There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’
Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’
Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’
Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 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.’
Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’
Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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.’
Nicodemus said to Jesus: How can anyone be born after having grown old?
When I was a teenager the Billy Graham crusades of a slightly earlier era of evangelism were being followed by a procession of younger American evangelists who came to this country with missionary zeal. They staged rallies during which hymns were re-branded in pop-song form and the Good News of Jesus Christ was re-presented in the language of the time, rather than the archaic language of thee, thou and thy. I, like many others at the time, attended several of these rallies. I, like many others, heard the invitation that was the golden thread that tied all of these missions together … the invitation to be ‘born again’.
In today’s reading we hear Jesus offering the same invitation to the Pharisee, Nicodemus. Jesus says: no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. All those years ago, when I was in the midst of enthusiastic young Christians hearing the invitation to be ‘born again’, I had a vague idea what that might involve but, like Nicodemus, I have come to realize that the simplicity of that two-word invitation goes nowhere near telling the whole story. In fact, the invitation to be ‘born again’ in Christian terms is like a contract with pages and pages of small print.
When we are baptized we speak of being born of the water and Spirit. The water symbolically washes away our old selves, and the Spirit strengthens and guides us as we begin a new life. But, the act of baptism is often undertaken on our behalf, when we are too young to engage in what is being said and done on our behalf. At that time we are represented by our parents and godparents. Those sponsors take on a commitment to guide us into the life of faith … but how often is that part of the deal honoured?
Being ‘born again’ into the life of faith is a journey we have to take alone. We may be surrounded by those who seek to support us but, essentially, we are the only ones who can set aside our old lives and be ‘born again’ into the life of true faith. This can be a difficult journey for some. The setting aside of the comfortable, the familiar, and the self-focused can be a challenge … a challenge that can feel like climbing the highest mountain. But, for those who have taken that challenging path, there is a new horizon to be viewed … a new horizon in which we come to understand what it means for God’s love to have been expressed in the giving of his only Son in order that we might be saved, and that we might have eternal life.
Let us pray that, no matter how old we might be, we find the courage to set aside the old life of self-interest and self-indulgence and step into the new life alongside the many others who have been ‘born again’ in the name of Jesus, our Lord and Saviour.
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