Sermon preached by Rob Barber (Reader)
on Sunday 8th March 2020 (Second Sunday of Lent)
Genesis 12.1–4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4.1–5,13–17; John 3.1–17
Some years ago, I was approached after Mass by a lady I’d never seen before (or since) who asked me, “Are you a Christian?” I was standing at the back of church dressed like this having just taken an active part in the service, so I thought it was rather a strange question, but I assured her that, yes, I was. She said to me, “But are you a real Christian?” I said, “Yes, I think so, depends what you mean by ‘real’.” She said, “Have you been born again?”
“Born again”, that phrase we hear so often but maybe have not always fully understood. Nicodemus certainly didn’t understand it when Jesus said that to him as we just heard in this morning’s Gospel reading. He seemed to think that we had to go through some sort of physical or biological re-birth. OK, so I think we all understand that this isn’t meant to be a physical re-birth and a good thing too. After all, our physical birth is something that happens only once in our lives, and is an event that none of us remember. A spiritual rebirth, however, is something that can happen in adult life, often more than once! But what does it really mean to say that you’re born again?
Some people see it as the one defining moment that they accepted Christ into their lives. It’s also bandied about as a term of ridicule, almost a term of abuse. Sometimes it is used like the lady who approached me all those years ago as shorthand for following a particular, narrow interpretation of Christianity.
I know a lot of people who can remember the precise moment they gave their lives to Christ and describe it in great detail, even the date it happened, and they would describe that as the moment they were “born again”. A friend of mine talks about that moment it happened to him in a curry house in South Wales when he was student. But if we see it as that one defining moment, what about all those people who have never had that special “lightbulb moment”? The many many people who have come to know Christ as their saviour over a period of time?
Well, I can only speak from my own personal experience here. As a “cradle Anglican” I was brought up in a Christian family, so I suppose it’s fair to say that Christ has always been there. I’ve often heard people who have become Christians as adults talk about the wicked lives they led before coming to Christ, but that, I’m afraid to say, leaves me thinking about what a much better time they’ve had than I have! Even so, having been brought up in a Christian home and never (as far as I can remember) having the blinding flash, I can remember a time sometime during my teens when it all became clear – church wasn’t just a thing for Sunday mornings and that I accepted Christ for myself, not just because I’d been brought up that way. Was that being born again, or was it the first of many steps?
I daresay there are people here this morning who have had both experiences – either the sudden flash of inspiration or the gradual realisation. I’ve heard it said, “Some people meet Jesus on the road to Damascus, others on the road to Emmaus.”
I’ve been saying a lot about that expression “born again”, but let’s take a look at what Jesus actually said. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. It was Nicodemus who got confused and concentrated on the again bit, so Jesus clarified it by saying we should be born by water and the spirit. Now that can be through baptism, although baptism alone isn’t the be all and end all of rebirth – like my own experience that I’ve already mentioned, it’s just the start of a long and bumpy road.
I don’t think that being “born again”, “born from above” or “born in water and the spirit” can necessarily be pinned down to one particular event. I have found that the Christian life is made up of frequent re-births. Each time we learn something new about our faith or our relationship with Christ we are being born again. Whenever we have something special to thank God for, we are born again. Something that recharges our spiritual batteries, like our pilgrimage to Walsingham for instance, is a form of rebirth. And of course, now during Lent, through self-denial or taking up extra duties, we prepare ourselves for the greatest re-birth we have every year when we celebrate Christ’s victory over death at Easter when we renew our baptism vows and are born again through water and the spirit.
So we can be born again many times. Why? Well, in my view it has something to do with that very well known quote that we also heard in the Gospel reading, that “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”. Yes – God so loved the world. He knows we are all flawed, but he loves us so much, he is always ready to give us yet another opportunity to be re-born.
So I ask you the question that I was asked – Are you born again? If the answer is yes, then the next question is “When do you reckon it will happen again?”