When I was in the ninth grade, a group of us managed to convince our parents and the curate at Mediator in Meridian that we should go to New Orleans for our annual EYC trip. This was not an easy task, particularly because we wanted to go to the first weekend of Jazz Fest. I don’t really remember too much about the music that weekend, but I have vivid memories of seeing the Quarter at night for the first time. I was one of five baffled fourteen year olds – all of us properly astonished at the sights and sounds of the street.
But of all the sights that surprised me, the one that seemed most outrageous was a middle-aged man with a beard holding a huge cross. As I walked by, he handed me a pamphlet and screamed, “Have you been born again?” Needless to say, I did not answer. I put my head down and kept walking.
It was not the first time I had been asked that question, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. But at that point I really had no idea what it meant. My first problem was that, like Nicodemus, I took the question literally. Since it didn’t make much sense from that point of view, I didn’t know why anyone would ask that. Secondly, I had never paid much attention to this story, so I definitely did not know that Jesus had said we must all be born again. I thought that language had been created by someone out there – maybe preachers in other denominations - who told their flocks to go out and question the faith of everyone they met.
Since I didn’t have the knowledge of this story necessary to get the question, it seemed like he was making an accusation rather than beginning a conversation. That’s actually been my impression many times when being asked whether or not I was born again – that the person asking me was doubting my faith, my ability to relate to God, maybe even the Episcopal church’s relationship with God.
And that’s a sad, sad thing. Because I am positive that Jesus did not intend for this metaphor to create differences of opinion between Christians. Rather, he intended to make a point about all who believe. That point, it would seem, is that we are all new people as we come to believe in God. The Holy Spirit is with us in all things – guiding us, helping us to live the very best way that we can. We are no longer just the product of our human parents, we are now reborn with the Spirit. If we can remove all of the other connotations we may have from these words, we will find them to be quite lovely, even poetic.
After all, for most people there is a deep reassurance in knowing that Christians are not alone - God will always be with us. For many people, it is a relief to imagine that there is a way to begin anew, leaving behind the things that prevented them from being the people they wanted to be. And for some, whose parents were unable to care for them as they needed, there is an abiding comfort in the knowledge that the Holy Spirit is another source of love and guidance.
So maybe it’s time for us Episcopalians to reclaim this concept of being born again. It’s okay that Episcopalians are not really known for asking people if they have been born again, or if they have been saved, or really asking too many questions about someone else’s faith at all. It’s just not our thing. I would say that our thing is to let our faith be known through our actions. We are far more likely to be found building a home with Habitat or sorting canned goods at Stewpot than to be seen walking Bourbon Street late at night looking for converts. We show others that we are new creations in God by the way we live our lives.
In that way, we are a good bit like Nicodemus. As we heard, he came to Jesus to ask questions at night – out of the sight of the crowds. He was leader of the Jews, and as such, he was not interested in loudly broadcasting his interest in Jesus. He took the less public route to discuss his faith.
But Nicodemus appears twice more in John, and in his third appearance Nicodemus is the one that comes to help Joseph of Aramathea prepare Jesus’ body for the tomb. When he is needed, he is ready and willing to be of service to Christ. He is ready to do the work that needs to be done, and he is not afraid for everyone to know that he believes.
Perhaps our task in this church is to follow his example, to continue to be the hands and feet of Christ in this world, finding new ways to be more visibly Christian in our actions. After all, there are many simple ways that we can identify ourselves as Christians without rudely imposing our beliefs on those around us.
For example, over the past six months of marriage, I have been learning a new discipline of saying grace at restaurants. You see, Gates never fails to say a prayer – out loud – before eating. I, on the other hand, have always been content to say a silent prayer when in public, mainly because I feel awkward. I feel awkward praying while waiters are trying to refill glasses and I feel like everyone is watching me do this weird thing.
But now that I’ve been praying with Gates for a while, it’s better. I still feel awkward, but less so. Sometimes, it’s even okay. I have realized that generally, waiters are just trying to do their jobs, not dissect our behavior. And, maybe, someone who has seen us pray has been one of the hundreds of people in this town who are unsure if this Christianity thing is worth considering. Maybe, somehow, it helped further the mission of the church – and maybe not.
The truth is, of course, that we may never know who is impacted by our actions. We may never know who will see the light of Christ in our lives and be born again into a new life with the Spirit as a result. We can only continue doing what we do to the best, living out our faith in this world as the new creations that we are.