The phone call came unexpectedly, out of the blue. The voice on the phone was a man's voice, warm, polished, confident sounding. He identified himself as Nick Allen. Catherine was surprised by the call. Nick was not a member of the church of which she was pastor and they had rarely crossed paths in her years of volunteering in the community. She was even more surprised when she learned the reason for the call.
"Jennifer and I have been doing a lot of talking in the last few months," Nick said, "and we wondered if we might invite you over to our house to talk with us about our spiritual life."
"Well, of course," Catherine responded, frantically trying to recall if she knew where the Allens attended church, wondering if she were about to become involved in proselytizing from one of the neighboring congregations.
The Allens were perfect hosts. Once settled in their tastefully decorated living room they offered Catherine a glass of wine. This is a test, she thought to herself, can I accept them where they are? Well, Jesus drank wine.
Nick got to the point very quickly. "You may have wondered why we invited you here. And why we suggested coming at night. The truth is, we have been intrigued by what seems to be happening in your church and we'd like to know more about it. We're a little embarrassed because we are not church goers, and at this point in our lives we can't just show up in a church anonymously and check it out. If persons saw you coming here they might wonder what is going on."
Catherine agreed that their presence in any of the community churches would lead to considerable speculation as their profile in town was high. They were known to be wealthy, wellconnected, successful and pillars of the community. "We have everything," said Nick. "That's not very modest but there is no point in getting you over here and beating around the bush. We belong to the Baby Boomer generation and we fit the stereotype ~ we ski in Aspen, sail in the Bahamas, drive a BMW, belong to the country club. Church was not a large part of either of our lives growing up but we thought we had learned the basics ~ to be ethical, and when you have a lot, give something back. So we have tried to do that. Between us we belong to most of the civic organizations in town, we sit on boards of philanthropic organizations, we have even established a modest trust of our own for charitable purposes. Surely it is not about finding ways to spend our money and enjoy ourselves."
Catherine listened quietly. And then she said, "Your questions remind me of two Bible stories ~ both about successful men, both of whom wondered if they were missing the boat somehow when it came to their spiritual lives. One was a man who was young and wealthy, the other was a man who had a lot of stature in his community. Mark told one story, John the other; sometimes scholars have wondered if they are, in fact, variations on the same incident. In any case, in both stories men came to Jesus to inquire as to how they might find richer meaning in their lives. Both had become curious about the effect Jesus seemed to be having on people around him and wondered how they might experience something of that vitality and connectedness. In one case, Jesus suggested that the man give up his wealth and become a follower, but that prescription was too strong for the rich young man. In the other case, Jesus suggested that the man needed to be born again, or, more accurately, from above."
"'Born again' language makes me nervous," Nick interjected quickly, "people who call themselves 'born again' always remind me of used car salesmen. We called you because we didn't think Presbyterians were into being 'born again.'"
"It depends on how you understand it," responded Catherine carefully. "The man who came to see Jesus didn't understand it at all at first, he thought it meant starting over again, from the beginning, from birth, you know."
"I've thought about that myself," Jennifer, quiet until now, suddenly interjected. "I've thought about how I would do things differently if I had to do them again. But you know, I don't know what I would change, really. I have followed the rules, I have lived up to everyone's expectations ~ exceeded my Father's probably. We are successful by all the standards our society taught us; we are contributors. Even if I did have the opportunity to be born over again, I don't know what I would do differently."
"Neither did Nicodemus," Catherine responded, "besides, being a man of common sense, he thought it was a little impractical anyway."
"Are you going to suggest we give all our money away?" Nick inquired uncomfortably.
"Not yet," replied Catherine with a wink to Jennifer, "I'm going to try to communicate what I think Jesus meant to say to Nicodemus. It is difficult to put into words because it isn't some kind of intellectual concept or idea ~ Jesus wanted Nicodemus to have another kind of experience. It wasn't about being born again in the sense of beginning over again ~ but about life having a new kind of dimension to it. He called it 'born from above.' I have heard people of our generation call it 'value added.'"
"All right," Nick cried, "now we're getting to it. That's what we are looking for ~ value added living." Nick pulled a pocket sized Franklin Planner from his jacket pocket, removed the pen and opened the book at the day's date. "What is it we have to do?"
Catherine couldn't resist, "Give away all your money," she said wickedly. Before Nick and Jennifer could react, she jumped in again. "No, at least, that is not the first thing. The truth is that being born from above isn't something you can do for yourself any more than you could give birth to yourself the first time. Being born from above is something God does for you. It is a passive, not an active event."
"Don't tell me that!" said Nick, "I'm an active guy. All my life I have gone after what I wanted. Even calling you was active ~ we want to do something about this now."
"It sounds as if you want to be in control of this part of your life as you are in control of all the other parts," said Catherine thoughtfully. "Then write this down," said Catherine. "Being born from above means entering into a relationship in which Someone or Something else is in control."
"That sounds pretty scary," said Nick, "couldn't we just start coming to church or something? We'll even put something in the offering plate."
"That would be a good start," Catherine responded to his humor in kind, "but, how are you at receiving gifts?"
"What do you mean?" Nick asked. "Like at Christmas, you mean?"
"Not very good, as a matter of fact," Jennifer jumped in. "Nick gets very uncomfortable when anyone wants to give him something, or do something for him. He prefers to be the one doing the giving."
"I don't really need anything," Nick defended himself, "if I want something, I just go and get it."
"The first step is learning to receive a gift," said Catherine. "This new life you are seeking can only be experienced as a gift."
"Because it was given as a gift in the first place ~ 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."
"Eternal life? That means going to heaven when you die, right?" asked Nick, looking at Catherine closely.
"Sometimes," answered Catherine, "the best times."
"How do we go about learning to receive this gift?" Jennifer asked.
"This is my suggestion, then," said Catherine, "I'd like you to come to church and worship with us. But there is one condition, I'd like you not to make a contribution for at least the first four Sundays that you come."
"Think about it." said Catherine. "If you decide you'd like to try it, just come. And now, would you be comfortable with a closing prayer?"
"Barely," Nick replied, honestly.
We don't know what happened to Nicodemus after his encounter with Jesus except that, John tells us, after the crucifixion of Jesus Nicodemus brought the mixture of myrrh and aloes used by the Jews to anoint the bodies of their dead. We do know what happened to Nick and Jennifer, because they are real people, although their names are different. And Catherine is a real person, as you may have suspected. Nick and Jennifer tried the experiment Catherine had suggested ~ although Nick struggled with his commitment simply to be the recipient of a gift and was actually relieved to be able to write his first check after four weeks and place it, with a flourish, in the offering plate.
All of this happened, much as it was told, a number of years ago. Nick and Jennifer have become great supporters of their church.
Catherine has sometimes wondered, thinking back, at her own audacity that night in thinking that she somehow could speak a word that would make a difference in those people's lives. Except that they asked ~ and she knew a secret. Nick and Jennifer had already opened themselves to a relationship with God when they took out the phone book and dialed Catherine's number. They were searching and though they would not have named it as such, they were asking for help. That was all the vulnerability God needed to offer the gift of rebirth from above. How can these things be? 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. Amen.