Sunday, April 23, 2017

Be Born from Above

As they prayed, the place where they were gathered shook, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness. Acts 4:31

Jesus answered, "Amen, amen, I say to you unless one is born of water and Spirit he cannot enter the Kingdom of God. What is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I told you, 'You must be born from above.' The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." John 3:3-8

I will pour out water upon the thirsty ground, streams upon the dry land; I will pour out my spirit upon your offspring, my blessing upon your descendants. (I 44:3)

On the Second Sunday of Easter, the Good News gave us the all-too-familiar story of Doubting Thomas. Today, paired up with Doubting Thomas is Doubting Nicodemus. Nicodemus was likely a member of the Sanhedrin. This supreme council was made up of seventy-one members of three groups – elders, chief priests, and scribes. It was presided over by the high priest and exercised authority over the Jews in religious matters.

I call Nicodemus “doubting” not because he doubted the news of the resurrection like Thomas – that was still an unfolding mystery. Rather, the power of Jesus’ teaching had Nicodemus doubting the authority which he wielded as a member of the Sanhedrin. Jesus came to Thomas to quell his doubts. Nicodemus came to Jesus to explore his doubts and Jesus rocked his world like the earthquake in Acts.

The earthquake is used as a sign of the divine presence in Exodus and Isaiah. However, in Acts 4, the shaking of the building symbolizes God’s favorable response to the prayer. Nicodemus was feeling more of an internal earthquake as the natural lessons he was charged with passing on to the Jewish faithful were called into question as the teaching of Jesus stirred in his mind and his heart.

As the dialogue gets underway, Nicodemus confuses the meaning of the Greek adverb anĊthen. It means both “from above” and “again.” Jesus means “from above” but Nicodemus misunderstands it as “born again.” This misunderstanding serves as a springboard for further instruction. Now the lesson becomes more of a discourse from Jesus, no longer a dialogue with Nicodemus.  Yet the Pharisee is still there listening with the ear of his heart.

The New Birth in the Spirit is foreshadowed in the great opening of John’s Gospel. Followers or believers were known because they “were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God.” (John 1:13). However, this new birth is not a new concept. Nicodemus is able to put it into the context of the teachings of the earlier prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah.

I will sprinkle clean water over you to make you clean; from all your impurities and from all your idols I will cleanse you. I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you so that you walk in my statutes, observe my ordinances, and keep them. Ezekiel 36:25-27

The notes in the New American Bible to this passage from the Hebrew Bible explain that God’s initiative to cleanse Israel is the first act in the creation of a new people who are no longer disposed to repeating their own wicked past. To make this restoration permanent, God gives them a new birth which replaces their rebellious and stubborn “heart of stone” with a new “heart of flesh” susceptible to and animated by God’s intentions – God’s “spirit.”

As an educated teacher, Nicodemus would have known this passage and perhaps hearing some of that reflected in Jesus’ words was compelling and called him to explore further. Nicodemus also was likely familiar with the theme of the “new birth in the spirit” rooted in Isaiah.

The castle will be forsaken,
the noisy city deserted;
Citadel and tower will become wasteland forever,
the joy of wild donkeys, the pasture of flocks;
Until the spirit from on high
is poured out on us.
And the wilderness becomes a garden land
and the garden land seems as common as forest.
Then judgment will dwell in the wilderness
and justice abide in the garden land. Isaiah 42:14-16

Extraordinary peace and justice will come to the people – and peace we come to know is the first gift of the Resurrection delivered by Jesus.

Recall the Sunday Gospel – the first gift Jesus bestowed when he passed through the locked doors when Thomas was not present. On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, "Peace be with you." (John 20:19)

Like Thomas later in the narrative, Nicodemus was thirsty for the peace which is bestowed by knowledge of this new birth in the spirit. Jesus pours out his spirit onto and into the thirsty Nicodemus. We will see the reborn Nicodemus again defending Jesus in the temple and again at the foot of the cross when the other disciples have scattered.

Yesterday, I was in a different church. It was not my first visit to this West Virginia parish and its new church designed to visually recall the architecture of classic high-ceilinged churches of the past with dark bricks and woodwork. Despite the joy of the season, I just could not get into the celebration. The sound system was off. The chords of the organ overpowered the voice of the cantor. The echoes of the walls made it hard to understand the meaning of the deacon preaching. Even as the deacons made their way among the faithful with holy water, they did not express the same joy you see on the faces of Fr. Greenhalgh or Fr. Wilson or Fr. Barkett or Fr. Stefan and they help us relive the joy of our Baptism.

Unlike Nicodemus, I gave up too soon yesterday. I did not try hard enough to understand what was happening. If Nicodemus ever became a patron saint, perhaps he would be the patron of patient listening or the curious mind. 

"St. Nicodemus," keep the ears of my heart open so my mind might be as curious as yours even when my basic beliefs are challenged or my expectations not met.

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