We often think of Lent as unmitigated suffering and heaviness but in this second week of the season of Lent we have this beautiful reading from John’s gospel and we are reminded that whatever heaviness and struggle Lent brings it is so that we can emerge on Easter dawn with the newly risen Lord alive to a new life.
In some ways we should hear this gospel reading (John 3:1-17) of the need to be born again alongside of, or as the other bookend to the reading we will hear in Holy Week when Jesus will say to the Greeks “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it will remain just a single grain but if it dies it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24) In many ways these two images of rebirth and death are mirror images of the same spiritual truth: the great universal wisdom known to many traditions and absolutely central to our Christian belief, that we need to die into life and for us that is through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.
I want to share with you some of what this beautiful image might mean for us but firstly I fear I need to say a few things to reclaim the language of “born again” for us ordinary people of the Way.
The recognition of our need to be born again has always been core to the Christian journey and is most clearly expressed in the sacrament of baptism where we ritually undergo a watery death in order to be reborn of spirit. But starting in the reformations of the church in the 16th century there was an increasing emphasis on personal salvation and spiritual understandings and practices that encouraged personal conversion and growth. Now in its historical context – everyone had no choice but to be Christian by citizenship – it is understandable that this corrective view needed to emerge. But in the last century being Born Again became a code for some Christians for a very specific experience which usually went something like: became overwhelmingly convicted of one’s sinfulness and the need for forgiveness and healing, confessed to one’s sinfulness and claimed the saving power of Jesus’ redeeming blood, and as a result of receiving his forgiveness had a strong emotional and sometimes physical experience of receiving the Holy Spirit.
Many of us have had a similar experience and it is a powerful blessing which I want to acknowledge and honour as one way in which we might experience rebirth. (Indeed for me it was the 6th September 1971 at about 8:30 pm in response to an altar call at a youth camp near the beach in Bunbury Western Australia!) However some have used this understanding to see themselves as different, better, elect in some special way from other people on the journey who have not had this particular experience. I would want to say very clearly that such claims are idolatrous – that is making an idol of oneself rather than God – and that there is nothing in Scripture that prescribes or limits the experience of rebirth, indeed the language is deliberately poetic and fluid. We are simply told that we need to be born of spirit from above. And then we are told shortly afterward that the spirit will move where and how it will, not according to the formulaic expectations of us.
So having reclaimed the language and the invitation for all of us let us consider how we might understand this requirement to be born again. I think when we place it alongside the explanation that unless a grain of wheat shall die ... that we are to understand that this is the great universal truth that we are on the great cosmic journey of birth, life, rebirth.
For some that understanding is that there is one physical birth followed by one experience of spiritually being born again which prepares us for our physical death and our eventual union with God in eternal life. Other traditions are open to this great cycle being repeated many times here on earth. Certainly in the wisdom of the church we celebrate this cycle each and every year, suggesting that this is the great cycle of life that we continually experience at work in us and that every year, or at least many times in our life, we need to enter into the experience of death and rebirth in order that our spirits grow and that we slowly become ready to meet with God as spirit. The readings, the prayers, the hymns we sing, all invite us to allow this peeling away of the layers and layers of old self in order to make room for the spirit of God. The increased study and prayers of this time of year, the fasting, and the almsgiving – all are aimed at emptying us in preparation for receiving new life.
And there is also a sense that this being reborn, this regeneration of Spirit, is stronger or more necessary at some stages of life than others. Crisis can make rebirth desirable. And so can normal maturation. Richard Rohr and Paula D’Arcy have written and taught widely about the Two Halves of Life. They say that the first stage of adult life is rightly about the law, understanding the rules of society and religion, learning how to work well with others, how to debate and analyse, figuring out where you belong and to whom you belong. And then in the second stage of life, moved by the Spirit, rules are no longer enough or even as relevant. It is all about faith - all about relationship with God, self and neighbour. It is not so much against the law as beyond the law.
It is worth recalling that Jesus was approximately 30 when he was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness as his great preparation for his ministry. That is, Jesus was already fully developed as a person – good and holy, competent, sinless, but still needing to be tried and refined in order to be ready for his life’s work. And in a much more modest way so it is with us. Although fully adult and maybe certain in our beliefs there is a rebirth, a trialing and reforming that we need to go through in order to become people of a more subtle spirit.
This notion of the two stages of life fits well our story of Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a good and presumably holy adult. He is a Pharisee. That is, he is already very religious, learned, well respected. He has all that is expected of a good person. But he comes to Jesus at night for clearly he has a sense that in this man’s teaching and healing is something more than he has or understands (and that his religious friends may not approve or understand his interest!). And Jesus effectively says that it is not a question of learning more of the same by learned debate but of radical shift – a shift in the way of thinking and being that it is so radical that it is appropriate to call it being born again. Indeed being born of the spirit means that life becomes more unpredictable and less certain for the wind, the spirit, will blow where it blows.
For many people this move from the first stage of adult life to the second half is in response to change they didn’t necessarily seek – loss, trauma, and disillusion – something that pulls the carpet of certainty from out under us. And in the new place we find relationship with a much bigger God. Sometimes the change comes because people go looking for it, but most people don’t really want to give up their certainty unless they have to.
However and in whatever circumstance and state of mind we find ourselves at this time let us consider the invitation to be born again from above, to trust that we have learned the first and necessary lessons of law and belief, and that now we are invited to be reborn of spirit into a more mysterious, loving and enlivening world. Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ of the journey, be our companion.