To be “Born Again”

If you’ve ever been to a baseball, hockey or football game or just watched it on TV, you may have seen someone in the stands hold up a sign that simply read: “JOHN 3:16”. And perhaps you’ve remembered that scripture reference and had the curiosity to look it up in the bible when you got home… or maybe you didn’t. At any rate, it’s from the Gospel of John where in chapter three a man named Nicodemus, a religious man, a Pharisee, comes to Jesus at night and enters into a discourse with him about being ‘born again’. Jesus tells Nicodemus, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above”. Nicodemus replies, “How can anyone be born after growing old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” And Jesus reveals to this searching Jewish leader that “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit.” This passage leads to the well-known John 3:16 passage which says: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
For those of a more fundamental interpretation of sacred scripture these words of John 3:16 almost speak of a formula for being ‘saved’, that is, that belief in Jesus makes one have eternal life. It’s not quite that simple. Jesus makes it pretty crystal clear that ‘belief’ in his name does not automatically punch ones’ ticket to the Eternal City and life with God. Just a few weeks ago we heard in the Sunday Gospel passage how the Day of Judgment would look when Jesus compared the Great Judgment to a great heavenly dividing of sheep from goats. And in that scene the Great Judge will welcome those who fed, clothed, visited and gave drink to He, Jesus Himself, when they least expected it. He doesn’t say “Come, blessed of my Father, and inherit the Kingdom prepared for you before the foundation of the world, for, I was sick and you believed in me. I was hungry and you believed in me. I was thirsty and you believed in me. I was naked and you believed in me.” Rather, belief that is realized in a lived faith will be the measure for entrance into eternal life.
Yet there are many who will ask us Catholics, “Are you born again?” “Have you been saved?” “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour?”
While the people who ask such questions may be sincere and well meaning, it sounds strange to the Catholic ear that someone should ask us such a forward and direct question about our whole faith life.
As Roman Catholics we do believe in being “born again”, but in a different sense of the phrase. For many more fundamentalistic or evangelical Christian denominations, to be ‘born again’ means that there was a pivotal point or moment in your life when you ‘accepted’ Jesus as your Lord and Saviour. Sometimes that moment was accompanied by a manifestation of some sort that bore witness to you personally that God was in fact doing something. For Catholics, however, while we would never want to belittle the authenticity of the experience of others nor would we want to be cynical about their understanding of what it means to be born again, our own understanding is what we might call less experiential and emotional and more philosophical and theological. To be “born again” for Roman Catholics is to see each new day God gives us as an opportunity to reaffirm our faith and trust in God by giving God free reign over our lives. It is, in a word, ‘renewable’ each day rather than being a ‘one-moment event’.
Catholics, like any other Christian, receive manifestations of the presence and the movement of God, perhaps even in the most extraordinary and wondrous ways. These moments, however, cannot replace the need for us to be continually saved by the Lord’s grace, mercy and love. We need to act on our having been moved and touched by the Lord in the actions and ‘works’ of our lives.
I remember reading a statistic some years ago which stated that over 80% of people who claim a ‘born again’ experience in their lives go back to their old way of living within six months. This statement would suggest that the experience part may have been based on the emotion of the moment; an altar call or a moving worship and praise session. A religion based on emotion, however, can, as the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen once said, “turn a simple ‘Alleluia’ on Sunday into a ‘Crucify him’ on Friday”.
What the term “born again” often brings out is the whole discussion on faith and works. Faith without works is dead, says James 2:14-18; “My brothers and sisters, what good is it for someone to say that they have faith if their actions do not prove it? Can that faith save them? Suppose there are brothers or sisters who need clothes or do not have enough to eat. What good is there in your saying to them, “God bless you! Keep warm and eat well!”- if you don’t give them the necessities of life? So it is with faith: if it is alone and includes no actions, then it is dead.”
To say that one accepts Christ and professes belief in him and surrenders one’s life to him but does not actually do the will of Christ, is to utter an empty and lifeless ‘will of intent’. Whenever Jesus summoned people, it was not only their minds and their intentions that he called upon but also their bodies, their actions, their ‘all’ – “Come, follow me.” The bestowal of eternal life that Jesus spoke of in John 3:16 is His work, not ours. Our work is to accept that invitation and follow him. It is not enough for someone to read a book on How to Swim and even profess the Swimmer’s Creed (if there was such a thing) unless one is prepared to get wet and actually swim.
And so it is with our Catholic understanding of being born again. Being “born from above” as Jesus said to Nicodemus, is the part God plays – it is the summons or the pull from above, it is God’s plan and God’s way of saving us from sin and our lower nature. Belief in God is dependent on more than lip service or the recitation of a creed. It is utterly dependent on both faith and actions.
When a lover says to the beloved, “I love you” it would remain meaningless unless the lover were willing to also show and express that love. As Jesus said, “greater love than this is not known than that one would lay down their life for another” – it is realized and valued when it is expressed, for after all, that is what God has done and continues to do in our lives and in the plan of salvation. He not only tells us through his Word that we are loved, as he does in John 3:16, but he continually acts on and shows us that love with every new day, each sunrise and sunset, and every living, breathing moment we are given. We are alive through the action of God’s love!
To be born again is an everyday reality renewed in our lives. (Fr. Charles)

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