BREAD FOR THE JOURNEY
Rebirth from above
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born anew (born from above), he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). The notion of rebirth, however, has much to commend to us. It is pregnant with meaning. We are well advised to reclaim this phrase and let it speak to us in a fresh way. But how? Let me suggest that we do two things. First, instead of the phrase “born again,” let us use its alternative translation: “born from above.” Secondly, let us unpack its meaning by sketching two contrasting ways by which the presence and activity of God’s Spirit is discerned. On the one hand, we may attempt to control or domesticate God’s Spirit; on the other hand, we may humbly acknowledge the freedom of the Spirit to do what God wills.
One common practice of domesticating God’s Spirit is to put our statement of beliefs in a package and claim that this is the whole truth about who God is and what God does.
God is bigger than our thoughts about Him. Our best affirmations of faith such as The Apostles’ Creed can, at best, enable us only to see God through a foggy windshield. They are always partial, not complete, definite but not definitive. They need to be continually analyzed, criticized and refined. There is always room in them for further growth. This is in line with a basic Protestant principle of the Christian church as always engaged in the process of continuing reformation.
We can domesticate or control God’s Spirit by insisting that any process of Christian renewal must take place within acceptable church policies and practices. That was the experience of Rev. Richard Lischer. Listen to his testimony.
In a church I served, one of the pillars of the congregation stopped by my office before services to tell me he’d been born again.
“You’ve been what?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “Last week I visited my brotherin- law’s church, the Running River Life Tabernacle, and I don’t know what it was, but something happened and I’m born again.”
“You can’t be born again, I said. You’re a Lutheran. You are the chairman of the board of trustees.” He was brimming with joy, but I was sulking. Why? Because spiritual renewal is wonderful as long as it occurs within acceptable, usually mainline, channels and does not threaten my understanding of God ( “Acknowl edgement , ” Christian Century, March 3, 1999, 245).
One possible reason why Nicodemus, a conservative Jew of considerable prominence, decided to see Jesus in secret under cover of darkness, was that he may have felt that the elaborate religious tradition in which he was brought up had become so rigidly formal and exclusivist that he could no longer feel any life-giving spirit in it. Nicodemus did not share the view of his colleagues in the Sanhedrin who showed irritated resentment toward Jesus whom they regarded as a religious upstart with a strange message and a gall to challenge their authority. Nicodemus felt that there was something spiritually fresh and enriching in the teaching and ministry of Jesus that deserved to be carefully looked into. Jesus could well be God’s new voice for him; so he decided to investigate. (to be continued)
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