Second Sunday of Lent
It is dark, night, perhaps even the evening after Jesus goes on a rampage in the temple, flipping tables, coins flying, would-be sacrifices scattering. The Jews had confronted him, asking for a sign. He’d made quite the scene.
Now in the dark, Nicodemus comes to Jesus.
A leader of the Jews, an authority in the temple where such a scene was made, he comes to appease, smooth things over a little, perhaps appeal to the madman in hopes of preventing further disruption. It’s Passover, after all, and the temple at that. A repeat of such antics would be deeply shaming.
Or perhaps the dark is more than simple night, and Nicodemus wants in, closer to the power he sees in the signs. Something real is at work in Jesus, something light, something that looks like God.
Perhaps, he comes for a little of both.
Nicodemus begins, “We know that you’re from God, because of the signs you do.”
Not news to Jesus, who knows what is in everyone (as John tells us just words before), and their belief isn’t sufficient. Jesus won’t entrust himself to them.
“Very truly, I tell you no one can see the kingdom of God without being born…” again, anew, from above. This is his answer to Nicodemus’s confession. Belief must give way to birth.
Nicodemus responds to the literal implications. Birth… again? This is absurd, what you say. Limited in his belief to what he can see, not so unlike how it is with the signs, he can only hear Jesus responding in riddles.
And it is a riddle, his answer: Be born twice.
Be born of water and the Spirit, be people of two origins, like that of Jesus himself. “What is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is Spirit.”
To my ears, it sounds an awful lot like “he was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and born of the virgin Mary,” and like the prologue of John, where in 1:12-13, we’re told that “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”
But Jesus’ further response leaves much to mystery, and we’re left not so far from the questions of Nicodemus, and perhaps even venturing our own. How is it that we come to be “conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit”? After all, Jesus goes on to say that the Spirit has a mind all its own; all we can do is detect its presence.
Perhaps I need forgiveness for saying so, but here the Lectionary cuts off the reading at an inconvenient place. If we stop where this week’s reading does, the last words are about Jesus not coming to condemn, but to save. If we keep going, however, in his last few words to Nicodemus, Jesus shifts his metaphors to those of dark and light, exposing Nicodemus: “And this is the judgment…. All who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light.”
The judgment Jesus here speaks is consistent with the turning of the tables in the temple. The entire temple system was corrupt, “not doing what was true.” Its worship was false, and Nicodemus has come to Jesus in the dark of night. Perhaps he has felt conviction in the disruption and is moving toward light, or perhaps he is avoiding exposure.
The difference then, it seems, between those who believe and those who are born of the Spirit, is that those born of the Spirit do what is true. Birth from the Spirit is worked out in our ethics. We don’t merely believe the signs or assent to the facts. No, we go further, performing the truth, living what is real, for there is no truth and no reality without our expressions of it. Jesus begins his conversation with Nicodemus saying that no one can see the kingdom of God who hasn’t been born from above. Why is that? Because to see it is to live it, make it manifest. Seeing and doing are the same.
How do we expand belief into birth? Here, Nicodemus gives us a gift, for he asks the right questions: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus, in so many words, responds that not only can we, but we must. “You must be born from above.” Just as Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, this is also our call and our destiny, enacted within us by grace.
Throughout the course of church history, Mary and mother have been powerful metaphors for the church. The church acts as mother, and becomes the stage and setting of our re-birth. Once again, Nicodemus does us a great service, for he offers us a compelling image if we follow the implications of his literal rendering of the word anothen as “again,” instead of “anew” or “from above.”
What is it like to be conceived in the womb of the church and be born?
Birth doesn’t happen in a moment; rather, it is a culmination of time and formation of inward parts, substance being knitted. When a child is born, what we hold new in our arms is evidence of a long process of gestation, a ripening of the union of two tiny cells into a unique being. In the Eastern view, our salvation and sanctification is not so unlike that ripening. The work of Christ in us isn’t completed in an instant, but takes a lifetime to fulfill.
Our worship, where we do the truth and constitute the church, is our gestation where we also learn to do it, learn to constitute it. It is the location of our being born again, the place where we are conceived by the Holy Spirit, in both senses – that of conception as beginning where we are given the power to become children of God, and that of conception as imagination and foreseeing, where God holds closely the vision of who we are meant to be and become, carrying us to completion.
Lent begins with the imposition of ashes, the reminder that “what is born of the flesh is flesh.” These forty days are not so unlike gestation. Here, in our commitments to fast or pick-up new practices, we are faced with ourselves in all our inborn enfleshed complication – messy desires, the drawings of sin, the recognition of how often we still love darkness instead of light. In Lent, Jesus moves through our temples (corporate and corporeal), a little crazed, not condemning but saving, as he over-turns tables and the spaces where we still buy and sell our sacrifices, worship falsely, till in the night we come like Nicodemus, exposed and asking about re-birth.
May we, both alone and together as the church this season of Lent, in knowing our own flesh know again what it is to be conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born anew in the womb (and as the womb) of the church. May we permit entrance to the one who turns all our tables, crushes our worship, and shows us our dark, drawing us to the Light that is Life. And may we, empowered by the re-formation taking place in us as we ripen toward completion, more diligently do the truth. Amen.