Friedens United Church of Christ, Oley, PA, November 11, 1984
1st Congregational Church, Gray, Maine, July 31, 2022
Have you got your BA?
Some day you will be asked if you have your BA. Probably you already have been. I’m not talking about a Batchelor or Arts. I’m talking about being Born Again. Have you been asked that yet? There is a large section of American Christians who refer to themselves as “born agains.” Perhaps you have been in that community. I was . You may have had someone knock on your door to ask you this. You may have heard a political candidate claim it. You might have been handed a little pamphlet or heard it in a sermon. Are you Born Again? You better be (is the implication).
Three hundred years ago, this was a very wild country. Most of it was unsettled and even unexplored. People began carving homes out of the forests and mountains. The Government in Washington was too far away to be effective. Law was maintained by the powerful in violent ways. Towns were widespread and churches were very few. This was America in the late 1700’s to the early 1900’s. But in 1730 there occurred an event that became called “the Great Awakening”. It was a wide spread religious revival. Suddenly there were mass conversions to Christianity of people who had had little to do with spiritual life. Churches were planted and grew, and the influence of Protestant Christianity grew and became dominant.
One of the ways this Awakening functioned was to place a strong emphasis on Christianity being a matter of inner transformation rather than outward ceremony. There was a burst of personal piety in many sectors of society. The focus of religious was not on worship and the sacraments, but on a personal experience. Becoming a Christian now meant a sudden, personal, emotional experience.
Because so much of the country was rural or even frontier, mass meetings became common, with people gathering at “camps” which provided people the opportunity to hear ministers and make music. Campmeeting! Who has been? This was the age of revivalism. It was the background of the work done by Oral Roberts and Billy Graham.
At these meetings the goal was to lead people into these life changing experiences. The phrase “Born Again” was plucked from the Gospel of John to describe them. It seemed to describe the suddenness of it. It was a moment that led to a complete change of life. It was coming into a new way.
All this set a new standard of what it meant to be a Christian. The new ID card was an emotional experience in which you believed everything in your life had changed. Rather than being present in Baptism and Communion, Christ was present at the place where you prayed and wept and turned from your old life. You were born again! If someone asked if you were born again, you could tell them the time and the place at which you turned your life over to Christ. For many people still today, this seems like I am describing the normal, natural path of spiritual life. Hmmm.
And that is what young Stevie Carnahan was trying to find when he was a little boy. He had heard the message clearly: this is an experience you must have. There is no other way to find God. If you don’t have this Born again experience, you will go to hell. If you can’t find it, it is because you are holding something back from God. But I never did find it. I tried, I thought I had. But I wasn’t there.
There was tremendous pressure on me to find this experience , and not just me, but on many others. I loved going to church, but at the end of every service there was an “altar call.” The pastor would tell us that now was the time to come to the front of the church, kneel and pray and be saved. Be born again. Do some of you know what I’m talking about? Often I “went forward” and prayed and cried ahd hoped. But that big change never happened.
The reality is that few things in this life change with suddenness. Everything changes. But change is a process. Can you imagine if it was not? What if the seasons changed instantly at the solstice or equinox? What if dawn came like a light being switched on? What if birth was sudden without the nine months of the process of pregnancy? And what if people could and did change suddenly? What if you want home and found that your loving, caring spouse had run off to Bolivia with Paul LePage? No the changes of nature and life are gradual processes.
Like everything, Christianity is a matter of growth and gradual change. I have seen some people go through sudden and dramatic changes turn things around. For other people life is a long series of sudden changes. But for most of us, life is a progression. It is a pilgrimage, a journey, a growing and maturing. For myself one of the most profound changes in my life and my faith was when I realized that I was being born again every day.
Jesus Christ is the new wine that bursts out of the wine skin. Jesus is not easily contained by one system of thought or a single theology. There isn’t one method of conversion that can answer the question of how we believe. The biggest mistake made by many groups, and certainly by the world I grew up in, is that the Holy Spirit can be contained in one idea. The Gospel is that Christ meets us at our point of need.
Our faith is that we are in a process. We are pilgrims through life, trying to understand this world we have been brought into. Baptism, Confirmation, and Communion are milage markers we pass on our journey through life. These keep pointing the way to Christ and Christ’s realm. There is a walking path of two miles along the west shore of Lake Auburn, on what used to be Whitman Springs road. Does anyone know it? There are posts marking every quarter mile. When you come to the first one, you take a breath and a single step and then you are at the second. A half mile. Take another breath and one step and you are at the three quarter marker.
Of course not. You drive to the trail and start walking. There’s the first marker down the road a ways. When you reach that you look, but the next marker is not yet in sight. Keep walking. After a bit you catch a glimpse of the second marker through the trees. Keep walking. Eventually you reach that and look ahead. But the third marker is not yet in sight. Keep walking. Such is the life of faith in Christ.
Being Born Again is seen in lives, not in moments in lives. The term has been held captive by those who use it to mean a single moment in time. It’s a beautiful idea—we become part of the family of God, and we start over, and keep starting over. But very seldom is it a sudden or single moment. We are led to understanding by the Holy Spirit, and it takes time. Maybe even a long time.
How do you know if you have been Born Again? If you are like most people, there isn’t that single emotional moment when you start over. There probably was not a moment when you can say, “Before that I wasn’t a Christian, after that I was.” Most of us find that we have grown into our faith. We know we are followers of the way of Christ not by getting a BA, but simply by living a life that grows more and more into Christ.
Are you open to Christ? Do you listen for the leading of the Holy Spirit? Do you believe that Jesus is renewing your life? Do you take communion in order to find Christ? Do you come to church to hear Christ’s word, and do you complain to the pastor if you aren’t getting that? Then you are being born again.
Are you living in the light? Jesus says, “Light has come into the world but people loved darkness instead of light, because their deeds were evil. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light.” So are you bringing love into this world, or division? Do you have hope or only despair? Do you want to believe in God’s love for you. If so, then you can be sure that you have been born again, are being born again, and will be born again. So claim it!
Don’t let anyone cause you anxiety because you did not find Christ the say way they did. After all, the question should not be “how did you find Christ?” It should be, “are you letting Christ bring you into the light and truth?”
So when someone asks you if you have been Born Again, say. “Yes I have. Yes I am. Yes I will be. Thanks for asking.” And smile, shake their hand, and go your way in peace.