The thing about being born is that it is less of an event than a process. We might put a time on the birth of a baby, but the minutes and seconds may seem arbitrary after hours or even days of labour, after stages and ages of waiting and worrying and breathing and hold-it-now… And everybody here has been through that process, one way or another, whether aided by a midwife or a skilled surgeon or a very surprised stranger (it happens); every person here has experienced birth. Most of us don’t remember it happening to us, although some of us remember it happening to our children. But can you imagine what it was like, waiting in the dark, wondering what was happening to that ocean in which we had lived and moved and had our being, which had become suddenly stormy, wracked with waves and currents, light becoming stronger, familiar voices calling us out and the shock of that first breath of air?
Birth is risky; there are those of us here who know close-up how dangerous it can be even to attempt to be born. I know, by the way, I am certain after many and prolonged conversations with God about the matter that those babies who were lost to us were never lost to God, never at a loss for life, and that we will see them, and know them in love, when we see God face to face. I am sure of that.
Birth is unpredictable; like the coming of the Son of Man, no one knows the day or the hour, even if they book the operating room in advance, sometimes Mother Nature has other ideas than the expectant mother with child.
We think we know what we mean when we talk about being “born again” – the NRSV renders it, “born from above,” but almost any other Bible that you pick up will say that Jesus said, “You must be born again.” But Jesus was rarely glib, and he knew what it meant, how complicated and dangerous and unpredictable being born can be. Nicodemus struggled to hear him; he was not quite ready yet; but we see him labouring through the Gospel to be reborn, out of water and with the Holy Spirit, to enter that new life, that new light of the kingdom of God, that Jesus offered to him.
Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, because he was a teacher of the Jews, and a Pharisee, and the Pharisees as a group had a somewhat tense relationship with Jesus and his disciples. They tended to view him with suspicion, or at least caution. Some, it is true, invited him to dinner. But most probably kept their distance. Nicodemus was curious about Jesus, but he was also afraid of what his friends would think if they saw him consulting this strange new prophet and miracle man. So he set out in the middle of the night – a popular time for a labour to begin – and sought out Jesus in the dark. You might set down their conversation that night as the beginning of the labour contractions for Nicodemus.
Another contraction is recorded in John 7. Jesus had gone up to the Feast of the Tabernacles in Jerusalem, and began to teach in the temple. Some of the people began to whisper that he was the Messiah; others wanted to lay hands on him and arrest him, or worse, for stirring up such rumours. The chief priests and the Pharisees finally asked the temple guards, “Why didn’t you arrest him?” The guards said, “We’d never heard anything like this!” The Pharisees told them not to be taken in by Jesus’ teaching or presence or person, “No one who is anyone believes in him, only the mob, the little people, the unimportant people,” they pronounced. They disparaged Jesus and judged him, but Nicodemus must have felt a twinge, a squeeze, because suddenly he found the courage he had lacked in the night time. “Is this what we do, to condemn a man out of turn without hearing him first?” he asked them, and they scorned Nicodemus, as he had feared that they would, but he was one step closer to new life.
The third and last time that we meet Nicodemus is towards the end, in John 19, after the arrest, after the trial, after the death on the cross. Joseph of Arimathea, who had also been secretly following Jesus, but not wanting to make his allegiance known to his fellow Pharisees, did penance by going out and asking Pilate for the body, so that he could honour Jesus publicly in his death as he had failed to in his life. Nicodemus went with him, carrying a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds in weight. Nicodemus must have thought himself stillborn, to give over so much of his wealth to be sealed in the tomb with a dead man. But it was not over yet, and Nicodemus was yet to take his first breath in the shock of realization of a new life.
Nicodemus’ second birth was the product of a long labour; it was a process of coming out punctuated by moments of stress and confusion. His emergence into the light, bathed in water and the Spirit, would not be completed until after the Resurrection; David Rensberger (Johannine Faith and Liberating Community (The Westminster Press, 1988), 37-41) argues that Nicodemus and Joseph represent a group whose faith and courage would never be sufficient to won Jesus as the Christ, who would remain outside of the community of true believers. True, Jesus told them, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again,” but he also said that God loved the world so much that he sent his Son not to condemn it, but to save it. No one is lost to God. Not me, not you, not Nicodemus. Just as Paul describes Abraham’s labour to become the father of his people in his letter to the Romans, Nicodemus’ labour would be completed “in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”
I think that one of the reasons that we try to reduce the idea of being born again to a single experience or moment is that it is easier than seeing our lives as labour. I am sure that those moments and experiences matter massively – they are contractions that make us gasp and know that something real is happening – but some labours are less dramatic, and some require more help – I don’t want to push the metaphor beyond breaking point. After all, getting born is not an end in itself, but the gateway to a new way of living.
It is risky, being born anew, emerging into a new life which we have not yet seen, which we do not control. We don’t do well with unknowing – we hate not knowing what has happened, what will happen. Sometimes we hate it even more than the certainty of death. We do not do well with suspense, and being born is full of suspense.
It used to be that the first question after birth would be, “boy or girl?”; these days these things are more often known ahead of time, but still I think that the question of identity: who will we be? What gifts have we to offer? Whom will we love? – those questions are some of the big ones that hold us back from really giving ourselves over to the labour of new birth, because with it comes a whole new life to live into. We are used to the messy mix of saint and sinner, the angels and devils that we know. Why change?
But the possibilities of new life are just too good to ignore. The ability to live as those born of the Spirit, as well as water and the flesh. The chance for a life washed clean, with infinite and eternal possibilities.
So I invite you as this Lent winds on to pay attention to where the Spirit moves, like the wind, as she will. Those places where you feel that pressure to move closer to God, to become more involved, to stand up for Jesus in unexpected places; those are the contractions that move us towards new birth.
Pay attention, too, in the life of the parish: where are we as a community feeling that push, that impulse to something new, to something good, to something life-giving? Those, too, are contractions, moving Epiphany towards new birth.
Being born again is not a one-off, momentary, unrecoverable event. It is a process, and it is a gateway. It is a process that we can enter into and be a willing partner in. And it is a labour of love:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son [to be born into it], so that everyone who believes in him may never perish but have eternal life.”
We, who once were nothing, are born into being not once, not even twice, but eternally, fearfully, wonderfully, and we, each of us, and even those whom we never saw, are completed “in the presence of the God in whom we believe, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”
In the name of Jesus Christ, born and reborn in resurrection for us. Amen.