Part 6 of 12 | The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg
The Gospel of John is my favorite of the four “biographies” of Jesus. John’s agenda is not merely giving the story, but weaving it along theological lines. One of the first stories provides an allusion for one man named Nicodemus, and for all people everywhere trying to find God and their way in the world. The third chapter starts with Nicodemus coming to see Jesus under cover of darkness. He was a very well educated leader who held a seat on the Sanhedrin Jewish leadership table. He had undoubtedly heard about Jesus’ renown as a gifted teacher and healer, and he wanted to see for himself what kind of man he was.
It’s no accident that he came at night – he didn’t want to be seen visiting this upstart. More than that, he was in the dark personally, not yet exposed to the Light shining in the darkness, the bright Spirit that was illuminating Jesus’ life, teaching, and ministry. Breaking the ice, Nicodemus started the conversation with a compliment about Jesus’ clear connection to God. A bit of a setup, actually, to see how arrogant Jesus was.
Jesus jumped right into the deep end of the pool, dragging Nicodemus with him. He spoke of the need to be born again to see the Kingdom of God – a phrase denoting space that is particularly infused with the presence, characteristics, priorities and practices of God. Nicodemus took Jesus literally, and wondered how, exactly, a grown human would get back inside the mother’s womb. At that, Jesus probably rolled his eyes and let out a sigh (murmuring “METAPHOR!”) before he continued:
Jesus said, "You're not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to this original creation—the 'wind hovering over the water' creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it's not possible to enter God's kingdom. When you look at a baby, it's just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can't see and touch—the Spirit—and becomes a living spirit.
"So don't be so surprised when I tell you that you have to be 'born from above'—out of this world, so to speak. You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it's headed next. That's the way it is with everyone 'born from above' by the wind of God, the Spirit of God."
This “born again” thing, becoming something new – different, more God-inspired – than before, is not just a Jesus thing. This theme runs through the entire Bible. God is always inviting people into a new way of being that is grounded in who God is and empowered by the Spirit God provides. Abraham sensed God calling him to leave everything behind to start fresh, different, led by God. Throughout Israel’s history we see consistent invitations from God to get back to who they were meant to be – the people so close to God that God just oozed out of them in myriad ways. The talk of wind? That’s a reference to a vision God gave the prophet Ezekiel about what God wanted to do with Israel: even the deadest, driest bones can be brought back to life with the power of God’s Spirit.
Borg notes (The Heart of Christianity, 107), “In the Gospels and in the rest of the New Testament, death and resurrection, dying and rising, are again and again a metaphor for personal transformation, for the psychological-spiritual process at the center of the Christian life.” Here are just a few examples:
Because of this decision we don't evaluate people by what they have or how they look. We looked at the Messiah that way once and got it all wrong, as you know. We certainly don't look at him that way anymore. Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it! – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17 (The Message)
I tried keeping rules and working my head off to please God, and it didn't work. So I quit being a "law man" so that I could be God's man. Christ's life showed me how, and enabled me to do it. I identified myself completely with him. Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not "mine," but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I am not going to go back on that. – Galatians 2:19-20 (The Message)
I'm absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God's love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us. – Romans 8:38-39 (The Message)
If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don't love, I'm nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.
If I speak God's Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, "Jump," and it jumps, but I don't love, I'm nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don't love, I've gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I'm bankrupt without love. – 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (The Message)
Everything God has done, is doing, and will do is related to this invitation to be born again – as individuals, as relationships great and small, as an entire human race. Jesus’ whole reason for living and dying was related to this invitation. His mysterious resurrection provided experiential “proof” that God was indeed with him through it all, and that there is more to life than flesh and blood. This may come as a shock, and initially disappointing, but this entire exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus is all about this life, right now, here on planet earth. Not heaven. This matters a lot, because part of the conversation gets to the famous quote of Jesus used in evangelism: For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever would believe in him would not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16). This has become a proof text to assure folks that all it takes is belief to get to heaven (and if you don’t believe, you are toast). Biblical scholars of every stripe agree on this – it’s about this life, being born again into life God wishes for us, empowered and led by the God who created us to live our True Self.
I love how Eugene Peterson phrased it in his Message translation: "This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.” The “born again” life is the eternal life that comes by believing. Which leads to another really important and disturbing point for many of you: believing isn’t what you believe it to be.
In our time and context, we think of belief as mental assent or agreement. “I believe the world is round.” “I believe in love.” “I believe the United States is the greatest country in the world.” “I believe the United States stands for peace in the world.” “I believe the United States has the largest military in the world.” “I believe in God.” Some of these statements are more fact-based than others that are more subjective. The key thing to remember here is that for most of us in our time, to believe is to agree with a statement or sentiment on an intellectual plane. That kind of belief isn’t very effective, however. Certainly not enough to bring about eternal life, which Jesus stated was the key component for such a pursuit. Could it be that Jesus’ remembered saying here about belief being the key to eternal life (and by necessity being born again) be based on a different rendering of the word?
The Greek language gives us the word that is translated “belief”. That word connotes three different nuances, or facets that make up the whole. Think of “belief” as a three legged stool. Our Western, still-guided-by-scientific-thinking viewpoint does support part of what our first century ancestors in faith regarding belief. Intellectual assent is part of it, one leg. So, it matters. But the stool won’t stand on one leg. Belief isn’t belief if all it has to stand on is intellectual assent. What are the remaining legs on the belief stool?
Another leg of the belief stool has to do with “heart”. When we wonder if a person’s heart is “in it”, what are asking? We’re wondering if they have any passion for the pursuit, any genuine concern or care about it. If a person lacks heart, it means they have no drive, probably give their task weak effort, and are likely fairly apathetic, even if they mentally understand it. I don’t know anybody addicted to smoking cigarettes who thinks it’s a good thing for their health. They mentally agree. But they don’t have the heart to quit. In the ancient world, to believe was more than to agree intellectually. Belief meant your heart was in it. But head and heart are still just two legs. The stool won’t stand.
The third leg of the belief stool relates to one’s hands. Action. Changed behavior. Without action, your intellectual assent and heartfelt passion don’t account for much in your life and in the world we are called to serve. Action can be as subtle as new behavior toward yourself and those you are in relationship with, like not adding to the problem when provoked, but seeking something redemptive in your response. Action can be as magnificent as giving your life to a cause much bigger than yourself. This is not in any way to be construed as “earning your way into God’s favor.” On the contrary, this is in response to the favor you already have. Perhaps Jesus’ brother, James, said it best: faith without works is dead (James 1:22, 2:17). No life, eternal or otherwise. Definitely not conducive to being born again.
One mistake I think the Church has made in articulating the “you must be born again” Good News is that we have overly focused on the initial “YES!” and have not adequately communicated that the first yes is one of perhaps thousands of yes’s to come. We’ve done this because we’ve overly played up the “get your butt to heaven” piece of the message, so much so that we speak of being “saved” as a once-and-done thing, when in actuality, salvation is a process that lasts a lifetime. We’re fully saved when we draw our first breath in heaven. Until then, we’re invited to pursue and enjoy – with God’s help – as much eternal life as we choose.
I think one of the reasons so many people are leaving the church is because so many professing Christians stopped looking like Jesus not long after their first yes. We’ve tucked our salvation away and adopted a warped version of life that is symbolized more by the American flag or the Almighty dollar than it is by the cross. More by the pursuit of self than the giving away of self. We’re not invited to be born again. We’re invited to be born again and again and again and again and again – 70 X 7 times – as we work out what eternal life looks like as we mature, then choosing to believe with our head, heart, and hands.
When was the first time you were born again? When was the last time you were born again? When do you suspect will be the next time you will be born again?
Christocentric Alphapoem by Linda Murphy
Wonderful God who
Owned my heart
Down through time
Over years of humanity
Teach us of Your
Memory of who we can become in You
Some (hopefully) helpful stuff…
Reflection Questions: The Way of Exile and Homecoming
From Experiencing the Heart of Christianity, by Tim Scorer
The Road into Exile. Exile is an inevitable feature of the human journey that leads us from birth, through the growth of self-awareness and self-concern, and into a place where we live lives that are conferred on us by our culture more than chosen by who we are truly meant to be (Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 117)
1. Recall a time in your childhood when you remember yourself as a unique child, relatively unshaped by societal, parental, cultural, and religious messages.
2. Recall a time in adolescence or early adulthood when you remember yourself as self-conscious and significantly shaped by the three A’s: appearance, achievement, and affluence.
3. Recall a time in adulthood when you would say that you were living “a false self” and were exiled from your true identity.
The Road of Return and Exile. The road of return is the road of recovering true self, the path to beginning to live from the inside our rather than the outside in. Being “born again” involves dying to the false self and being born into an identity centered in God. The born-again experience happens in many ways. Marcus Borg describes four. Personally, we may know about one or all of them. Reflecting on the born-again experience in these ways can help broaden its definition. How have these been part of your experience?
1. A sudden and dramatic moment in your life (a revelation, a life-changing epiphany, a sudden conversion).
2. A gradual lifetime incremental process (experiencing the self-forgetfulness that accompanies a deepening trust in God).
3. The shorter rhythms of our lives (may occur several times in periods of major change or transition).
4. The micro-rhythms of daily life (each day forgetting God – becoming burdened – remembering God – rising from confinement).