I appreciate protocols to keep hospitalized patients protected. This is why I always call a hospital in advance to see what current safety precautions are in place before I make a visit to pay a pastoral call to someone hospitalized.
I called a hospital in advance. We are all experiencing a COVID-19 world, after all. Yes, the patient I had asked about was there. They’d even given me his room number.
Great, I thought, off I go.
Only I didn’t go very far at all once I entered the lobby and walked up to the long, imposing desk. After a few short questions where I identified myself as a pastor, I was told I could not proceed.
I asked, “Why?”
The three staffed at what understandably is Fort Knox these days took a moment to rally. The one with the most bite said, “Because we need to see your credentials.”
I answered honestly. “Credentials? Ah…. I don’t have any.”
In an age when so much can be faked such as a business card or even a badge of some sort, what, exactly, could I present as a credential? My Jesus tattoo? My United Church of Christ underwear? How about reciting all of Philippians?
There’s a problem with the three offerings I just mentioned. I don’t have a Jesus tattoo. I don’t have my denomination’s logo on boxer shorts, and I cannot quote all of Philippians.
In the thirteen years I have been a pastor to a single church and have visited people as a pastor in this very hospital, I’d never been asked to show my credentials. Understandably, this started a soul-searching process for me. What are the credentials one needs to be a Christian?
Commentators can present “to do” lists on what is needed to be a Christian. These to-do lists can be full of religiosity, the very thing Jesus spoke out against again and again.
Here I offer something simpler. If you are familiar with Lazarus’s sisters, I suggest our credentials as Christians be more along the lines of sister Mary who is complete at Jesus’ side over sister Martha who, with Jesus in the next room, has to get too many things done. By this I mean there’s one grounding, guiding piece to Christian credentials. It’s being born again. We can run and run, achieve and achieve, and become more and more like the religious leaders Jesus scolds in Matthew 23, or we can simply, humbly be born again.
Jesus says His true followers are “born again” by the Spirit of God. This can be explained when Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader, comes to Jesus not in broad daylight, but under the cover of night. Nicodemus declares God was with Jesus because of all the miraculous signs Jesus performed. Jesus has this penetrating response. “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again…. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:3, 6, NIV).
The phrase “born again” literally means “to be born from above.” We are not born Christian. We become Christians when we choose to be born again. This begins the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit because this new birth is a gift of God, through Jesus Christ, given by the grace He freely offers to all.
Ada A. Whiddington’s hymn, “Not I, but Christ,” speaks to the desire to born again. Her lyrics include, “Oh, to be saved from myself, dear Lord. Oh, to be lost in thee. Oh that it may be no more ‘I’ but Christ who lives in me.”
Whiddington builds upon the theological foundation that, by choice and conviction, Christians die to themselves so that Christ can live in us. Oh, we are still ourselves—walking, talking, going to work, putting away our Saint Patrick’s decorations, grumbling over something stupid, “tsking” at something or someone when we should be tearing down yet another wall we have built that keeps us from Christ—but something intimately connected with who we were has changed significantly. Galatians 2:20 is a grounding guidepost to help us explain this unfailing drive, even when, parked in the driveway of life, we press on the accelerator only to find the car in neutral. Here Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”
Paul shares more. In Romans 7, he speaks about the reality of our Christian lives. He says a battle is going on in us all the time. Our “old self” is crucified with Christ as our “new self” (or a new identity) arrives. This is the life we now live in the flesh, by faith. God calls this being “born again” (John 3) or becoming a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
This new life is not sin-free. There’s a battle. We win spiritual battles by “walking in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16). Walking in the Spirit means we follow Jesus and we are submissive to Him as He works into us His image—a new “us.”
Don’t turn yourself away like I was at hospital because this credential thing seems too hard. Remember Mary. Consider Paul’s words. A Christian is someone who is born again by the Spirit of God. He or she trusts Jesus Christ and seeks to follow Him in obedience.