None of us remembers our birth. But most of us can imagine what a trauma it was to leave the warm, humid comfort of the dark and quiet womb and be thrust into the dry, cold, noisy brightness of whatever room. So when Jesus speaks to Nicodemus of a spiritual birth, I’m inclined to believe that what Jesus asks of Nicodemus is not going to be easy.
The gospel account of the exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus is complicated by the writer’s habit of characterizing Jews (in general) and Pharisees (in particular) as obsessed with narrow legalism and driven by judgmental self-righteousness. Evidence suggests that the sect of Pharisees was more complex than the portrait this evangelist paints. Nevertheless, what emerges in Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus is an exploration of the contested ground between structure (law, judgment) and freedom (Spirit, novelty).
That contested ground is not an exclusively Pharisaical or Jewish reality. It is at the heart of a contemporary tension in the formerly “mainline” churches, including our own Anglican Church. While as a Diocese we may have embraced a vision that includes “life-changing worship”, some of us are not sure we want to say “worship” and “change” in the same breath. Moreover, the contested ground is not just between people. Sometimes it is within us, as we desire both the comfort of familiar structures and patterns and the promise of renewal and transformation.
So as we eavesdrop on Jesus and Nicodemus, we listen to understand not just some long-ago contest between law and spirit, but to understand ourselves and our common life as well. We hear Jesus tell Nicodemus that “getting there”, entering the Kingdom, is a process that demands of us our willingness to endure discomfort – the discomfort of a passage between the dark and quiet womb of familiarity and the noisy bright expansive spirit-birth into new life.
Whatever for? Why would anyone willingly embrace such a transit? Two things come to mind. First, for growth and delight. At birth I weighed around five kilos and I had grown as big as I could or ever would in my mother’s womb. Moreover, in that place there was no Lake Superior, no college basketball, no first kiss or waking up together, no cinnamon toast, crossword puzzles or John Irving novels. (You might make your own list of the wonders of life this side of the womb.) We set out on this journey so that we can inhabit more fully the fullness of our lives.
And we set out for the sake of the world. “For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” The Hebrew name of Jesus – “Yeshua” – also means “salvation” and (by a delightful linguistic grace) “that which is spacious”. As we make the passage from the dark and quiet womb of “so far” towards the noisy, bright expansive (spacious) “not yet”, our capacity to participate in the spacious work of Jesus grows. In the Letter to the Romans, Paul writes that “the whole creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” People so firmly attached to current arrangements as we sometimes are cannot be agents of the transformation that God desires and for which the creation so eagerly longs. The world is waiting with eager longing for us to get over it, to get on with it, to consent to God’s spirit-birth, to the unsettling journey from what is to what will be.
Jesus asks a hard thing of Nicodemus, and of us. He asks us to endure the loss of warm familiarity, an uncertain passage, and unsettling newness for the sake of the world, and for our own fuller and deeper joy.