Tuesday, February 26, 2013

We Must be Born Again

Rev. Frank Dunn
“I’m a born-again Christian.” Few phrases are better calibrated to divide opposing camps of Christians. “Born again” is, in the American religious vocabulary, a code phrase for having had a particular kind of religious experience, most often associated with “Baptism of the Holy Spirit.” Those who have had it and are therefore “born again” frequently believe that what they have had is integral to Christian experience. Those who have not had it, they think, are less than fully Christian, or possibly not really Christian at all.

If you are in church when Holy Baptism is being celebrated and just happen to tune in to the language of the Prayer Book, you’ll notice that right in the middle of the Blessing of the Water is the verbal assumption that in baptism we are “born again” (p. 307) and that we can in fact “continue for ever in the risen life of Jesus Christ.” Well, are we born again in baptism or not? And, if so, what do we need to make the whole thing work the way it should?

As Marcus Borg points out in "Speaking Christian," “new birth” is a metaphor, an image of radical transformation. “An old life has been left behind, and a new life has begun” (Chapter 16). In John’s gospel (3:1-15), the idea of being born again is set within the story of Nicodemus, a Pharisee who comes to Jesus by night to discuss his teaching. 

The other three gospels don’t contain that story, but they do contain the same idea expressed in another story, which all three of them tell with slight differences. Mark says that Jesus, having taught his disciples privately about his own impending passion and death, responds to their arguing about who is the greatest by saying, “Whoever would be first among you must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he takes a child and places it first among them, then taking the child into his arms, he says, “Whoever welcomes one such child welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (9:30-37). In Matthew’s story, the disciples ask Jesus who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, a question that seems to have enchanted them endlessly. Jesus responds by calling a child, whom he puts in the middle of them, and says, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (18:1-5). Luke’s story is much like Mark’s. The disciples are arguing about who is the greatest and Jesus, knowing what the argument is about, takes a child, places it by his side and says, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the tiniest one among all of you is the greatest” (9:46-48). 

The Reign of God—the “kingdom” of God, which Jesus proclaims and to which he calls us, is a life very different from scrambling for place, prestige, and control. It is a life of risk, of utter vulnerability, of being—like children of his day—of no particular account. I would add, a life of serious playfulness.

To live in Christ, we must be born again. Baptism sets us on is a lifelong path of being constantly renewed until we become as children who look and act a great deal like our divine Parent.

Frank Dunn is the senior priest at St. Stephen and the Incarnation in Columbia Heights. Share your reactions and comments on Facebook.