The four young men sitting in the restaurant booth next to us could be easily overheard. Their conversation was lively and animated. They were clean cut, casually dressed, neat, and in their twenties. One asked another if he'd been born again.
It reminded me of the first time I was asked that question and was unable to give an answer. I was twenty years old and a student at Methodist-supported Millsaps College. The question caught me off guard -- probably because I'd grown up Catholic.
Having been raised in a Catholic family, attended a Catholic elementary school, plus having learned the Scripture-based catechism and served as an altar boy to the age of thirteen, one could say I was fairly steeped in the faith. But not quite as steeped perhaps as others who went on to attend a Catholic high school or college.
While there are Catholics who have had their moments of closeness to God, even something of a "conversion experience" or sorts, there are many who probably cannot pinpoint a particular moment in his life when he dropped to his knees and "accepted Jesus" for the first time. As far back as he can recall, he has believed, trusted, and loved Jesus as Savior and Lord. Does this prove he's never been "born again"?
Anyway, it was one Saturday afternoon, at the Jackson City Zoo, while waiting for two friends to return from the restroom, that I was looking out upon the open air monkey exhibit when a young man just a few years older than me, an Evangelical Baptist, walked up, introduced himself, shook my hand and asked the question.
Though I had in fact been "born again", I was unable at that time to articulate whether I had or not. Like most Catholics I didn't understand the expression "born again" perhaps because Catholic teaching, through Scripture, incorporates into the catechism how one is born again, without specifically explicating on the words "born again". The term is mentioned only once in the Bible.
I don't hear much personally any more about being born again, even around Evangelical friends. Perhaps it's assumed that older folks have satisfied their religious curiosity and have settled their uneasy questions long ago. Or, more likely, people have become so secularized and spiritually-callused that their concern over the soul of another was smothered long ago. Besides, when you're in your twenties you feel ten feet tall and bullet proof.
Everyone agrees that to be born again means to start anew, to be regenerated into something different, with a view towards a better spiritual future -- as in one's soul being saved to avoid eternal heat. For Jesus taught that being born again is integral to, and a prerequisite for, entering eternal life.
Like many of Christ's teachings that are difficult to accept in modern life, this dictum of getting qualified for eternal life is rather strange and flies in the face of many, especially the talking heads, and their like, on the cable channels. It is indeed an alien thing.
But Jesus himself explains how one is to be born again when he tells the VIP Pharisee, Nicodemus, that it is by the use of water and Spirit that one is regenerated (John 3:3). "Born of water and the Spirit" refers not to two things but to a single thing, a single spiritual birth. This is consistent with how many things start anew in the Scriptures with the combined use of water and Spirit as a single unit. Examples are the Creation story in Genesis and the renewal of humanity with the saving of Noah and his family in the Flood; and others.
That is, in order to be born again, a supernatural infusion (Spirit) from above, in addition to the use of water (water AND Spirit), must happen. The Greek expression "born again" also means "born from above". Jesus equates being "born again" with "born of water AND the Spirit," the Spirit being from above. It follows then that being "born again" has a baptismal meaning; a sacramental thing being it uses matter (water) and Spirit (the divine).
Interestingly, immediately after talking with Nicodemus, Jesus takes his disciples into the wilderness where people are "born again" through their being baptized, baptisms performed by Jesus himself and his disciples.
It would be nice if that were the end of it. Be baptized and you're good to go. But being born again, or baptized, is only the beginning of the project. We are then challenged to live in him and with him day after day, week after week, perhaps feeling closer to God some days than others. It's a challenge that is for most of us ever scattered with alternating episodes of repentance, forgiveness, and love.
Can one see eternal life without being born again, or baptized? We can only take solace in a merciful God who has revealed to us what he desires we do.
So if you have been baptized (with water AND the Spirit), and you're at the zoo and someone approaches and asks you if you've been born again, regardless of your faith, you can tell them yes indeed you have -- that you've been born again the Bible way, the way Jesus taught. And if you've never been baptized then may God see fit to bestow on you the gift of faith, or enrich the faith you have if you see it as an electric blanket, that you may be moved to do so.
Meantime, while walking through the zoo of life, diverse and dangerous as it is, reflect a moment on them snakes. Some are quite colorful.