We talk about being born again and it has some strong associations to it. It’s often code for one of two things: are you like us? Have you accepted Jesus Christ into your heart and is he your personal Lord and Saviour? Or, are you crazy like them? – that last is perhaps not the kindest way of putting it, but it is often what’s meant. Because the divide between these two sides is so strong, I’m not sure if there is any way of reclaiming the language of being reborn, or born form above, but my hope is that we can create some space in between them, and explore another option.
At the clergy lectionary study this week, we were talking about this very thing. The pastor for the 7th Day Adventist church mentioned how sometimes his activities with the lectionary group comes up amongst his colleagues, and one in particular, was worried about the state of our souls. This person asked him, ‘are they born again?’ and he considered it for a little bit before answering that he believed we were. He turned to us on Tuesday then, and said how he knew that we wouldn’t necessarily use this term, because it is so loaded, so he asked us what we would say.
We had a variety of responses: believers, followers of Christ, redeemed by grace, baptized. More importantly though, it opened up the conversation: some of us could remember quite clearly a date when we asked Christ to be a part of our lives. Others of us replied that Christ had always been there, a part of our lives, but we had discovered new ways of relating to Christ through the years. Others still replied that while there was no exact date remembered, there was a period of time over which a knowledge of, and relationship with Christ developed. This last comment was likened to a sunrise: you can’t pinpoint the exact time, but it got me thinking that it’s not unlike the birth Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel lesson.
You see, being pregnant has completely reframed the idea of being born again, or a spiritual rebirth, for me. It has helped me to realize that these things don’t just happen overnight. Rather, there are quite a lot of things that need to happen in order for a birth to actually take place.
Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. Some scholars say he was being sneaky; others maintain he needed enlightenment; and others yet point out that this was the accepted time of day for deep philosophical discussions. Whatever the case may be, that night, through their conversation, Jesus offers some of the mysteries of faith to Nicodemus; reminding him that for a person to be in touch with Godly activities, for them to be able to name where God is at work in the world, they need to be born anothen, a word that means both again and from above, a word that has both earthly and spiritual significance.
Nicodemus doesn’t quite get it, and asks the crazy question: you mean I need to find a way of crawling back into my mother’s womb? He’s stuck on the things that happen in the physical world.
Jesus reconnects him with that word anothen: It’s about earthly and spiritual birth. In other words, Jesus is saying that for someone to be able to experience God at work in the world, they need to have a spiritual awakening or rebirth. Something needs to happen to connect us with the Spirit/wind/breath of life. Something needs to open us up to the surprising and sometimes sneaky currents of the Spirit, helping us to realize that these can’t be controlled, and helping us to be open to their prodding. THIS is part of the spiritual rebirth.
There is irony in these two men talking about birth: through their discussion Jesus planted some ideas in Nicodemus’ mind, which, given the right conditions would change and grow, and be born by Nicodemus in time.
There is no given gestation period for these things. Even though we humans take about 9 months to form our young, while mice take about 19 days to form their young, and elephants up to two years. Add to that, the time it takes us to grow and develop the skills we need to be able to live on our own. When it comes to spiritual matters, there is no set time for development: ideas and matters of the heart and soul can generate quickly or it can take years for something to develop fully. Even then, not unlike human pregnancies, things can inexplicably happen that cut that burgeoning new life short, and we experience that sense of loss. Or maybe that new life doesn’t come into the world exactly as we’d hoped. Our plans and expectations for this new thing happening in our lives might lead us into unexpected places – not unlike the other story we heard this morning of Abram and Sarai, feeling the call of God and leaving their homeland. Spiritual rebirth can completely change our way of being in the world. What is normal for one of us, isn’t for another.
More than that, sometimes that burgeoning new life can take a toll on us body, mind and soul. Spiritual rebirth is often exciting and full of hope, but it requires a certain amount of energy, and a willingness to let the Spirit quicken in unexpected ways. Plus, joy and excitement are not always the emotions that everyone feels. It can also be sad, frightening, unwanted, unexpected, and even dangerous in certain conditions. There are all kinds of emotions that go along with the development of something new, and none of these emotions are bad.
One thing is certain though: when the birthing time comes: being born from above is a messy, and often painful business. It’s something that very few of us can do on our own, we need the grace of God and the help of those who bear us. Spiritual rebirth is a major transition that doesn’t affect just the one person, but everyone who is in community with that person. Whether that new life thrive can depend on the response of the community: just ask anyone who has tried to break an addiction, who has come out, or who has changed their lifestyle in a big way. It can be difficult to understand the changes that have come about in the person, but it is the community’s role to offer support.
Here is where the metaphor falls apart. Unlike the birth of a child, spiritual rebirth doesn’t bring about a new person outside of ourselves. We are the ones being reborn, being transformed, and it is no small thing. The transformation leaves us forever changed
For some of us, these changes are such a major turning point in our lives that we can put a date to them. For others of us, the changes are no less important, but the entire journey – the gestation time, the birthing time, and the growing time – is what we name.
Nicodemus disappears from the scene in today’s reading, but he appears twice more: sticking up for Jesus several chapters later when the authorities are trying to decide whether or not to arrest him and kill him, ultimately buying him more time; and then again at the crucifixion, helping to prepare the body. We don’t really know what happens to those ideas that Jesus planted in his mind, whether they ultimately came to birth or not, but obviously he continued to feel some connection to Jesus, even a few years later; but he was sainted by both the Eastern and Roman Catholic churches. At some point he transformed from being a respected Pharisee and leader in the Jewish community, to someone who was a follower of Christ. His life was transformed.
However spiritual rebirth has occurred in our lives, I think we can say that a faithful reading of this gospel lesson opens us up to the possibility of transformation and the movement of the Spirit who moves in sneaky and surprising ways. Being born from above is the Spirit bringing us new life and opening us up to a new way of being in and relating to the world. It is the Spirit nurturing that new life and sustaining us through our journey of faith.
May God’s Spirit blow through our lives, bringing us transformation and rebirth.