In last weeks gospel readings for the Eucharist we were invited into the conversation, in John’s Gospel, between Jesus and Nicodemus, the subject of the conversation being re-birth.
I always find these passages highly moving; the whole tone of the language is intimate, mysterious and, tender. I also relate to Nicodemus. Surely he is an iconic figure for middle class educated westerners?
He shows us how little we really know in spite of our education and upbringing. For, it is to the erudite and highly educated Nicodemus (he is a ‘sophisicat’) that Jesus reveals the eternal truth that we must be reborn ‘from above through water and spirit.’ (John 3, 5).
Nicodemus’ reply ‘how can this be so?’ (verse 10), is a very modern response?
He desires a rational scientific, cognitive, answer. But, he can’t have one! Because, he is being invited into a mystery, and a relationship, so deep that it is beyond cognitive explanation.
Just look for a second at how Jesus describes the concept of rebirth.
The language He uses describes, very precisely, but also very unscientifically,the idea that our relationship with God is immanent (reborn through water into a human-Divine relationship; as in baptism), whilst recognizing that re-birth also defies ,linguistic (try explaining spirit as a concept!), natural (how can we be born from above – the metaphor, by design, just doesn’t work) and, empirical (how could anyone observe our re-birth?) analysis.
Cognitively, linguistically, naturally, rationally and empirically, speaking the idea of re-birth is frankly nuts!
No wonder Nicodemus was as my daughters might say:
However, as Nicodemus came to learn – and we are invited to replicate his journey- ultimate truth is in reality contained within the ultimate mystery: our re-birth, made possible, through Jesus Christ.
I think that in seeking to apprehend (because we can’t comprehend – so please let’s stop trying) the concept of re-birth we can,like Nicodemus, in a strange way draw on the shortcomings of rational, cognitive,empirical ways of thinking. In doing so, we might reclaim the concept of being ‘born again,’ in a more holistic, patient and, loving manner. So here is my starter for ten:
- Birth, therefore, rebirth involves a ‘Nicodemeum’ period of gestation. Nicodemus, by his exposure to Jesus and His community of disciples, was first nourished in the womb before being re-born, at a later stage, into the community. Do we conceive our Churches as wombs?
- Birth is not an event any of us can remember. I know that I was born on 30th May 1966 but, I can’t remember it! So we perhaps need to start reconsidering our language and the claims we make. We need to reflect on whether the theological concepts of conversion and re-birth are one off events, or processes (or combinations of the two).
- Our own natural births were, in all probability, exclusively witnessed by our parents and midwives. It is they, not us, who are charged with validating our birth. So it is with our Christian re-birth; it is the Father and The Son (in his role as midwife; there’s a paradox!) who will validate our re-birth. Do we really have any legitimate, or empirical basis, to claim that we have been born again?
- Birth is the event that instigates relationship with parent and siblings. We are born into families and communities. The health and functionality of the child, and their relationships, is largely conditioned by the health, functionality and, maturity of the family into which we are born. Good parents know that their new born children require unconditional love and, that initially at least, the relationship is one of healthy dependency. How healthy are our families, communities and churches? Do we recognize that the re-born are, initially, dependent?
- New born babies have no concept of what it means to be a person! Being born, even re-born, therefore may be regarded as the journey into personhood. From the Christian perspective personhood implies being transformed, over time, into our own unique likeness of the many colored God. Such a personhood implies throwing off our false egos and, honoring our calling to be the person of God that only we can be. The development of personhood requires the stability of knowing that we are truly loved. Are we as individuals and as churches encouraging the growth into personhood? Do we acknowledge each and every person as a potential revelation of the Divine image? How comfortable are we in accepting the many colors of God? Is our love totally, unambiguously, without conditions?
Two final questions:
- Are we prepared to fully re-enter the mystery of re-birth, accepting that mystery defies empirical and cognitive analysis?
- If we are, how will this modify our behavior and, impact the way we talk about being ‘born again?’