Lent 2, Year A
John 3: 1-17
Today’s lesson from John describes a Pharisee named Nicodemus, who slips in to see Jesus under the cover of darkness. As is usual with John we get very few details of the surroundings. His focus always seems to be on the words of Jesus.
This story comes early in Jesus’s ministry, not long after the wedding at Cana, when according to John’s telling, Jesus and his disciples went to Jerusalem for the Passover feast for the first time. The story of Nicodemus is only told in this Gospel and it makes sense that Jesus was in Jerusalem since Nicodemus was a Pharisee.
Do you feel some sympathy for Nicodemus? I do. He has to sneak around to see Jesus because of his status as a Phariseee. He seems woefully confused by what Jesus says to him. And in the end he is berated for not understanding. Jesus uses such metaphorical language, that it’s not always obvious what he means. It sounds good, but the meaning may remain elusive.
Let’s look at what he says to Nicodemus:
No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.
No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit.
What is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’
Now, I want each of you to think of sometime when you have witnessed a death. It might have been someone near and dear to you; it could be a bird who flew into your window; it might be a fish you caught or a deer you shot.
Could you describe for me the difference between one second before the death and one second after? How is the person or animal different? Can science explain what happens at the moment of death? Yes, but incompletely, don’t you think?
We know a great deal these days about babies. Do we know enough to explain the miracle of life? We know that the baby inherits hair color, body type, blood type, eye color, aptitudes and many other physical/mental characteristics from its parents. But where does life come from? What accounts for the animating spirit that makes that baby live? Have you ever held a new baby and not been struck with awe?
It is in these real experiences with life and death that I can find meaning in Jesus’s words to Nicodemus. When we are born we are given the gift of life. This is a gift that comes from above, from God. This is the gift of spirit.
To be born again is to become aware of that gift. Our bodies are flesh born of flesh. Our spirits are born of God. We are born of water in baptism and born of Spirit in that moment or over those years that we come to recognize and reverence the spirit within us and to recognize our connection through that spirit with all other living things.
Jesus also said:
“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Wind is often associated with Spirit. Remember the wind of Pentecost? And the Hebrew word Ruach means breath or wind or spirit. In olden times it was assumed that the soul left the body riding on the last breath exhaled.
We can only speculate about where the animating spirit comes from or where it goes after we die. As Christians we probably believe it comes from God when we’re born and returns to God when we die. It’s not something anyone can be sure about. Still, it would be hard to go through life without noticing the differences between life and death.
At the risk of being tedious, I think Jesus is talking about mindfulness and self-consciousness. But it’s easy to see why Nicodemus was unsure what he meant. Still Jesus is talking about things that are in the experience of everyone who lives this life. He is amazed that a Pharisee doesn’t grasp what he’s talking about.
I’d like to share with you one contemporry person’s attempt to find words for their understanding of spirit. Scott Russell Sanders is one of the finest essayists of our generation. He grew up a Methodist in southern Indiana. This is from an essay called The Force of Spirit.
“Until I was twenty or so I embraced that faith, hoping for heaven, then I gradually surrendered it under the assault of science, and in dismay over witnessing so much evil carried out in Christ’s name. I no longer believe that Jesus can do our dying for us; we must do that for ourselves, one by one. Yet I’ve not given up believing in the power that reportedly sent him to redeem us, the Creator who laid the foundations of the world.
No name is large enough to hold this power, but of all the inadequate names, the one that comes to me now is spirit. I know the risks of using such a churchy word. Believers may find me blasphemous for speaking of the wind that blows through all things without tracing the breath to God. Non believers may find me superstitious for invoking any force beyond gravity, electromagnetism, and the binding energy of atoms. But I must run those risks, for I cannot understand the world, cannot understand my life, without appealing to the force of spirit. If what I feel for my wife or her father and mother is only a by-product of hormones, then what I feel for swift rivers or slow turtles, for the shivering call of a screech owl or the green thrust of bloodroot breaking ground, is equally foolish. If we and the creatures who share the earth with us are only bundles of quarks in motion, however intricate or clever the shapes, then our affection for one another, our concern for other species, our devotion to wildness, our longing for union with the Creation are all mere delusions.
I can’t prove it, but I believe we’re more than accidental bundles of quarks, more than matter in motion. Our fellowship with other creatures is real, our union with the Creation is already achieved, because we all rise and fall on a single breath. You and I and the black-footed ferret, the earth, the sun, and the far-flung galaxies are dust motes whirling in the same great wind. Whether we call that magnificent energy Spirit or Tao, Creator or God, Allah or Atman or some other holy name, or no name at all, makes little difference so long as we honor it. Wherever it flows – in person or place, in animal or plant or the whole of nature—we feel the pressure of the sacred, and that alone deserves our devotion.”
Jesus wants us to recognize the spirit that animates us, to reverence it, and to feed it with spiritual food. Those who do will see the Kingdom of God, they will help create the Kingdom of God right here and now – in this life and on this earth, making it a better place for everyone. AMEN