Photo credit: Berend de Kort
Readings: Isaiah 46:3-10, John 3:1-17, Divine Providence #82 (see below)
I do think that Nicodemus is actually a perfect figure to be considering in the season of Lent. During Lent, we commit to *doing* things a little differently so that we might *see* things a little differently. We might give up doing something we have come to rely on in an unhealthy way. We might make some space for doing something that we normally think we don’t have time for. And we do all of this, so that we might uncover truths about ourselves and the world we live in that help us to embody love more effectively; love for our neighbor, love for ourselves, love for our world, love for our God.
But as we do so, the process itself is not always instagram-ready. This is kind of the point. We are deliberately shaking things up a little, and that will put us off balance. We are exploring, we are opening up, we are listening, we are feeling our way, and we are not going to know where we will end up before we start. If we did, the process would not be enlightenment, it would simply be confirmation of what we already know and think.
So then, we might resonate with Nicodemus and the way that he seems off balance in front of Jesus, not sure what to say, shifting from foot to foot. He was a Pharisee, a leader of the Jewish church, coming to see a controversial teacher, with all the tension that this suggests. He brought to Jesus his own worldview, his own assumptions and habits of evaluation. He brought his devotion. And he brought his curiosity, as there was clearly something about Jesus that was nagging at him, something he wanted to figure it out. He wanted to know what was true. But he also came in the darkness. Darkness has a symbolic meaning in the gospel of John, that of obscurity and of separation from the presence of God. We recall the prologue only two chapters earlier: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:5)
This is how we often are during the season of Lent, and plenty of other times too, searching for the light in the darkness. We maybe don’t know why we are giving something up, or doing something new, except for the vague sense that it might benefit us, that there is something we might learn. We are in a necessary obscurity. We don’t know what will be revealed to us but we show up anyway. And we start from where we are and what we know, as did Nicodemus. He says to Jesus…you must be sent from God because what you have done is amazing…but in between the lines is the rest of what is unsaid…but you are challenging me with what you are saying, and I don’t want to let go of everything I thought I knew. I need the comfort of my rightness. He cannot even bring himself to ask Jesus a question. He just shows up embodying his dilemma, speaking out of his both his discomfort and his yearning, as we often do ourselves, during Lent or other times of spiritual struggle.
And so Jesus tries to give him some guidance, tries to broaden his view beyond the question of Jesus’ identity and towards the central task of being a person in this world: being re-made in the image of God. Jesus uses a metaphor to express this process: being born again. Now, because of the prevalence of Christianity in the world today, this notion of being born again is a very familiar one. We are used to spiritualizing this idea. But it probably wasn’t as familiar to Nicodemus. So of course, he is confused. He doesn’t grasp the metaphor. Maybe if we imagine Jesus saying instead that Nicodemus should replace his heart with a different one, or grow a new face, or even transform in a cocoon like a butterfly, we might appreciate a little more bit how strange being born a second time would have sounded, how easily Nicodemus might have been tripped up by the literal impossibility of what Jesus was proposing. Of course a grown man cannot return to his mother’s womb. No one can literally be born twice.
So, Jesus expands upon the metaphor a little bit more. He takes Nicodemus’ image of the womb, of a baby being born from water, from the mother’s amniotic fluids, and he says, yes, you must be born again but this time from water AND spirit. A spiritual birth. Just as we are built molecule by molecule, organ by organ, limb by limb, in the womb of our mother, so too we must be spiritually built little by little in the womb of our God, nourished and held in just the same way, birthed through contraction and challenge, but emerging whole and full of life into a new way of being, which Jesus calls the kingdom of God. This metaphor has spoken powerfully to the church over the ages.
And what the rest of the world calls metaphor, Swedenborg calls correspondence, for he understands this connective way of meaning-making and meaning-seeing to be the language that God speaks to us, indeed, the way that spirit and flesh are eternally conjoined. The world whispers a secret word and the spirit knows its meaning and in that shared understanding there is connection. We are born, and yet we keep on being born, our most basic and primal experience being the pattern for our continual journeying. And what I love about this text is that we can see the layers of overlapping connection in a couple of different ways. We are both grounded in our natural experience and invited forward into an expanding spiritual experience.
First, we are born from water *and* spirit. Our spiritual birth is not disembodied or disconnected from our natural birth or our natural worldly experience. Jesus takes the experience of our natural birth and expands upon it, infills it with an ongoing meaning and opportunity. We are not told to discount or despise our birth from water; it was a gift, it brought us here, it was a miracle. We are grounded in gratitude. And then we continually re-enact that birthing by adding another dimension to it, a spiritual dimension that requires and builds upon all of our earthly experience as container, anchor, and inspiration. Water *and* spirit, earth *and* heaven, body *and* soul, separate but not-separate, working in concert.
Second, in our spiritual process we are born from *water-and-spirit* together. We read in True Christianity 572:
To be born of water and the spirit means to be born of truths related to faith and of a life lived by those truths.
To be born of *water-and-spirit* means to create a selfhood out of what is true, and to create a life out of living according to what is true. In regeneration we are attempting to birth an integral oneness of soul; a cohesion of mind and heart that reflects the love and wisdom of God. Love that acts in wisdom, love that cannot help but to act in wisdom, love that is real and useful. And isn’t that exactly what we are trying to do here in Lent? Uncover essential truths about ourselves and to live authentically and usefully according to what we have learned? To figure out how to love more fully and effectively? Water alone cannot do it, spirit alone cannot do it, but together there is wholeness. Being born again connects heaven and earth within us, just as being born again also connects truth and good within us. Jesus’ words both ground us and invite us forward.
And while birth is liberating, it is also messy and unpredictable, and so it is reasonable that Lent might feel messy and unpredictable too. As we participate in God’s birthing of us, we come to understand that this process cannot be directed entirely by our rational minds, cannot be purely intellectual. We cannot be removed, play the game at a distance, leave some part of us enjoying ironic detachment. We have to care, we have to feel the stakes, because it is the caring that leads to the seeing of something new, and it is the caring that motivates us to live according to the truth we see. We read in Doctrine of Faith #13:
The “Inner Recognition of Truth” That Is Faith Is Found Only in People Who Are Devoted to Caring
…Caring originates in a desire to do something good. Since what is good loves what is true, this desire leads to a desire for truth and therefore to the recognition of what is true, which is faith. By these steps, in proper sequence, a desire to do something good takes form and turns into caring. This is how caring develops from its origin, which is a desire to do something good, through faith, which is a recognition of what is true, to its goal, which is caring. The goal is the doing of something.
We only search for the truth because we care to. We can only recognize truth when it matters to us. Love precedes the water of truth, every time, love precedes the birthing. The desire to do something good creates an impetus for the seeking, creates space for the recognizing, creates motivation for the acting. And sometimes caring feels uncomfortable, even unbearable, and absolutely exhausting. Caring feels likes ants in our pants, a prickle in our brain, an ache in our heart, a cry in our soul. Caring feels messy. But it is necessary. Our devotion to caring, our commitment to being invested in the world around us, this is what leads us to an inner recognition of truth. And that truth births us into new realities. Again and again.
So, it is okay to show up as Nicodemus. Not sure but curious. Wanting to have our old ways of thinking confirmed but knowing there might be something else beyond them. Staking things out under the cover of night because the newness feels too tender to subject to the daytime. Jesus shows up to this state of being with gentle challenge and an armload of metaphors, so that we might start to understand what God is calling us to. For God so loved the world…so very much.
3 “Listen to me, you descendants of Jacob, all the remnant of the people of Israel, you whom I have upheld since your birth, and have carried since you were born. 4 Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you. 5 “With whom will you compare me or count me equal? To whom will you liken me that we may be compared? 6 Some pour out gold from their bags and weigh out silver on the scales; they hire a goldsmith to make it into a god, and they bow down and worship it. 7 They lift it to their shoulders and carry it; they set it up in its place, and there it stands. From that spot it cannot move. Even though someone cries out to it, it cannot answer; it cannot save them from their troubles. 8 “Remember this, keep it in mind, take it to heart, you rebels. 9 Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. 10 I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.’
1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” 3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” 4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 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.” 9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. 10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” 16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
Divine Providence #82
…The Lord teaches us that "No one can see the kingdom of God except by being born again." However, not many people know what "being born again" or "being regenerated" actually is. This is because people do not know what love and thoughtful living are; so they do not know what faith is, either, because anyone who does not know what love and thoughtful living are cannot know what faith is. Thoughtful living and faith are integral to each other the way what is good and what is true are, the way desires of our volition and thoughts of our discernment are.