Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Jesus said, “No one can see the kingdom of God
without being born from above.” (John 3)
We continue today with our Lenten theme of healing and reconciliation. Last Sunday, JP set out the parameters of those ideas in reference to Jesus’ own temptation in the desert.
And so today, I want to focus in on one specific wound from which many of want to be healed: numbness, or that state of feeling overwhelmed mentally and spiritually by the current state of the world, and a feeling that there is nothing any of us can do about it.
I’ve heard many people, over the last several months, speak of just such a numbness. It comes from the accumulated sense of ennui that has built up over the last several years — the sense of inescapable corruption and self-dealing on the part of our nation’s leaders, the distortion of truth, and most especially, the real human cost that these impulses exact on the most vulnerable among us. And I hasten to say, that the words I have used here could equally be applicable to persons on either end of the political spectrum. The sense of numbness affects us all.
So, enter Nicodemus, the Pharisee who by virtue of his status as a religious leader must officially oppose Jesus, but who surreptitiously comes to Jesus by night, confessing that there must be something to what he is doing, since no one could do such signs apart from the presence of God.
Jesus responds with one of the most often quoted verses in the Bible: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (or “born again,” as some would have it). Now, in the Greek, the word here can equally mean either born “from above” or born “again,” so I just want to just set aside that latter reading, and focus instead on what it might mean to say that we need to be born “from above.”
Nicodemus, of course, hears Jesus’ words in a literal sense: “How can anyone be born,” he asks, “after having grown old?” So then Jesus tries to push his imagination beyond the literal, saying that the birth of which he speaks is of “water and the Spirit.”
And the introduction of the word “Spirit” here is the key to the whole dialogue. We are all born, in some sense, as a lump of flesh—biologically needy, and emotionally unformed. So the critical issue, as we grow and mature, is to what degree we allow the Spirit to inhabit that flesh, so that, as Rowan Williams has put it, our “flesh is made to be something more than a dead lump of untenanted material which lies around for other people to fall over.”[*]
What Jesus is trying to help Nicodemus to see, I think, is that he is in need of healing—a healing that would open him up to being inhabited more fully by the Spirit so that he would be in real relationship with God and his fellow human beings, beyond being being held hostage by the pharisaical exclusivity in which he is trapped.
And this notion of being inhabited by the Spirit gets to the very heart of the matter: in Nicodemus, Jesus is attempting to bridge the gulf between self and community that is the fruit of Nicodemus’ own alienation from the spirit of inclusion which is God’s way of being in the world. Only if Nicodemus allows himself to be gifted with the reconciling Spirit of relationship which is “from above,” will he find that which he truly seeks: eternal life—which contrary to popular imagination is not some sort of prize for right believing, but an integration of the self into the animating creative Spirit of all creation. That is what it means to be “born from above”: to become one with God’s loving purposes for creation, by letting God’s spirit inhabit our soul.
And this is where the story of Nicodemus connects with our current sense of spiritual and mental numbness. That feeling of helplessness is something from which we, too, need healing, not unlike Nicodemus’ own captivity. It is easy, in these times, to fall into a certain despondency that is itself a form of “fleshiness,” where we struggle to find the strength within to resist the pressures without. Yet perhaps these pressures can themselves become the catalyst for us to open up to the indwelling grace of the creative, energizing, reconciling Spirit of God, rather than trying to rely on our own interior weakness.
Then these days of spiritual numbness will lead us into a deeper awareness of how our own flesh can give voice to the Spirit, which is first and foremost about building networks of relationship that speak of the underlying unity that is given to us in creation, rather than of the bitterness and suspicion that divide us.
In fact, it might be said, that in all the stories of healing by Jesus, that is exactly what he is up to: the restoration or extension of relationship in community. We will see this played out time and again in the lessons for the coming Sundays of Lent: next week, in the woman at the well; then in the man born blind; followed by the raising of Lazarus. In short, this is a time not to back away from community and relationship, but to embrace it as the only place in which we human beings will ultimately find God’s Spirit at work among us.
I was struck, reading this week’s obituary in The Economist, by the shear value of staying in the game, of letting the spirit inhabit our daily life. The obit was for Katherine Goble Johnson, a mathematician for NASA in the 1950s and ’60s, who as an African American—and a woman—and so encountered considerable opposition to her work. In 1953, as a fresh recruit, she faced the difficult task of challenging the accuracy of a senior engineer’s calculations, which she discovered were wrong because he had made an error with a square root. Very carefully, she asked her question. Was it possible, that he could have made a mistake? He did not admit it, but (as the obituary writer described it), “by turning the colour of a cough drop, he ceded the point.”[†]
We are all in a time when raising the question, “Have we as a nation made a mistake?”, is hard to do. The numbness we feel from the volume of the negative response is overpowering. Yet we are still met with Jesus’ challenge that we must be born from above, that is, animated with the Spirit that raises us from the mendacity and divisiveness of our day, to a place where we know ourselves to be motivated by a God who draws us toward nothing less than wholeness, healing, health, truth, and reconciliation.
John’s gospel does not tell us what happened to Nicodemus after his encounter with Jesus. He simply vanishes from the narrative—but later we do get a hint of what became of him when he defends Jesus before the Sanhedrin, and then again at the end of the gospel, when he assists Joseph of Arimathea with the burial of Jesus’ body. So evidently he was someone who took to heart Jesus’ teaching that he be born “from above,” and himself became a follower of Jesus through welcoming the habitation of his Spirit. For as Jesus says, that is what it means, to see the kingdom of God. Amen.
[*] Rowan Williams, “Health and Healing,” in Holy Living: The Christian Tradition for Today (2017).
[†] “The Girl Who Asked Questions,” The Economist (February 29th – March 6th, 2020), 74.