- The Washington Times - Monday, February 25, 2002

Excerpts from a sermon given yesterday by the Rev. Roger Gench at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in the District.

The words from today's Gospel, "You must be born again" [John 3: 1-17], were seared into my conscience as a Baptist youth. I always seemed the first one out of the pew to accept that great ritual of invitation, come and be born again.
My father was music director in a Baptist church. But Friday evenings he led music at a synagogue, and I went along. In that Jewish setting, it never occurred to me that there weren't salvific experiences with God going on. I must have been the image of a confused kid, a Southern Baptist in a synagogue.
That paradox come home later in life. On the night before the Missouri high school swimming championship, my Episcopalian friend and I got into a religious discussion. I insisted, "You have to be born again." All we needed was a good night's sleep to do well, and Tom already led in the 100-meter breast stroke. Tom asked me, "What about people who never heard of Jesus, or were born before that?" We continued half the night. Tom lost the next day, and I didn't do well either.
Two days later, Tom didn't want to talk about swimming. He said his mother sided with me. Salvation came only in Christ, and he was wrong. My orthodoxy was impeccable, but it was a hollow victory. When I thought of my friends in the synagogue, I felt a knot in my stomach. I didn't want to be right. The subject plagued me the rest of my life.
Today in our Presbyterian Church [USA], a "confessing movement" is using this very point salvation only in Christ as a litmus test for membership. During my studies, I learned all the views. But nothing seemed satisfying. The Gospel of John is considered the most exclusivist in Christianity. Then a theologian helped me by pointing to John Calvin, the patron saint of Presbyterians.
It is strange to ponder that Calvin might have something to say about religious pluralism, but he did in an arcane Latin work, "The Extra of Calvin." Calvin read the Gospel of John, and he came upon this insight: "The infinite can be contained in the finite, but not exhausted therein." He saw how this Gospel begins, "In the beginning was the word," and how it ends, "The word became flesh and dwelt among us." But Calvin explained that, even while the word became flesh, it continued to inhabit the rest of the world as it had done from the beginning.
Now, this is from John Calvin, a revolutionary who called us to a radical singularity of Christian faith. At the same time, however, he opens us to the revelatory possibilities of another's faith. Put another way, by opening to another faith, we counter the idolatrous tendency to collapse all of God into our own. Now, some of you think, "Roger, you've given up the ship. You've given up the fundamental Christian notion of the uniqueness of Christ and salvation."
There's another way to approach this, and that is by turning to Nicodemus, who in our text came to Jesus by night. Some scholars believe Nicodemus was already a follower of Jesus, but as a social elite stayed in the closet. He was a crypto-Christian. When Jesus said, "You must be born anew, and of water and of spirit," Jesus was perhaps saying, "Nicodemus, you must profess your faith. You must have a public baptism that testifies to me." The Gospel of John is about the incarnation, God's self-disclosure in the flesh. Jesus is the word incarnate. But he asks us to do the same. Our congregation, with all its history, all its ups and downs, is an expression of God incarnate.
I can't speak for other faiths, but for us as Christians, we come to know God through Jesus. This gives us a place to ponder the revelation of God in the other. Does it make any difference to be born again? Yes. Who needs it? We do.

Next week: A sermon by the Rev. Lowell Scheutze at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Alexandria.




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