When I was in college, I was notorious among my friends for having a “life plan.” The plan would change frequently, and would always make wide, sweeping movements. I’d be planning on entering into the Peace Corps and then a month later, I would be applying to graduate schools for school counseling. This vocational confusion has, unexpectedly, become a gift of my calling as a priest as I have sat many times with college students down the street at Spencer’s as they laid out their next four years in definite and distinct plans. My own experience of well-laid plans that tended fall through, very often by the grace of God, is a gift that I wouldn’t have been able to understand at the time. So, as I am sitting with these students, I very often smile and nod and say a prayer for all the ways in which they do not know where the Spirit might take them in their lives, because when we follow God’s call upon our lives, we rarely know where we are will end up.
In our gospel passage today, Nicodemus, a leader in the Jewish community, comes to Jesus at night and commends him for all the ways in which his work points toward God, and Jesus responds that no one can come to the kingdom of God without being born from above. But Nicodemus pushes back, how is this possible, why would this be desirable even? Jesus then goes on to say don’t be surprised that this rebirth is necessary because like the wind, everyone who is born of the Spirit doesn’t know where they come from or where they go. Nicodemus is rightly and thoroughly confused by these things Jesus has said to him. But Jesus goes on to affirm the ways in which he is a sign that points to God, and that God did not send him to be incarnate to condemn the world, but so that we might be saved from ourselves.
This, of course, leads up to one of the most well-known passages of the New Testament—John 3:16. As we take a deep dive into the Gospel according to John over the next few Sundays, it is key to name a few things. First, the symbolism of John is rich and from the beginning of John light and dark contain meanings beyond how much physical light is involved. The light is a sign of faith and the dark a sign of unbelief, and they very often dance together. Second, it is important to remember the way in which John’s gospel has been used to promote anti-Semitic thoughts and actions throughout the course of Christianity. We cannot wrestle with the truth laid out here in John’s gospel, without also wrestling with the way in which the Jewish leaders were often interpreted as foolish by some of the significant Christian theologians throughout history. In our passage today, Nicodemus has oft been painted as a foolish person who can’t understand Jesus, but the bedrock of that interpretation is anti-Semitic and is wrong. Because like for us, Nicodemus’ faith was not an event or a mark on his story, but is a continual and unfolding process.
For Nicodemus, the crux of the confusion lies around the phrase “one must be born from above;” this, of course, can be translated that they must be born again, and this is what captures Nicodemus’ imagination. How could this be possible? How can one enter into the womb after having grown old? And we may hear this, and think, it’s symbolic, it’s so easy to see that. But we have to get curious about our assumptions and why we are able to make significant leaps of thought; is it because we’ve heard this story many times before? Is it because we were once “Born Again” Christians? I think that for Nicodemus, the physicality of being born again is just as confusing as an ideological concept.
Because for Nicodemus and the society in which he was not only a part, but also a leader, wisdom, kinship, and family were significant parts of your identity. All the things that one accumulated throughout his life would go toward increasing honor and status. To have a family come after you as an old man was to have security and stability. Nicodemus’ doubt about why one would give up what they accrued over a lifetime to be born again is to ask, why would I give up the stability and security I have to take on something new? Because Nicodemus is not a prop in the story, but is an example that even if we are an educated, respected leader, we still need to begin again.
Being born again is a phrase that is so familiar in our culture, that it can sound fanciful, even if we think it to be foolish, but what it often doesn’t relay is that to be born again is actually really hard. There is pain and risk in new birth, and once born, babies are dependent upon others for everything. And we are not a society that likes to depend on others for anything, much less everything. At the time that John is writing this gospel account, the news about Jesus’ death and resurrection has begun to spread. For John to paint this exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus for those who are reading John’s words is to affirm that to be born again leads to the cross, not to an easier life, but into a life of struggle, into a life of seeing the marginalized, of dedicating our lives to go against the common messages of the world and to continually choose hope, even as the cross looms large. Nicodemus’ confusion strikes me as the right reaction when I try to contemplate what it might mean to be born again into God’s brokenness; to be born again into a life characterized by new births that continually help us to find and to be found by God.
During this Lenten season, I invite you to ponder what this would mean. What would it mean if you embraced your faith, knowing that to be born again, to begin again, because to begin again is very often where God is found. Perhaps the pain and difficulty of new birth is where you find yourself today, or perhaps you remember, or maybe you can even feel it coming in your soul. My prayer is that this season we can embrace new birth like Nicodemus, with a questioning spirit and a willingness to let God’s Spirit move him where he couldn’t have predicted. Because I wonder in the midst of this exchange did Nicodemus have even a glimpse that when Christ was to be buried after his crucifixion that he would be the one to bring over 75 pounds of myrrh and aloe for the ritual; that he would be one of the few to tenderly take care of our crucified Messiah before he was resurrected? We don’t know where the Spirit is leading us, so get comfortable with being uncomfortable, because God is found when we begin again—this we see for sure in Nicodemus’ story, and the same is true for us.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church on March 8, 2020 for Lent 2A, John 3:1-17.