The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
5 March 2023
By a show of hands, how many of us are fully comfortable with the term, “Born again?” Some of us have come from evangelical traditions in which being born again is normative. Second question: How many of you have ever been accosted by someone who has asked if you have been “born again?” Final question: How many of you have somewhat negative feelings about the term, “born again?”
The New Revised Standard Version translates this phrase from the Greek as “born from above,” which may sound different to our ears because lacks the familiar ring of “born again.” The NRSV also offers a second translation: “born anew,” but both of these translations would cause Nicodemus to ask how one could be born after growing older or by entering a mother’s womb a second time.
Do you ever wonder about that: why the term makes you feel uncomfortable or leaves you scratching your head? Maybe you think you aren’t “that kind of Christian” or maybe you felt judged or maybe you just find it to be a mysterious term.
When I was a freshman at UC Santa Barbara, I had a roommate named Conal. He was a nice enough guy who had grown up in an Episcopal church in the Central Valley of California but had found a home in a Pentecostal church in Santa Barbara. At that time in my life, I was struggling with the church of my youth, as many young adults do. Conal asked me if I had been born again (I answered “no”) and if I would like to join him at his church on a Sunday morning (I answered “no thank you”). Conal asked again… and again… and again, and I finally relented. This was an entirely different church experience for me, a nice New England Congregational boy. It was as if going into the worship space, these folks started acting in a very peculiar way, almost as if they had taken some kind of drug that kicked in at the beginning of the service and ended when they left the building. And I had never before felt so uncomfortable and out of place. I kept wanting to run screaming from the building, but I was too polite and stuck it out until the end of the service. That was the last time I darkened the doorstep of any church for years.
In those days it almost felt as if being “born again” was a litmus test for being a “real” Christian. It is almost as if being born again was a wall between Christians who considered it central and those who thought it didn’t apply to them. Many of us, then and now, don’t want to be cast in the same light as Jim and Tammy Faye or Jimmy Swaggart or Benny Hinn, all of whom emphasized the importance of being born again. Joel Osteen’s website says, “Pray this aloud: ‘Lord Jesus, I repent of my sins. Come into my heart. Wash me clean. I make you my Lord and Savior, Amen.’ We believe that if you prayed that simple prayer, you have been born again.”
Maybe that is why many progressive Christians feel the need to distance themselves from the concept of being born again. It has a lot of baggage in our culture, which is tragic, because it is such a beautiful way of approaching transformation in our lives. And I’d like to suggest that deep, internal transformation is far more nuanced and that it requires more than repeating a forumulaic prayer.
What if we imagined being born again not as a wall to divide the saved from the damned, but rather as a bridge between old, non-life-giving ways of thinking and new possibilities of reorienting our priorities and our lives? It may be helpful to speak about being “born anew” and if that is still too close, think about it as being “born from above.” And it’s not a one-off: We can be born from above again and again and again.
It’s important to remember the source of this passage. It is from John’s Gospel, which unlike the first three in our Bible, is a mystical text, rather than a document that attempts to convey “an orderly account.” The writer of this gospel wants you to see beyond what is in front of you and use your imagination to envision the realm of the possible. It’s very right-brain and uses heaps of metaphor. In today’s brief scripture, Nicodemus takes a literal approach when Jesus mentions being born anew…how can one re-enter a mother’s womb? Duh…it’s a metaphor for deep transformation! It represents a life-changing process that broadens one’s view and makes new things possible.
When he was here as our Visiting Scholar, John Dominic Crossan used another metaphor to describe this deep transformation. (And if Dom is willing to offer a metaphor, let all those with ears listen!) He said that being born anew is like receiving a heart transplant. You’ve probably seen images of a cardiothoracic surgeon removing the old, diseased heart from a patient and implanting a new, healthy heart, shocking it, and essentially bringing the patient back to life. Dom is not referring to transplanting the beating, pumping muscle in your chest, but rather the sense of deep knowing, feeling, emotion, perception, and motivation that are embodied in the metaphorical heart. What would it look like for us to have a heart transplant in that way? What newness of outlook and life might we expect?
In some 18th century Congregational churches in New England a criterion for membership was a “visible sign” of conversion, evidence that one had been born from above. (That is a bit more nuanced than Joel Osteen’s formula.)
Let me approach it a somewhat different way. What are some of the ways you see folks here at Plymouth or elsewhere showing evidence of transformation or newness of life? What acts of compassion do you see them committing that might convince you that they have reordered the priorities in their lives to put the way of Jesus first? I can share a few. When I see the folks who stay overnight in our church to accompany families experiencing homelessness, I see it as a mark of a transformed life. When I hear of someone commit to teaching Sunday school for an entire year, it shows a transformed soul. When I see people show up for a refugee family or for a Palestinian student and his family, I see people whose lives have been transformed. When I witness extraordinary acts of generosity in our congregation, I see it as less about someone’s ability to give and more about their inclination, regardless of the size of the gift. I see those not as a cause, but as an effect of having had a heart transplant.
I don’t think we can force being born anew. I think we need to be open to the possibility of that transformation and then welcome it when it comes. Some of that involves allowing old certainties and old fears to melt away. And it involves seeking and openness to fresh ways of being in the world. Maybe some of the things we have grasped need to be released. Some of the ways of living or measures of success that we once thought were important can be let go of. And I also think it is something we can ask for in our prayer lives. All our lives have room for transformation.
Here is what one born again Christian, Jimmy Carter, said about his faith: “I have one life and one chance to make it count for something….My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try and make a difference.” What I’m driving at is that you can be born from above and still be committed to the progressive spirit.
Christians do not have a corner on the market of spiritual transformation, and certainly this transformation of our priorities, our perspectives, and the way we live our lives have precious little to do with saying a formulaic prayer.
Marcus Borg writes, “But rightly understood, being born again is a very rich and comprehensive notion. It is at the very center of the New Testament and the Christian life. We need to reclaim it.”
May we at Plymouth in this season of seeking, open ourselves to the journey of transformation and invite it in.
© 2023 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, (San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), p. 105.