Nicodemus says, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher come from God: for no person can do these miracles that you are doing, except God be with him.” Nicodemus had heard of the miracles of Jesus making the lame to walk, the blind to see, the lepers clean, and even Lazarus brought back from the dead. But Jesus never made an old person young again. Apparently that is not part of God’s plan. Unless we have the genes of Benjamin Button (movie “The Curious Life of Benjamin Button”) we are all going to get old. Even those who are forever stuck on 39 will get old. Even though I still send pictures of myself at 45 to the publisher or the churches where I make presentations, I am getting older. We will do anything to avoid the appearance of age and that is certainly OK. We spend billions on age-denying creams, pills, treatments, and surgeries. And since we don’t like to talk about it, I’m going to change the subject. Talking about getting old in this crowd is like bringing up global warming at the Republican National Convention or talking about reducing Medicare at the Democratic gathering.
It dawns on me that I don’t deserve the wonderful opportunity that you have given me to be your interim pastor but I don’t deserve the arthritis that wakes me every morning either. So we will call it even. Attempting to get relief from arthritis is like attempting to get relief from getting old. We will try anything. I once paid $39.95 for a jar of something called Australian Dream Cream. It sounded sexy. And, of course, it had no effect on Arthur. My arthritis is so mean that if I treat the pain on my left side, Arthur gets in a huff and moves to my right side.
So I face the reality that I have arthritis and Jesus is not going to make me young again. I wonder why this worries us so much. We can’t be young again, but we can be born again. The senior years can be the formative years, so why pass them in bitterness and complaining? As Paul says, “We have this treasure in cracked pots (our bodies and minds). We are afflicted, often ill, anxious, confused, but we do not lose heart. The older we get the more we need our faith. Lucy Marsden, at age 112, in The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All explains her job at the nursing home: “I try to warn former beauties: ‘You have to find another way to get by.’” The Bible says that old age can’t destroy beauty: “Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day” (and becoming more beautiful). Peter says we can have the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in God’s sight.” The beauty of a splendid personality can surpass a merely pretty face. Did anyone ever suggest to Whistler that he should have painted his mother ten years earlier?
No less of an authority than Jesus says, “You must be born again.” And no less than a Ph.D. in Judaism, Nicodemus, stumbles over the announcement. Maybe he had hoped for theological chitchat – the kind that takes place in coffee shops in close proximity to schools of religion. I don’t think Nicodemus was confused, I think he was stalling. Nicodemus wanted a tune-up and Jesus told him he needed a heart transplant. Nicodemus, hears the words, “You must be born again,” but he’s stalling and he’s avoiding the truth.
Of course the idea of being born again can produce as much anxiety as growing old. There’s no reason to be afraid of the experience of being born again. It’s a metaphor, one of fourteen in the New Testament describing what it means to be in a relationship with Jesus. Becoming a Christian is like being born again. And even more you can be born again and again and again. Deeply moving spiritual experiences, moments of transformation, life-changing moments – all of these and more are examples of being born again.
If you were baptized as an infant and someone asks you “Are you born again,” you should say “Yes.” Not only will it confuse your interlocutor, it will give you assurance. After all, at your baptism the priest said, “Through the Sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into Christ’s holy Church. We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit. All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.” You are given new birth so if you were baptized as a baby, you are born again.
Catholics and sacramental Protestant churches baptize infants. They believe that the best way to show that salvation is a sheer gift of God is to baptize infants who obviously have nothing to do with the act of salvation. Baptists and other Protestants insist on baptism by immersion because we have been most deeply impacted by the metaphor of baptism as being buried and raised with Christ. If you want to show people that baptism is burial and resurrection, then immersion is the perfect metaphor. One method is not better than the other method. The church has produced millions of faithful Christians through the sacrament of Holy Baptism of infants. All the saints up to the time of the Reformation were baptized as infants. There’s St. Augustine and St. Aquinas and John Wesley. All the baptized are born again.
In Clyde Edgerton’s novel, Raney, the main character, Raney, tells her husband that she had a personal experience with Jesus Christ when she was twelve years old, “As a matter of fact, I cried.” “Were you saved, Raney? Is that it?” asks Charles. “Were you saved and now you’re going to heaven and nothing else matters?” “Charles,” Raney said, and she was mad, “you can run down whoever and whatever you want to, but when you run down my experience with Jesus Christ you are putting yourself below the belly of a hog.” I’m on Raney’s side. No one should make fun of another’s religious experience, yet how many Christians feel superior to those who haven’t been “born again”? Being born again was never meant to be worn like a trophy of superiority. Never meant as an anti-Catholic statement.
If you are asked, “Are you born again?” why not respond, “I’ve been redeemed” or if you are in a playful mood, “I’ve been washed in the blood of the Lamb, I’ve followed Jesus into the water of life and have been resurrected to new life” or “I’ve been adopted into the family of God” or “I have been justified by faith” or “I’ve been saved by grace.” If you want to have a moment of devilish delight, if someone asks you if you are born again, say, “Yes. I was baptized as a baby in the Roman Catholic Church.” That will throw them off for a bit.
Being born again is entrance into the body of Christ, the church. Now we belong. We are part of something bigger than and more important than anything else in the whole world. Now, we know that Jesus is the big show. Being born again is being engrafted into church practices that “save us from those powers that would rule our lives.” And I can’t imagine being sent out to face the “powers and principalities of evil” armed only with a yellowed copy of my baptismal certificate. I don’t wont’ to be saved as a lonely individual; I want to be saved with the body of Christ, with the church. I want to be saved in “good company” with the saints who are tough enough and mean enough to take out the powers and principalities. I don’t want a salvation that can be had apart from the church. This world is already lonely enough without taking on the devil alone.
So what does Jesus say? Jesus says being born again is like being born as a baby. Being born again is an entry-level position, not the ending. The NT writers are clear at this point: Christians are to mature and grow up. When you are born again, you are an infant dependent on the church for nurture, milk, bread, wine, protection, education, and training. It’s the starting line not the finish line.
What concerns me however are the hundreds of names on the rolls of this church that have no connection to this or any other church. Somewhere many years ago these folk made a profession of faith; were told they were “born again,” and they were baptized. But I am sorry to say but their salvation is in doubt. They have confused the starting line with the finish line.
The born again are to become the mature body of Christ. The same Jesus who said, “You must be born again,” also said, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Being born again takes a life-time of faith and may happen multiple times.
Now, do you see? As our physical abilities diminish, and our memory files get viruses, our spiritual capacity can increase. We can have multiple “born again” experiences. We can grow in love – knowing the width, length, height, and depth of God’s love. We can know Jesus, crucified and raised from the dead. We can be strengthened in our “inner being” even when our outer being hurts like hell. We can be rooted and grounded in love. We can know the love that surpasses all knowledge and be filled with the fullness of God. Now, that’s worth sticking around for a very long time. This is a journey to a promised land, an explosion of joy – experiences that can only be defined as born again. I want for you all the amazing variations, the polytemporal experiences of born again life. From now on, whenever someone asks, “But are you born again”, smile and say: “Yes I am. I am being born again and again and again and I look forward to my next new birth. God bless you and thank you for asking.”
 Hauerwas, In Good Company, 8.