MONDAY IN THE SECOND WEEK OF EASTER - This reflection is from a homily I wrote in 2010
“Are you “Born Again?” is a common conversation started for so-called Evangelical Christians. There are many people who identify themselves as “born again Christians.” In modern discussions, it has become a category akin to a denomination. Generally, proponents of this position have a very specific meaning for the phrase “born again:” that at a specific moment on a clock and calendar, one accepted Jesus as his or her “personal savior.” The judgment that attaches to this view is that if you have not had a Pauline Damascus Road moment, you cannot really call yourself a Christian. A related question is “When were you saved?” This is not language that is commonly used by Catholics (and many other Christian groups). This phrase is taken from the John 3 conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, a Pharisee from the Jewish Council who seeks to understand Jesus’ teachings and motivations better. Here’s the rub: this pet phrase of so-called “Bible-believing born again Christians” is never uttered by Jesus. Jesus never said (at least not in the Christian Scriptures): “You must be born again.” In fact, the phrase that has been so canonized by modern Christians is itself based on Nicodemus’ misunderstanding and is corrected by Jesus.
Now don’t get me wrong: rebirth and regeneration are perfectly valid Christian theological concepts that are related to baptism, justification, and sanctification. And there is no reason to chuck the notion of being “born again.” But it is equally important not to place a false understanding on it and insist that Jesus said “you must be born again - and by that I mean you have to have a point-in-time Damascus Road experience.” The Scriptural witness simply does not support that view.
So what does Jesus say in John 3 that Nicodemus misunderstands as “born again?” Jesus says “ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν, οὐ δύναται ἰδεῖντὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ. ” which translates “Unless a man is begotten from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of Heaven.” The Greek word “ἄνωθεν ” (anothen) is used in the NT only 13 times, 2 of them right here in John 3. It always speaks of realities that are above (i.e. heavenly). Its basic root is “ano” which means “up” or “above” in Ancient Greek. It never means “again” or “a second time.” Interesting. So where does the idea of a “born again come from?” A confused Nicodemus (or perhaps a man playing with words) asks about crawling back in his mother’s womb and being born “δεύτερον” or “a second time” or “again.” Voila – “Born Again!” But Jesus corrects Nicodemus’ misunderstanding: you are talking about your birth in the Flesh, which avails only flesh, I am talking about a birth in Spirit and Water – a clear Baptismal reference. Remember that John is the most Catholic of the Gospels and is written near the end of the 1st Century– he focuses on the sacramental life of the Church in many of his writings. These instructions are for the Church. The Water reference here is to the rebirth that happens in the regenerating waters of baptism. Paul also spoke of this in his letter to the Romans, only he would choose death/resurrection language instead of birth/rebirth language: “Or are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.”
Why this language in this particular conversation. Context is everything. Jesus’ definitive statement about being born from above is given to this “Leader of the Jews” who believes that his relationship with God is guaranteed by his birth. He has the blood of Abraham in his veins, he must be part of the Kingdom. Jesus assures him that his fleshly birth has produced nothing but flesh and that more is required, a birth in the Spirit. Again, the context for much of the Fourth Gospel is the conflict between Church and Synagogue. By the last decade of the First Century, Christians are being actively expelled from Jewish Communities (This will give the context for the believer/unbeliever dichotomy later in chapter 3). John is writing instructions for his Jewish followers who must understand that that under the new covenant, the relationship offered to Jews and written in their flesh, is offered to all in the Spirit and will be written on their hearts in their belief and by their baptism.
The Fourth Gospel is structured so differently from the others because of this important historical reality. Chapters 3-10 are instructions for the suffering Church intermingled with post-temple Judaism. It draws on teachings and actions of Jesus which provide answers for the specific problems faced by the Johannine community as they mourn their expulsion and rejection in Jewish society. This knowledge helps us know how to appropriate the lessons of the Fourth Gospel in our 21st Century context.
So why is this prepositional distinction important? I said that rebirth and regeneration are valid theological concepts. So why make a fuss about this text? Because this misinterpretation is used by some arrogant modern era Christians to beat others over the head – “You must be born again!” has a very specific meaning in those circles – and is used to perpetuate the “us/them,” “insider/outsider” language that has plagued Christianity since the reformation. I would argue that what is said by those who insist on a narrow “born again experience” are NOT saying the same thing as the theologically correct understanding of rebirth presented either in John 3 or the rest of the Christian Scriptures, which understand and encourage the gradual growth in faith in the context of community that is by far the more common experience of Christians throughout history. This prepositional distinction is important as an exercise in proper use of and reading of the Bible. Many people take at face value that Jesus said “You must be born again,” and have developed a modern theology around it based on the canonization of a misunderstanding. That theology is not supported by the text, and the arrogance with which it insisted upon hurts the cause of the Church.
Thank God for the Damascus Road experience for those who experience and need it. But for most of us, the coming to faith is more an “Emmaus Road” experience wherein faith and understanding evolve over time and experience with the help of Jesus who understands that, or a Thomasine upper room experience where Jesus, the good teacher, invites us gently to move from “unbelieving to believing” and provides us with help to make that transition. But that’s another sermon for another time.
For every baptized believer, the answer to the question “Have you been born again?” is a resounding “Yes!” Because what Jesus insists on in John 3 is a combination of our belief and being “begotten in water and the Spirit.” While many of us cannot remember precisely when we started believing (even if we can mark a baptism on a calendar), our belief is no less valid than those who have had the so-called “born-again” experience.
Fr. Bart Hutcherson, OP
Fr. Bart Hutcherson, OP is a Roman Catholic Priest & a Friar of the Dominican Province of the Most Holy Name of Jesus-USA. He is on the Pastoral Staff at Most Holy Rosary Parish in Antioch, California, and uses this page to post Homilies and Scripture reflections.