It is the second Sunday of Lent, and we have gathered once again to hear the voice of our ancestors through the traditional scriptures, the traditional words of our liturgy, and to engage in the traditional practice of receiving the body of Christ through the Holy Communion as we gather together at the table.
But as a congregation under construction, we are in the midst of a many new practices. We have the new practice of using our prayer books (though not new in the grand scheme of things, it’s something we have to get used to again as a community.) We have to get used to sitting in these chairs – sometimes a little closer to our neighbors than we are accustomed to – we can see each other a little closer up – see the altar from a new perspective – see one another’s faces up close and personal. We have had to come up with new solutions to having coffee hour and parish hall events in this space and we’ll continue to live with the newness that occurs in the midst of transition.
I have been contemplating all of the newness in the midst of that which is very traditional, the many and wonderful preserved traditions that our Episcopal church upholds, and that ultimately our restoration work is committed to. We are updating those things that are old, worn out and in need of repair or replacement, but we are doing so by returning them to their original beauty, their traditional look, their historic impression.
When we return to our worship space – it will ultimately look like the same church – and yet, it will have undergone a major transformation – one that new members down the road or visitors or young people a generation away from now won’t be able to see in the same way that we will, those of us who knew the church before the restoration, who see how it looks without the walls and floors that we are accustomed to, and who will have to grow accustomed to the newness of that traditional place upon returning to our old worship space.
Old and new, traditions preserved, transitions restored, death into rebirth.
The story that we are in the midst of is a living breathing example and reflection of the Gospel that we received this morning.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee – a priest – active in the Jewish community – active enough to know the traditions, to know that his people were awaiting the one who would come in the name of God and change everything. And he was aware enough of this Jesus of Nazareth that he had to go and see for himself if this could really be the one.
He also knew that he might want to keep his inquiry under wraps – at least for now – and so he made his visit in the night, maintaining a cloak of secrecy. After all – with the new – with change – whether impending, hoped for, necessary – there is much work required, and if this was going to be it – if this was the beginning of such a transition, then Nicodemus wanted to be prepared – he wanted to know for himself if this already powerful figure was going to change the whole world he knew.
He posed his introduction to Jesus saying, “Rabbi, we know that your are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
You may have noticed – he did not ask a question here – merely introduced an address.
And Jesus replied – “no one can see the
In other words, you will not know that which is from God without having new eyes with which to see it – that transition – those changes – that newness that you have perceived and are here to verify – it’s coming – it is very real – and it is going to change things – but the changes in the world may not be as overt, outward and obvious as you might imagine.
Nicodemus replies with an incredulous response to the physical idea of being born anew – “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” (How can such a new thing take place – for our bodies are what they are – they are only capable of so much in the way of new physical experiences…)
Don’t be so quick to blame Nicodemus for missing the metaphor – we have 2000 years of Christian tradition, catechism and Baptismal preaching and practice to clue us in to what he doesn’t get. This concept of being born of the Spirit, of being born anew – this was radical stuff. And it sounds to me like not everyone would be able to understand, to accept, to perceive of that which was being made new in the world. Those who knew it to be true – would know it to be true – even if they couldn’t see it in the physical world around them.
In fact, for those of you who have already cringed in recognition of the words “born again,” the bigger danger that we have in this day and age is getting caught our own culture’s definition of what that means.
In our cultural context the term “born-again” is derived from this passage and is often used in evangelical Christian circles to reference one’s – individual action – of accepting Jesus as one’s “personal” Lord and Savior. It reflects a different kind of confusion regarding this metaphor because it seems to assume that this new birth is something that is done by the individual – it precludes God’s action in the process entirely.
By claiming to choose God – to choose Jesus and thus to call that an experience of being “born again” is to take God’s deep and astounding love and action out of the equation. It is not our action that allows God to transform us, but rather it is God’s transforming power that allows us – invites us, calls us into change, into new life, even though our physical self may not reflect that experience.
In our own baptismal vows the candidate for baptism or his/her sponsors are asked if they accept Jesus Christ as savior, to put trust in his love and grace and to obey his command as Lord – but it is not a personal act – it is a communal act of worship and commitment. It is a question asked in community – with the child, the parents, the godparents, and the congregation as witnesses and fellow participants in the covenant agreement.
The change that follows – though marked with physical symbols of water and oil – it is not visible to the human eye – it is not a change that can be seen or detected in the physical world. Rather, the transformation, at its onset has a greater impact on the community gathered than on the child who has received the sacrament. It is through a life of discovery of God’s love for the baptized, of the communities’ participation in nurturing an active faith-life and supporting a child’s hands as they reach out for God, as they seek that grace and mercy that the power of this spiritual re-birth is developed and experienced.
Understanding God’s action, recognizing God’s presence, allowing one’s self to be born anew is not always something that is done so willingly or so willfully as to be left up to human choice. Responding to that call, responding to that deep love, responding to that “ahah” moment – that is where the faithful begin to take responsibility for the gift of new life that has been given them.
And the though the newness may be obvious to you, though the change in how you see the world, how you see your place in it and perceive what it is to live as a Christian through it may have completely changed – perhaps your neighbors sitting so close will not be able to tell – because it is not a physical change that has manifested through your return to the birth canal in your mother’s womb – as Nicodemus so absurdly suggested.
Looking at this passage through our lens as Anglicans and as post-resurrection Christians – we can hear these words knowing what Jesus is pointing to – not only as we reflect on our own Baptismal Covenant and the role that baptism plays in our life as a community – as the sacramental marking of God’s invitation into a new life in Christ – but we understand that Jesus’ own life was on a path to the cross – he called for a deeper understanding of new life, and of renewal or rebirth as he was moving toward the death that would allow him to resurrect – to be born anew.
Newness in the midst of old – transformation of the spirit – leaving the physical world to be the physical world – and allowing the spirit to do its work on us – for… “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
As you hear and speak the traditional words of our liturgy, of our scriptures and of our faith practices, may you be a witness and an active participant in the newness of the spirit at work in all things and in all places. May your eyes be open to the changes in yourself and in your neighbors, despite the lack of physical evidence, and may you respond to the spirit at work in you – recognizing God’s deepest love for you and the abundant life in Christ that is ours.
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
"Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."