Sunday, March 8, 2020

Phil Kniss: Born again (without the hyphen)

Lent 2: “Show us the extent of your faithful, loving presence”
John 3:1-17

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The hyphen has done a lot of damage
to our understanding of salvation.
Of course, it’s not the hyphen’s fault.
It’s our fault, for sticking it where it doesn’t belong.
Hyphens are great. I like hyphens.
But not where they don’t belong.

For a long time,
we’ve put it between the two words “born” and “again.”
It doesn’t go there.
And no, this isn’t a grammar problem.
It’s a theology problem . . .
I suppose you’d like me to explain . . . Okay, I will.

When you take two words
that describe some kind of event or process or story, really,
like the concept of being born . . . again,
and you put a hyphen between those two words,
you turn it from a beautiful, robust, descriptive noun phrase
into a flat adjective: “born-again Christian.”
As all grammar police know,
when you use a phrase as an adjective, it needs hyphens.
A child can turn six years old, without hyphens.
But a six-year-old child, needs hyphens.

But what a shame to hyphenate born-again!
To take a wonderful and messy
and many-textured and multi-layered and richly metaphorical
naming of a complex process of holistic transformation,
and to turn it into something flat and shallow!
A category of Christian!
A box to label people!
Rather than a life-long and deeply defining
process of transformation.
It’s just a shame.

So this morning, my modest aim in this sermon,
is to delete the hyphen, once and for all.
I aim to rehabilitate our love for this
beautiful metaphor that Jesus himself used—
the experience of being born . . . again.

I suppose you’ve observed we don’t talk an awful lot
here in this congregation about being “born again.”
I think we are a little skittish about it.
Probably for noble reasons.
It’s been over-used and over-applied.
And it has, thanks to the hyphen,
come to mean a particular category of evangelical Christians.
And in the public mind this category is often associated
with people who are narrow-minded
and judgmental of others.

Another reason to maybe distance ourselves from the term,
is that it’s been coopted by celebrity culture—
it’s been claimed by politicians, athletes, musicians, actors.
Jimmy Carter, when he was running for president,
was probably the first major politician to go public
that he was a born-again Christian.
That made news in 1976.
And many others politicians followed suit.
Then all manner of other celebrities joined in.
Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Alice Cooper, Jane Fonda,
Mr. T, Chuck Norris, Anthony Rendon, and many more,
at least at some point, declared themselves “born again.”

None of us know the motivation behind these public declarations.
And we shouldn’t attempt to judge them.
I would guess it runs the whole gamut
from those who sincerely wish to give witness to their faith,
to those who might be just a little bit opportunistic.

The trouble with all these public declarations,
it that it reinforces the use of the phrase as a category,
instead of describing a deep transformation process.
Public figures often throw in the hyphen, and make it an adjective,
identifying with a category: born-again Christian.
They may not go on to describe what this new birth
actually entailed for them, at the core of their being.
They may not tell us what they sacrificed in the process.
They may not get very vulnerable,
and speak about the pain and the mess
that went into yielding themselves to this
“mothering God who gives us birth”
to quote one of our hymn titles.
The birth process is by definition hard labor.
And everyone involved knows it.
The celebrity hyphen creates a category.
It doesn’t tell us a story.
And that’s unfortunate.

So let’s talk about one particular story.
The one we heard from the Gospel of John today.
The night-time encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus.

This is the story where this phrase comes from, of course.
Jesus used the metaphor of re-birth
to describe the process of transformation
that he was inviting Nicodemus to consider.
Incidentally, the phrase Jesus used is sometimes translated
“born from above,” and sometimes “born again.”
Both work. Either way, this is not a casual metaphor.
Birth refers to something hard and painful and messy.

And I’m not even talking about the one giving birth.
We all know that’s hard labor—either by personal experience,
or by hearing someone else’s testimony,
or by watching “Call the Midwife” on PBS.
What I’m saying, in regard to this metaphor of Jesus,
is that being born is no picnic.
From the point of view of the person being born,
the ride down the birth canal is not a joy ride.
It’s excruciating.
It’s hazardous.
It’s messy.
It’s utterly life-changing.
It’s death to the old life, death to the status quo.

First birth, or re-birth, same deal.
It’s a radical reordering of our lives.

I’m guessing Nicodemus already knew something
about how hard this road would be.
Even before Jesus gave Nicodemus those unsettling words
about being born again . . .
Even before Nicodemus came to Jesus with his questions . . .
I think he had an inkling the answers he would get
were not going to be easy ones.

Nicodemus came to Jesus by night.
It was safer that way.
There is a lot we don’t know about Nicodemus
and his motives for asking those questions.
But as a Pharisee, as a leader of the Jews,
Nicodemus had a lot to protect in his current life.
If he had any intention of keeping
his respected position in the community,
he had better be careful around Jesus.
If he was going to go directly to this rabble-rouser Jesus,
and ask honest, searching questions,
he had better be discrete and private.
You never know who is listening and lurking in the shadows.

Nicodemus was very much like a baby in the womb.
Safe. Secure. Comfortable.
I doubt he was ready
for that excruciating trip from womb to world.

Yes, he was fascinated with Jesus.
The idea, the concept, of becoming a follower of Jesus
was a compelling idea to think about.
And he had thought about it.
That’s why he had questions.
But Nicodemus apparently had too much at stake
to become a disciple just yet.
He was curious,
but not curious enough to stake his whole life on it.

Jesus told him that one who is born of the spirit,
lives in the Spirit,
and the Spirit, Jesus said,
is like the wind that blows where it will,
and you can’t see where it coming from
or where it’s going.
I’m guessing Nicodemus needed a little more stability
than the wind could afford him.
He needed his life to be a little more predictable than that.
Maybe Nicodemus went home to think some more.
John 3 doesn’t actually tell us.

Did Nicodemus ever allow himself to re-enter the womb of God,
and be born again?
We don’t know.
We do hear about Nicodemus twice more in John’s Gospel.
In John 7, the chief priests and Pharisees
hold an emergency meeting,
planning to arrest Jesus, and Nicodemus pipes up.
He didn’t actually defend Jesus.
But he did bring up a legal technicality
that was in Jesus’ favor.
But even those few words of caution
raised suspicion about Nicodemus.
Then after Jesus’ crucifixion, in John 19,
Nicodemus joined Joseph of Arimathea
in quietly embalming and burying Jesus’ body.

But we don’t know whether Nicodemus ever took the risk
of letting go of the securities of his position as a Pharisee,
letting go of the securities of the womb,
and being reborn as a true and open disciple of Jesus.

Nicodemus may have lived the rest of his life
as a curious and sympathetic Pharisee and nothing more,
because he lacked the courage
to open himself to the possibility of rebirth.
He may not have had the will to submit himself to
the risk,
the trauma,
the vulnerabilities, and
the indignities
of birth.
And then to enter into a new way of life.

Just like many of us.
We too hold a big part of our lives
safely ensconced in the protection of a womb.
Our mothering God is trying
to help us bring to birth new life.
But we have our securities to which we are clinging—
securities that, as it turns out, actually get in the way of life.
They keep us from being reborn into the life we were made for.

If his standing as a Pharisee and a leader in the Jewish community
was the security that held Nicodemus back
from a full-on sacrificial engagement with agenda of Jesus,
I wonder what securities are holding me back?
or holding you back?
I wonder what answer we would give ourselves,
if we would each take an honest and searching self-inventory?
What am I afraid of losing,
by saying a deeper yes to Jesus and his Kingdom agenda?

Of course, a follow-up question then becomes,
“What deeper joy and fullness of life am I already giving up,
by staying in the womb where it’s safe and warm?”

These are thoughts that have crossed my mind in recent weeks,
as I held my newborn grandson Huck in Ohio, and
as I held my newborn grand-nephew Luis last week in Sarasota.
Those babies don’t have the capacity for conscious reflection right now,
but those small little bodies,
just weeks ago were wrapped in protective warmth
and darkness and life-giving fluid,
and everything they needed they received
automatically, continuously, and without effort.
Now, they are being assaulted by a world
of bright light,
loud noises,
cold air,
hard surfaces,
and empty space for their limbs to fly around unprotected.
They are being forced to learn to inhabit this new and wild world.
They don’t know it,
but that is the only path toward life.
Holding onto the womb would be a path to slow death.

So why do we fight it?
Well, we know why.
We are afraid to let go,
and allow our mothering God do the work of giving birth.

I’ve been getting by email the daily reflections of poet and pastor
Steve Garnaas-Holmes,
who blogs at

His lectionary-based poems often inspire.
And his poem a few days ago on being born-again was no exception.
Let me read it, in conclusion.

He begins by quoting today’s Gospel, John 3:4
“Nicodemus said to him,
‘How . . . can anyone be born after having grown old?’”

Then he writes:

I’m sorry. There is no how.
There is no jump, leap, crawl,
climb, push or swim.
There is only allow.

Being born again
isn’t something you can do.
It’s something your mother does
for you.

Breathing in and out
you descend into that dark tomb
that only when you enter
is a womb.

Much you can’t save,
you must shed to fit,
surrender to become
a fracturing seed
like broken bread.
What you leave behind in the grave.

Dying is your only choice,
surrendering your only how.
The rest is gift and mystery,
and God’s work, not yours.
There is only allow.

Well, he is right.
There is only “allow” — not figuring out “how.”
But, the “allow” is challenging enough for us
who would prefer the safety and security of the womb.

In what part of your life,
is God inviting you to let go and enter into a new space?
A space that may feel threatening right now,
but is actually the path to a deeper and richer life?

I invite us all into a few moments of silent reflection
on these crucial questions.

Where, in my life, is God inviting me into a new birth experience?

What am I afraid of losing,
by saying a deeper yes to Jesus and his Kingdom agenda?
What I am I holding on to?
And what would move me toward “allowing” God
to birth me into a new and transformed life?

—Phil Kniss, March 8, 2020

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