Years ago I was interviewing people for a position at the church where I worked. One woman seemed very qualified for the job, and came across as competent, capable, and personable.
The interview took an unexpected turn when she asked me a question: “What is your spiritual birthday?”
I had no idea what she was talking about, which seemed to surprise her.
“I mean, when did you become a Christian?” she said.
And by that she meant at what specific date and time did I accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior? Where was I? How did it happen?
For this woman, the response “I’ve always been Christian” was not an acceptable answer. For her, being a Christian meant being born again.
The gospel passage we heard today of Nicodemus, the Jewish leader who sneaks in to talk to Jesus under the cover of night, would be foundational to this woman’s deep faith.
Jesus tells Nicodemus, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”
For many Christians, being born of water and Spirit, or as they now say, being born again, is essential to a life of faith.
Being born again to them means having a datable moment of conversion, a specific time that one became a Christian, a moment that divides life into before and after.
It is not only more conservative or fundamentalist Christians who experience such moments. One of the most liberal Christians I know, Sara Miles, (who spoke here during Lent several years ago), had such an experience.
Sara was not just unreligious; she was adamant in her atheism. She was hostile to and contemptuous of any religion, particularly Christianity.
One Sunday morning, during a walk through her San Francisco neighborhood, she was drawn, for reasons she could not explain, to enter an Episcopal Church.
She knew nothing about the rituals of the church, or the stories of our faith.
“Suddenly, someone was putting a piece of fresh, crumbly bread in my hands, saying ‘the body of Christ,’ and handing me a goblet of sweet wine, saying ‘the blood of Christ,’” she writes in her book Take This Bread.
“And then something outrageous and terrifying happened,” she writes. “Jesus happened to me.
“I still can’t explain my first communion,” she says. “It made no sense. I was in tears and physically unbalanced.
“The disconnect between what I thought was happening – I was eating a piece of bread; what I heard someone else say was happening – the piece of bread was the ‘body’ of ‘Christ,’ a patently untrue or at best metaphorical statement; and what I knew was happening – God, named Christ or Jesus, was real and in my mouth – utterly short-circuited my ability to do anything but cry.”
If you ask Sara Miles what her “spiritual birthday” is, she could tell you. On that day, in that hour and moment, everything changed for her. She was, indeed, born again.
I would never doubt the validity of those kinds of dramatic conversion experiences. Maybe some of you have had something similar in your life.
The problem comes in thinking that kind of experience is the only way to be a Christian.
Most of us in this part of country have been asked at some point if we have been born again. Or if we have a personal relationship with Jesus, have accepted him as our Lord and Savior?
Those can be loaded questions. There are many Jesuses here, in a part of the country that writer Flannery O’Connor called “a Christ-haunted landscape.”
There is the Jesus worshipped by the pastor of a church in Kentucky who held a bring-your-gun-to-church day and preached a sermon entitled, “God, Guns, and the Gospel.”
“When someone tells me that being a Christian and having firearms are incompatible with the Gospel – baloney,” he said. “Now the Gospel is at stake.”
There is the Jesus of a woman who sent me a letter in response to a newspaper column I wrote saying that gays and lesbians are welcome in the Kingdom. Her Jesus, she assured me, has condemned me to hell for preaching such blasphemy.
There is the Jesus admired by many in this region who apparently spends most of his time happily sending all Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians like me to hell. That same Jesus is often wrapped up in an American flag, making patriotism and Christianity so intertwined they are indistinguishable.
These different Jesuses, and the people who worship them, make me uneasy for two reasons.
First, these images of Jesus that are so prevalent in the culture are antithetical to the Jesus that I know. And second, the people who worship these Jesuses claim an intimacy with and certainty about him that give me pause.
What I should have told that woman years ago is that Jesus has always been part of my life, although not always at the forefront of it. I was baptized as an infant and went to church with my family throughout my childhood and youth.
If asked I would have said I believed in Jesus, but I never gave a lot of thought to what that really meant. College began what would be a 12-year hiatus from church.
Those mustard seeds of faith which had been planted in my childhood began to come alive and blossom when I found my way to St. Ann’s in Nashville. Jesus was alive in that little congregation in ways that I had not experienced before.
He was alive in the vigorous debates that sprang up in adult Sunday School classes. He was alive in the care and concern that the congregation displayed for one another. He was alive in the care and concern they displayed for those outside the church walls. He was alive in the struggle to not just espouse a laundry list of beliefs, but to live a faithful life.
I now see Jesus alive in the same ways in this congregation.
I soon found myself immersed not just in the life of the church, but in questions of faith. What I would say now is that this period in my life was a time of conversion, although not of the “born again” type.
A book I read at the time, Returning, by Dan Wakefield, described my own experience.
“I was put off by the melodramatic nature of the label ‘born again,’” he writes, “as well as the political beliefs that seemed to go along with it.
“Besides, I didn’t feel ‘reborn.’ No voice came out of the sky nor did a thunder clap strike me on the path through the Boston Common.
“I was relieved when our minister explained that the literal translation of ‘conversion’ in both Hebrew and Greek is not ‘rebirth’ but ‘turning.’
“That’s what my own experience felt like – as if I’d been walking in one direction and then, in response to some inner pull, I turned – not even all the way around, but only what seemed a slightly different angle.”
What happened to me during those years in Nashville was my life turned toward Jesus – not the gun-toting, flag-waving, hell-threatening Jesus, but a Jesus whose compassion extends to all of God’s people; a Jesus who challenges us to fully engage the world, not reject it; a Jesus who demands that we use the minds God has given us; a Jesus who weeps over all the ways we find to abuse and misuse his Gospel of love and justice.
That turning is not a one-time event, but a constant movement, a series of experiences and learnings that gradually and continually shape us and turn us toward God.