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New Life is always born of the Spirit

Isaiah 6: 1 – 8 and John 3: 1 – 15
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
3 June 2012

The French-Cuban author Anaïs Nin is quoted as saying, "And the time came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom." That brief quoted really is at the heart of religious faith and spiritual growth. And it is also at the heart of the story of Nicodemus and his late night pilgrimage to meet the man called Jesus of Nazareth.

In 1902 the Harvard psychologist and philosopher William James published the ground breaking book, Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. In the book he resurrected the notion that at the heart of religion was not dogma or even beliefs and doctrines, but human experience. He cleverly constructed the theory that there are two types of people in the world. There are the Once-born, who for James do not stray of the familiar territory of what they know and particularly what is expected of them. They tend to stay with what is safe, regular and acceptable. Life for them is imaged and a steady development toward….. say perfection. Now you may think that this is the way religious people should be, but not so for William James. The religious spirit - the spirit of faith and hope and compassion belongs to those who are Twice-born.

To help understand this idea Elizabeth Lesser in her book Broken Open, explains the theory like this:

A Twice-Born person pays attention when the soul pokes its head through the clouds of a half-lived life. Whether through choice or calamity, the Twice-Born person goes into the woods, loses the straightway, makes mistakes, suffers loss, and confronts that which needs to change within himself or herself in order to live a more genuine and radiant life.

For these writers and many others the only life that is worth living is the one that is shaped and reshaped by the vagaries and unplanned most often painful experiences of everyday living.

Nicodemus and his meeting with Jesus
This story of Nicodemus holds a central place in our understanding of the spiritual life and the way Christian faith is a transforming religion. The name of Nicodemus is associated with a modern phenomenon called, "the born again movement." I am sure most have an aware that it is a movement usually associated with conservation Christians and often claims to be a very exclusive club. If you are born again then in are in the group, if you are not then by following these 4 easy steps I’ll let you in. Or often it would be said that God will let you in.

Now I believe that the born again movement does have it half right. As the gospel of John states:

"I tell you the truth; no one can enter the Kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to the spirit. Don’t be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again."

To paraphrase the author’s words; anything of value is born of the spirit. It needs the breath of life to activate it and to sustain it. Flesh and blood, the physicality of life, as power, as wondrous and as important as it is needs a life giving, heart pulsing breath of fresh air – the spirit of life to enervate and invigorate it . So the born again movement is right, living, breathing, animated life comes from the spirit. But you don’t have to join their club to get it. It is here, right here, all around us, within us, before us and beyond us. All you have to do is open your life to it.

It is interesting that Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. Remember he was an important religious official. He represented the religious establishment. His job was to keep the populace on the straight and narrow, while Jesus on the other hand was a disturber of religious conventions and trouble-maker. So the orthodox priest comes to the religious rabble-rouser in secret, by night to ask him some deep questions.

I wonder what was bubbling away in the interior landscape of this devout man’s soul. Was he intellectually curious"? Had he been in his younger days a searcher, a seeker for truth regardless of the form in which it showed itself in, but in order to become a high ranking religious official he had to give up his true self – his deepest desire to perform the tasks necessary to professional life. But now as an older man the time had come when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. Now he was ready to continue the abandoned path he had left of in his youth….But still not quite courageous enough to meet Jesus in the day time in full view of his colleagues and friends.

Embracing Life in the Spirit
I have meet many people in the second half of their life who are exploring the deep issues of faith in the most radical way. Maybe that’s a very natural process. The first half of life is about acquiring things, schooling, getting a job, a home, a wife, a few children. But the second half seems to bring a kind of audit of one’s life; a re-evaluation of what is of value and what is of less value. This is often quite painful because it means giving up some of the things that we once believed would bring us security, safety, happiness and even health and wholeness. But life - thank God - does its work on us and - pray God – if we listen pay attention be open enough we begin to be….born again.

"What are you talking about," says Nicodemus to Jesus, "How can someone be born when they are old?" Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!" So Jesus gives him a quick education in the significance of metaphor and simile. "The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit."

This transition to the new life, the life of the spirit, of being born again or being born from above as one translation suggests, is a rather difficult process. A lot like physical birth I suppose. For most of my study in Canada I pursued a deeper understanding of the philosophical field called epistemology. I remember teaching a year 10 ethics class at Carey Grammar School in the late 1990s and one of the students asked what my area of study was in Canada. I said epistemology. I wonder if you can imagine that in the ears of 15 year olds what the word sounded like and how they responded to hearing it. Little devils they were!

But simply put - and in my years of study it was never simply put - it is the theory of knowledge – how he know what we know and in practice, particularly in education, it is about how we can effectively communicate what we know to children, to young people and to adults. What has emerged in the last 20 years or so is that children learn very differently from the way adults learn and because it was my area of interest, I discovered that there was a fundamental difference in the religious education of children and of adults.

So I think Jesus is giving Nicodemus a good adult religious education:

So did Nicodemus embrace this emerging faith founded by Jesus? Was he born again and therefore entered into this mystical Kingdom of God? Did he remain like Joseph of Arimathea a secret follower of Jesus? Possibly, their names are linked together at the end of John’s gospel:

Joseph of Arimathea, a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one…asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus….Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.

~John 19:39

But to me it doesn’t matter whether or not Nicodemus become a "Christian." He was already of follower of the way. Perhaps he wasn’t as courageous as some, valuing his religious position over coming out into the light. But at least he listened to a voice, perhaps an inner voice, calling him away for the safe and predicable life of duty and diligence, from a half-lived life, into a life born from the wisp of the spirit; the unpredictability of the wind of God, blowing where it wills and catching us as a gentle breeze or a wild whirlwind. I think he was courageous enough to examine his life and recognize that there was something missing that he needed in order to live life in all its fullness. And when he left Jesus he had plenty to brood on and a vision of the religious life as one of a liberating adventure rather than a regulated code of beliefs, and he now knew that if you want new life then you must be born of the life giving Spirit of God.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2012

Comments or suggestions on this page appreciated by email, Thanks.