The Way of Transformation
When I was living in Colorado, I met a man named Rob. Rob was on staff at the church I served and became a sort mentor, spiritual advisor, and sounding board while I was there. Every week, we would try to gather at one of the local coffee shops and every week he would sit patiently and listen to me grouse about what hoop I was jumping through for ordination or whatever issue I was dealing with at church. We also talked a lot about being outdoors. Rob is an avid hiker and one of his favorite places in the world to hike was the Camino de Santiago or the Way of St. James.
The Way of St. James, or simply The Way as many know it, is a series of pilgrim trails that end at the Cathedral of St. James in Galicia, Spain. The trails originate in Portugal or France and range anywhere from 150 to 500 miles. The people who hike these trails are called pilgrims after those, who during the Middle Ages, walked on pilgrimages to see the Cathedral where the bones of St. James were supposedly interred.
Pilgrims often walk the trails for different reasons. My friend Rob says, “Pilgrimage can teach us to embrace the present moment and accept that we cannot control what lies over the horizon. Pilgrims learn to travel light. Pilgrims learn to live in connection; connecting inner life to outer life; connecting your story to the stories of others; connecting the physical with the spiritual.” Another way of saying this, I think, would be to say pilgrims travel with spiritual purpose. Their journey is to the deep places of the soul, to what many Celtic Christians call the thin places.
People also go to the Cathedral of St. James as tourists. According to some estimates, two thirds of the people at the cathedral come as part of their holiday, to visit family and friends, or other reasons related to tourism. They do not walk the trails but simply driving to great church, take pictures, look at the artwork and architecture, perhaps even light a candle and offer a prayer. They invest maybe an hour or so walking the grounds and then return back their lives. The other visitors are pilgrims who have ended their pilgrimage journey at St. James Cathedral. The intended destination is the same, but the journey there and the intention is quite different.
In the passage from John 3, we find two ways of being, two methods of living life. One is the way of the tourist; one is the way of pilgrim. There is a stark difference in these two and I believe it has to do with one phrase that has two meanings. These two meanings are, I believe, the difference between tourists and pilgrims. The phrase in English is born again.
We get to this phrase in the course of a conversation. Nicodemus, a prominent Pharisee, comes to Jesus at night. He comes at night because it is a time when he can be more or less safe to speak his mind with Jesus. He can ask questions that otherwise may lead his fellow Pharisees to distrust or outright ban him from their company. Nicodemus starts by saying, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.” This seems to be a safe way of engaging the conversation, recognition of a valid ministry, a nice compliment. But Jesus cuts to the chase, getting to the heart of the matter. “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.” Nicodemus counters with, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?” And Jesus clarifies by saying,
I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit. (John 3:5-8)
The whole conversation hinges on this idea of born again or anew. The Greek phrase for born again or born anew can mean either to brought forth from above or on high or to be brought forth biologically from parents. Both meanings are used here; Nicodemus uses the later, Jesus uses the former. Jesus is telling Nicodemus that he must undergo the transformation or change of direction in his life. He must reorient his way of living and being to a new way of living and being. To be born from on high or above means in this case to reorient toward the way of life God is revealing to Nicodemus, a revelation that will come from the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
I was reading a commentary the other day and the author wrote, “when we read the Bible, we engage ancient texts from halfway around the world — it’s only to be expected that they’ll feel cross-cultural and unfamiliar at first. Think of this as a kind of travel through time and space. The opportunity here is to stay open to how another way of thinking and living can shed new light on our own.” I think that must be how Nicodemus felt when Jesus told him, “…unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.” In that moment, I imagine the Pharisee looking at Jesus and wondering if he was from another planet.
Being born again, contrary to what I have heard for a long time, is not saying a prayer and punching a ticket on the heavenly express. It is our answer to a call by the Holy Spirit to live a new life, a different life, a life shaped and molded by the Way of Jesus. It is a call to live into the ministry of Jesus along with the struggles and sufferings of that ministry. Look at any story in the gospels where someone is called by Jesus and you will see that someone challenged to live into something more than their current life, to take up their cross, give up their wealth, leave their family and friends. It is a way of sacrifice. Following Jesus, answering the call of the Holy Spirit to be born anew is to give up the way of life you previously lived and embrace the Jesus Way as your new understanding of what life is and should be. It is joining with others to be the Kingdom of God in the here and now not the then and there. It is dying to the old way of life and being and being born into a new way of life and being, dying to the person you used to be and “being born into a new identity—a way of being and an identity centered in the sacred, in spirit, in Christ, in God.”
It is also a way toward spiritual and emotional health. The word salvation comes from both Greek and Latin words that mean becoming healthy, being made whole, or experiencing wholeness. One writer put it this way.
Jesus’ idea of salvation isn’t to give us a ticket to a heavenly land in the sweet by-and-by, but rather to bring new health into our lives and communities today. For the sake of all people and the whole of creation, the death-dealing forces around us must be confronted and, ultimately, overcome. To follow Jesus is to join him in just this kind of confrontation, to speak and act with boldness and clarity, to heal and liberate with our words and at the same time with our deeds. As Mark tells it, when Jesus says to James and John, “Follow me,” he means follow him into the fray, into the shadows, into the menace itself. He means follow him into the work of building up from the ruins, of freeing the captives, of salvation (health!) in that sweet by-and-by, sure, but also and especially in the immediate here and now.
And I believe that is our call today and every day, the call of the Spirit to live into the new birth. The journey begins in one place, at one time, but the call of the Spirit is a moment-by-moment engagement and examination, leading us to follow the Way of Jesus with greater passion and fidelity.
It is the decision to be a pilgrim, or a tourist and that decision is constantly before us to make. So choose: pilgrim or tourist?
 Marcus Borg. The Heart of Chrsitianity. HarperOne Publishing, New York © 1995. pg.107