Born Again, part 1: New Life

Sermon for Sunday, June 26, 2016 || Proper 8C || Luke 9:51-62

bornAgain-NewLifeDuring the summer, I am preaching without a text, so what follows is an edited transcript of what I said Sunday morning at the 10 a.m. service at St. Mark’s.

As I was preparing for this morning’s sermon, I was having trouble, and I realized the reason I was having trouble is that I was actually preparing for four sermon, and not for one sermon. So today is the beginning of a four part series that goes all the way until I start my vacation. So you have to come back for the next three Sundays to get the whole thing. The topic of this sermon series is a topic we don’t talk a lot about in the Episcopal Church, but it is something you hear a lot of in other churches and in popular culture. It is the concept of being “born again.” You’ve heard that before, right? Probably not here.

The popular conception of being born again has to do with a conversion that happens right in a moment: you sign on the dotted line, you hand yourself over to Jesus Christ, he is your Lord and Savior, and you are born again. That is the way it gets talked about in many other churches and in modern parlance. When I was growing up in Alabama, if someone asked me if I was “born again” that’s what they would have been wondering. When did you sign on that dotted line and accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?

That idea was always unsettling for me because I understood, and still understand, this concept of being “born again” as being a lifelong process. We are in the process of being born again, born anew to a new life in Jesus Christ. That’s why this is going to take four weeks. It could take, you know, the rest of time, but we’re going to see if we can smoosh it into four Sundays. The reason I want to talk about this is coming from this morning’s Gospel reading. We’re going to talk about a different part of this newness of being born again each week, and today we’re going to talk about “new life.”

In today’s Gospel lesson, two of Jesus’ disciples have not yet figured out this new life. They’re still stuck in an old habit, an old life. Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem, he’s on his way for this last trip to Jerusalem. We all know what happens at the end of that trip – that’s where the crucifixion happens. He sets his face to go there, and he has to go through the region of Samaria, which is in conflict with Israel. And he can’t find a place to stay there. So his disciples, James and John say, “Hey, Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?” And what does he say? I think he says, “What are you talking about? Why would I ever want you to do that?” They are stuck in an old pattern, an old way of thinking. That old way of thinking says, “An eye for an eye. If your neighbor sets your house on fire, you go set his house on fire. Someone does something to you, you do it right back to them.” That’s the old life, a small life, a life of pettiness and getting back at each other for whatever personal slights have happened in our lives. We’ve all been there, right?

Jesus says, “No! We’re not going to call down fire to consume them. No. That’s not my way.” As he walks to Jerusalem, that way gets clearer and clearer until he is ready to go to the cross, and even there he still does not turn to fight. The new life in Jesus Christ is one in which we turn the other cheek, we go the extra mile, we set our light up on a hill for all to see. This new life that Jesus calls us into though is not an easy one. And it is one that invites us to change, to really change. When we make this commitment, when we are born again, we are changed.

There is a particular religion in the United States, and it goes across all religions. It is actually the largest religion in the United States. Not Roman Catholicism or Christianity in general. It’s not Judaism or Islam or any of the other religions. It’s a conglomeration of all of them. I want to talk about for a couple of minutes because I think it’s going to illustrate my point better than anything else. It’s a long-named religion. “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”* This is the largest religion in the United States. Let’s break this down.

Deism: the concept that, “yeah, there’s God, but God’s just sort of set the universe in motion and then left well enough alone. God started this whole thing and then went and had a sandwich, and is still eating that sandwich, and isn’t involved in this world or universe at all.” That’s Deism. Therapeutic: we do this to make ourselves feel good. Moralistic: a general sense of right and wrong. This is the primary religion in the United States these days. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

This is a religion that makes us feel pretty good, but doesn’t really ask anything of us. You’re okay, I’m okay – that kind of thing. This Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is very different from the new life that Jesus calls us into. Because Moralistic Therapeutic Deism doesn’t call for a commitment and it doesn’t call for us to change our lives at all. But in this passage in the Gospel, Jesus does call us to change.

Did you notice that in the second half of the passage, all of the things people ask Jesus – “I need to go bury my father”; “I want to go home and say goodbye to my folks” – they all sound so reasonable, right? They’re such reasonable requests. And Jesus says “No” to all of them. That’s because this new life that Jesus is calling us into is profoundly unreasonable. An unreasonable life.

It was unreasonable for God to send God’s Son to us. It was unreasonable for Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane to say, “Yes, I will accept the fate that is mine.” It was unreasonable for him to rise from the dead on the third day and open up for us the gate to eternal life. That was all incredibly unreasonable.

And so when Jesus calls us into this new life, this unreasonable life, he’s saying, “I want your reasonable-ness to take a backseat. I want you to accept me first.” Because what happens if we do the things the people in the passage do – those reasonable things – remember the guy in the passage says, “I will follow you, but first let me do this” – if we say, “But first let me do this, but first let me do that, but first let me do this and the other thing,” you know what we’re going to do? We’re going to say, “But first…” over and over again, and we’re going to end up right here, at this watered down religion called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. That’s not what Jesus’ new life is about.

Think about it like this: if you jump into the pool, what happens? You get wet. Accepting the new life of Jesus Christ but living it like a Moralistic Therapeutic Deist is like jumping into the pool and expecting to stay dry. The new life of Jesus Christ, this divine unreasonableness, is a life where we turn the other cheek and walk the extra mile, help those in need, put our pettiness behind us, and embrace the gifts of the Spirit. Jak read them earlier and I think Stacey can say them off the top of her head. Can you give us the gifts of the Spirit.

Stacey says: “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Applause)

Secret weapon, right there. I can’t think of a better life than to live with those things in my heart and my hands and my steps. That’s the new life Jesus calls us into: the life in which we put those gifts first. As we go through this sermon series, we’re going to see this newness three more times. We’re going to see those gifts of the Spirit peeking out as we go through them. Next week, we’ll talk about “new hands” to serve out in the world beyond those red doors, as we hear the story of Jesus sending out a whole bunch of people to proclaim his message of salvation. Two weeks from today, we’re going to talk about “new hearts,” as we hear the parable of the Good Samaritan. We’ll see how our new service and life lead us to compassion as a primary motivator of our choices. And the finally on the day before my vacation, we’re going to talk about “new bread,” new sustenance, the ways that God helps us maintain our lives as we do these other things. We’ll hear the story Martha and Mary as Jesus comes to their house and Mary sits at his feet.

So today, we embrace this new life, this commitment, this changed life in which we accept these gifts of the Spirit to go out with our new hands and our new hearts. So stick with me for three more weeks and we’ll see where we go. Amen.


* This term entered the discussion of religion in America through the work of Christian Smith in a book called Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, published in 2005.

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