Twice Born—And Tired
Augustine was one of the most influential theologians in the developing years of the Christian church. And yet, like most of us, he had a hard time understanding the doctrine of the Trinity. What does it mean to say that there are three persons in just one God? The story goes that one day Augustine went for a walk on the beach. He saw a little boy digging a hole in the sand with a sea shell and then running to the ocean, filling up the shell, and rushing back to pour it into the hole he had made. "What are you doing, my little man?" Augustine asked. "I'm trying to put the ocean in this hole," the boy replied. And peace came to Augustine's soul as he realized that this was indeed what he had been trying to do. He had been trying to put God into his mind completely.
When we meet Nicodemus, he is engaged in his own process of trying "to put the ocean in a hole,"—trying to understand God completely. He is a well- educated and pious man, a Pharisaic Jew—a leader of the religious establishment. People look at him—and immediately think "holy!" But Nicodemus knows better; he knows what he doesn't know; he knows what he doesn't do; he knows what he doesn't believe, and he is troubled. And so, after dark, the shadows of his faith lurking in the shadows of the night, Nicodemus slips away to find Jesus—hoping to finally know and understand God completely. Perhaps what he envisions is a late night bull session—two rabbis playing mind games and delving deeper into the mysteries of the Torah. But intellectual talk is not what he gets. Abruptly Jesus challenges him. Jesus asks a preposterous question. "Nicodemus, have you been born again?" Sounds like some evangelical fanatic accosting us on the street. Nicodemus responds like we would—he is uncomfortable, put off, offended, mystified. Born again? How is it possible for a grown man to climb back inside his mother's womb? What is Jesus talking about?
Well, Nicodemus' problem—and our problem—is that we have no imagination. Nicodemus' problem—and our problem—is that our God is too small, our God is too predictable, our God is too far away. And so this morning Jesus takes God out of our box and sets God free. God the Idea, God the Fearsome Father, God the Distant First Cause, God the Tough Task Master in the Sky all of a sudden is transformed into God the person—God standing in intimate relationship to Nicodemus where love instead of law defines the holy. And then God the Person is joined by God the Spirit—blowing freely and firmly in the here and now, shaping us and sending us and empowering us. As long as Nicodemus feels hemmed in by the shoulds and oughts of his great Sky God, he will continue to wander in the night of his soul—unchanged, restless, and unsatisfied. Yes, he will continue to think that the purpose of the spiritual life is to be good at God—instead of letting go and letting God be good to him. And yet to change his perceptions of a Sky God to a Spirit God is hard for Nicodemus, because it demands a transformation, a starting over—a second birth, if you will, a second birth of perception and purpose. It demands that he stop grasping and controlling—and start receiving and responding. It means to start trusting God—instead of trying to please God.
Frederick Buechner has a quote that puts flesh on the doctrine of the Trinity for me. He writes: "Father, Son, Holy Spirit, means that the mystery of God BEYOND US, and the mystery of God AMONG US and the mystery of God WITHIN US is really the same mystery." This morning Jesus invites Nicodemus to expand his idea of God Beyond Us to include also the God Among us in the person of Jesus, and the God Within Us in the person of the Spirit. This immediate God, like the wind, blows where she chooses but pushes us, like newborn babies, into brand new life.
On Friday when I was driving home from the grocery store, I heard the tale end of the Diane Rehm Show. Diane's guest was a woman named Claire Sylvia who has written a book called A Change of Heart. This book tells the story of Claire's heart and lung transplant—and the transformation that this event has had on her, both spiritually and emotionally. This author believes that the spirit of the man who donated his heart is now living intertwined with her own spirit. She communicates with this spirit and learns from it daily. Claire is now dyslexic—whereas before the operation she was not. Not surprisingly, the donor was dyslexic before he died. She has had dreams about a small blond woman—only to discover that her male donor was married to a small blond woman. Claire now lives in awe of the power of spirit—individual spirit connected to divine Spirit—the power of Spirit to change and shape and energize life—a spirit that blows where it will outside of her command, but attuned to her own wholeness and healing. She feels that she has been born again—incarnated with new spirit—and that all of life has become more precious to her.
I must admit I was very skeptical as I listened to the callers and to the guest dialoguing on the radio. But I was sufficiently hooked to continue listening at home while I unloaded my groceries. Maybe this is how Nicodemus reacted to the gibberish that Jesus was telling him. Born from above? Born of the Spirit—and not the flesh? "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." Nicodemus responds to Jesus as we probably would. "How can these things be?" And, at a deeper level, he may well be asking himself, "Do I really want to be born again?"
And what about us? Do we really want to be born again? Do we really want to start over? Do we really want this laboring Spirit—this expanding and expansive God—to push us through a second birth canal—out into a world where everything is new? Do we want to arrive vulnerable and fresh into a world where the light of God's truth blinds us, where the rules are different? Into a world where we will need to relearn how to walk—to walk in the Spirit, relearn how to love—unconditionally, relearn how to speak—to speak the language of peace? Do we really want to be born again into a world where the purpose of life is not the pursuit of happiness, is not success at any cost, is not the survival of the fittest—but where the purpose of life is to glorify God and to enjoy God through compassion and community? Do we want to be part of a different kind of world where the "me" is secondary to the "we," where what I want is not nearly as important as what the community needs? My friends, one of the consequences of expanding our image of God is that we must also expand our image of ourselves. If the God Beyond Us is also the God Among Us and the God Within Us—if God chooses to be intimately involved in the being and becoming of the world—then we too are called to be intimately involved in the being and becoming of the world—allowing the God image in us to unfold and overflow into the people and places around us.
Fred Craddock tells the story of a friend of his whose son was killed in an automobile accident. When people came to the man to console him, the man responded, "Don't worry, I understand. It was God's will." Now that is not my understanding of God, nor was it Fred Craddock's. So Fred went to his friend and said, "You know, my friend, God did not cause the accidental death of your son." To Fred's surprise, his friend was very angry, "Get away from me," he said. "Don't tell me it wasn't God's will. I can't stand it if you tell me that there is no reason my son is dead. Let me believe what I want to, and leave me alone," he said. Fred discovered that his friend was not ready to learn something new and something different about God. (Biblical Preaching Journal, Spring, 1997, p. 23)
This morning Nicodemus is not ready, is not comfortable with the different God Jesus introduces him to—a God who loves the world so much, that this God gives, sends, comes personally into that world—not to condemn the world, not to judge the world, not to punish the world, but to save and heal the world. This personal, spirited God, this God who empowers instead of demands—this flexible God unsettles Nicodemus. Why? Because to worship and serve this God means that Nicodemus must change himself. He must begin the long, difficult journey down the birth canal to a new kind of life—where the purpose of life is not to judge and compete and condemn but to love and accept, to receive and to give abundant life. Just thinking about the energy and anxiety and commitment such a rebirth will take makes Nicodemus tired. And so as our text today suggests, Nicodemus quietly wanders away—confused, unsettled, unsure. Nicodemus chooses, for the moment, to stay carefully tucked in the womb of his old self—clinging to his old distant God—safe and structured in the legalistic confines of his "should and ought world." Yes, Nicodemus joins the rest of us, who, in the words of St. Paul, "groan in travail waiting to be fully born as the children of God."
But that is not where the story ends. At some point, Nicodemus allows the Spirit to push him toward new life. At the end of the seventh chapter of John, when the rest of the Pharisees want to condemn Jesus, Nicodemus risks the wrath of his colleagues. He sticks up for Jesus and urges the Sanhedrin to give Jesus a fair chance. And at the end of the gospel, we find Nicodemus with Joseph of Arimathea—having made the final break with his old self. We find him tenderly burying the body of Jesus, anointing him with myrrh and aloes. We find Nicodemus born again into an abundant life of discipleship as he intimately touches a very personal God.
My friends, there is good news for all of us this day. God is free, God is immediate, God is present—blowing like the wind within and among and around us. This God loves the world so much, that God comes personally to each one of us—not to condemn or judge us, but to love and save us. And this God labors constantly to push us into abundant life—to give us new birth. But the questions still remain. Do we trust God enough to know God in a new way? Do we want God enough to live in a new way? My friends, the birth canal is waiting whenever we decide we want to be born again. It may be terrifying. It certainly will be tiring. But the life we receive will be worth it.
May it be so. Amen.
Susan R. Andrews