Nicodemus knows that someone named Jesus is making waves. How does he know? Maybe he has heard about how Jesus came out of the waters of baptism, the Holy Spirit swooping down like a dove right above him. Maybe he has heard about how Jesus changed jars of water into a very fine vintage of wine at a wedding. Almost certainly, he has heard about how Jesus spent his first day in the holy city of Jerusalem driving money changers out of the temple. Nicodemus learns that someone named Jesus is making waves, and he wants to learn more. So this esteemed religious leader shows up, at night, at Jesus’ door.
Sometimes folks imagine that Nicodemus is ready to become Jesus’ disciple as he visits this night, if only secretly. I imagine Nicodemus is ready to examine this upstart uneducated Galilean Rabbi. What does this Jesus really believe? What has he been teaching the people? Will this youngster need to be reigned in before he causes trouble with the Romans? But Nicodemus doesn’t get a chance to ask his questions or offer his guidance. Jesus sees this experienced elder, and begins teaching him, instead. “Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”
Now, as it happens, Nicodemus does not live in America in the 1990s. So, he has no idea that the phrase “born again” might have a spiritual meaning. Jesus’ teaching, therefore, seems simply ridiculous. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” Nicodemus asks, bemused. “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb?”
Jesus replies, “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 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 does not know what to do with Jesus’ answer. “How can these things be?” he asks. We might want to ask the same thing. It’s hard to be sure exactly what Jesus is saying, but he seems to be saying that to get close to God, we need to be reborn. Reborn, through water. Reborn, through the Spirit. Reborn, or born again, or depending on how you translate the original, born from above.
But what does it mean to be reborn, born again, or born from above? Isn’t everyone born just once? We only get one shot in life, right? There’s no starting over, physically or otherwise. Our past can’t be changed. We can only go forward.
Plus, even if we could start again – would all of us really want to? Especially folks like Nicodemus, who seems to have it all together? He’s educated, he’s respected. He’s probably financially secure. Nicodemus is even spiritually revered. Why would someone like that risk it all to be reborn? Why would he need to?
Jesus tells us that the way to get close to God is to be reborn. “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.”
With God’s help, we can start over, Jesus tells us. But he’s not talking about starting over to build more successful lives, lives with more money or fame. Instead, this starting over has to do with loosening our attachment to the external parts of our lives, so that we can respond more freely to the wild, unexpected movements of God in our hearts.
This teaching of Jesus makes me think of the spiritual leader Richard Rohr, who’s spent time unpacking psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s ideas about the two halves of life. The first half of life, he claims, is dedicated to building an identity for ourselves through outwardly noticeable achievements. The second half of life begins when these outward achievements are no longer sufficiently meaningful. Instead, we begin seeking spiritual or religious experiences that can fill the outward structure of our identity with a new kind of inward satisfaction. This is the work of finding God deep within.(Read more here or in Rohr’s book Falling Upwards)
Consider the caterpillars we are learning from this season. Starting as a small egg, caterpillars eat and eat and grow and grow – just like in the book, the very hungry caterpillar. In fact, caterpillars are so good at eating and growing that they outgrow their own skins more than once! The goal of all this, we might imagine, is to become the biggest and best caterpillar out there. But just when they’re getting really successful at being caterpillars, caterpillars stop being caterpillars at all. Instead, they hang upside down, create a chrysalis, and give up their caterpillar lives to become something else entirely.
So I wonder: what have you been trying to achieve in your life so far? What have been your goals? Maybe you’ve achieved those goals spectacularly well. Maybe it hasn’t gone exactly the way you hoped or planned. Either way – are these the same goals that you want to claim for the rest of your life? Or is it time to start doing something else altogether – even if it means undoing parts of the life you’ve built, letting go of some privilege or prestige you’ve enjoyed?
Each of us is only born once. Nicodemus is right! We can’t enter a second time into our mother’s wombs. We can’t even undo our mistakes, or erase our scars. But Jesus wants us to know that everyone can still be reborn.
We can be reborn, if we’re broken and troubled and desperate. We can be reborn, even if we seem to have it all together. Humble or proud, rich or poor, successful or struggling, all of us can be renewed. All it takes is acknowledging the emptiness we feel inside the outside shell of our outer lives, and inviting God to fill us.
Simple, but not easy. Letting God fill our lives means moving into mystery, and letting go of everything we thought we knew. It means putting our trust in absolute eternal love, and not much else. This kind of life isn’t something we choose only once. Instead, being reborn is a choice every day: as we slowly deconstruct the self we thought we needed to be, to become the one we are called to be, instead.
Please pray with me. Holy God: You are the womb from which we all come, and through you, we can begin lives that are entirely new: empty of everything except the wind of your Spirit, blowing free. Help us each to claim this bewildering opportunity, this mysterious offer, today and every day, for the sake of our own lives, and for the sake of your world. Amen.