A Homily for Evening Prayer in the First Week of Lent
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who by his death gives us rebirth. Amen.
If you spend much time in the South, you will inevitably be asked, “Have you been born again?” For some of our kindred in the Church, this is the single most important question to ask someone, and they have their own ready answer; they can point to a specific event on a specific day when they were born again – even if they grew up in the Church, even if there was never a time they didn’t believe. It’s a not-uncommon talking point, often accompanied by some form of testimony ready to be shared at a moment’s notice, be it with a close friend or a new acquaintance, at church, at a dinner party, or on a random street corner. It’s a staple of contemporary Christian culture to the point that it has become a sort of short-hand of a large chunk of Protestants: “born-again Christians.”.
But it’s also not language that many Lutherans (or Anglicans or Catholics) are comfortable using. Indeed, if you grew up in that diverse grab-bag of diverse denominations we call “Mainline Protestant” or the Roman Catholic Church, and have been asked by a (usually) well-meaning street evangelist about being born again, you may very well have, like Nicodemus, fumbled for an answer. “Uh…what do you mean?” It’s not language we use very often; while much of the Church, especially in this country, emphasizes being “born again”, it’s not a phrase we in the Lutheran tradition have typically used.
And yet, for all of the Lutheran tradition’s emphasis on Scripture, so many of us are unsure of what to do with a phrase that’s right there in the Gospel of Saint John – part of what might be the most well-known chapter in the entire New Testament.
The language of “born again” is found in Scripture, but it didn’t become the cultural touchstone that it is until the 1960s and ‘70s. So while Lutherans (and other Christians) may not put such a prominent emphasis on being “born again,” it’s not because we’re ignorant of Scripture. But because it has become such a prominent part of our discourse, let’s wrestle with it a little, shall we?
Yes, tonight’s Gospel reading talks about being “born again” (or, as the NRSV translates it, “born from above”). But the discourse doesn’t end there. When Nicodemus presses for clarification on how one could be born again – comedically suggesting that surely a person can’t “enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born” – Jesus responds that this rebirth is not one of flesh but water and the Spirit.
This new birth is the Sacrament of Baptism, when we are, as Saint Paul will later write in the Epistle to Titus, bathed “through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”
To be born again is not some single moment of conversion – a simple change of mind or heart – but being “buried with Christ by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead…so we too might walk in newness of life.”
During this Lenten season, Christians around the world are preparing to be born again – to come forward at the Great Vigil of Easter and to put their old selves to death in order that they may be born again, from above, of water and the Spirit. And so, we, with all the saints, join them in this time of preparation through fasting and prayer.
And when that glorious night comes, when the new fire is kindled and makes the night as bright as day, we will join with them, remembering our baptism, and continuing daily to die to self that we might be reborn by the grace of God.