan said that when we are asked if we want some drugs, we should just say no. Well, my advice is that if you are ever asked if you have been saved or born again, just say yes.
And you are not really lying when you say that. Because what you are being asked is this: Have you been saved from the unquenchable anger of the God who wants to throw you into hell to suffer eternally? And you can answer, “Yes,” because you were saved from that God when you came to understand God’s nature is mercy and love, not anger and judgment. As one great theologian said when asked if there was such a thing as hell: Of course there is a hell. There has to be a hell. God has every right to have a hell. But God probably loves everybody too much to ever actually put anybody in there.
So let’s talk about being born again. What does that mean? Jesus says, “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.”
Now, this is serious, because is goes to the very core of the Christian life, and it deals quite specifically with the reason we need to have a New Christianity. To be born again, according to Jesus, is something spiritual. This idea of being reborn, renewed, or transformed spiritually is a part of almost every major religion. And it may happen in a sudden flash or it may happen over a period of years, but there comes a time in the life of faith when a person awakens to his or her role in creation. It’s not all about me, me, me. There comes a time in the life of faith when a person grows to understand they are a part of something bigger. There comes a time when a person understands that they are not a law unto themselves. They are mortal, and fragile, and the day will come when they will be no more. And they can either become a part of something bigger or they will perish in their selfishness.
This awakening—this realization—this rebirth—is foundational to the Christian faith. But it doesn’t have to happen in a heavenly flash of glory. It is a new life that we can grow into, and as people of faith, that is our goal in life: to be transformed; to grow into something greater than we are now.
When we awaken—when we move past our selfishness and start living for something more than just ourselves—we enter the Kingdom of God. Remember, the Kingdom of God about which Jesus spoke is more than just some future existence beyond the grave—it is right here, right now. And we cannot enter that Kingdom of God if we remain enclosed in our selfishness. In the words of Jesus, No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of flesh and Spirit. The first birth is something that happens to us and is beyond our control. Having been born into this world is not a choice we made. The second birth—the birth of the Spirit—is something that will not happen unless we want it to happen.
I said from the beginning of today’s sermon that this part of the series on the New Christianity would be more practical and less theoretical. And it is! Because the way we think about being born again and the Kingdom of God determines the way we live the Christian life. If a person believes this world is a place to be escaped, and that the whole meaning of life is to save one’s personal soul, then the problems of this world don’t seem too important. Religion is all about me, me, me. I’ve got to get myself into heaven!
But what about Jesus’ Kingdom of God? It was the centerpiece of his whole message. And the Kingdom is here on earth, although, as Jesus said, many do not see it. The Kingdom is all about love—love of God and love of neighbor. As we forge this New Christianity, we should remember that love is more than a feeling—it is a verb. The love Jesus felt led to action—it led him to speak out about the injustices he saw all around him—the injustices perpetrated by the religious and political powers of his time. He was killed for that.
Inspired by his example and acting in his name, I hope the New Christianity has a passion for justice. We cannot look at a world where children starve by the tens of thousands every day, and simply look away, saying, “That’s just the way it is. At least I’m going to heaven.” We can’t look at our own nation, where people sleep in the streets, and say, “Well, that’s not my problem. That’s just the way it is.” We can’t look at the countless problems that face the people of God’s creation and say, “Thank God I’m one of the lucky ones,” without caring enough to at least try to make things better.
We are all in this together. And I mean, all of us. The New Christianity isn’t about getting to heaven. It is about transforming our lives, and then transforming the world. And we can’t do that without ruffling some feathers. Ask Jesus. Look where it got him—hanging from a cross while people laughed at him.
We like the status quo. Especially those of us who have the status. We don’t like to be challenged about the way we live our lives, and consume the earth’s resources, and hoard our wealth. And we all do it! Hey, I’m talking to myself here. My closet is full of clothes I do not wear and there are people wearing rags. My refrigerator is full of food and there are people going hungry. My home is safe and warm, and there are people sleeping over the storm sewer grates, right here in Wichita, trying to stay warm enough to keep from dying.
Our challenge is to confront those evils—those injustices—without losing our joy. And our joy comes in loving the people who are closest to us—the people who share our homes, the people we work beside, the people who sit beside us in the pews. We bring the kingdom into this world by loving the people closest to us. Each and every person in this room has their fair share of problems, and has endured their fair share of pain.
Our first challenge is to love one another through our own problems. Then we can confront the bigger issues together. Together…together…we can make things better. And that’s what we’re doing, right here, right now, you and me, this church, praying, hoping, and working together in this beautiful and frightening creation, living in what sometimes seems to be a garbage barge of a world, that is the only place we have to build the Kingdom of God.