Second Sunday in Lent 2011
HCSM March 20, 2011
The Gospel read today tells us about a man named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader and a member of the Sanhedrin who may have been reluctant to approach Jesus by night to ask about the truth of salvation. Recognizing Jesus as a teacher from God, he said, “No one can do this sign unless God is with him.” “Truly, truly I say to you,” rejoined Jesus, “Unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus curiously replied, “How can a man who is getting old, with wrinkles, possibly born anew? How can he go back into his mother’s womb a second time and be born?” Nicodemus, surely as a teacher, realized that Jesus is not talking about literal rebirth but was speaking figuratively. He must surely have known that being born anew means only a fresh start to a life. However, if we try to regard the passage with some care, perhaps the question that Nicodemus asked was much more profound than he realized: Can he go back a second time into his mother’s womb? For there is a sense in which this is just what a person can so easily tries to do. Let me try to expound that:
Allow me first to share with you what happened to me, to you and to all of us when were born.
For all of us, the event of birth has been so far the most important event in our lives. I hope that you don’t think that I am being indelicate in reminding you of what happened at our birth. For how can we possibly know what it means to be born again unless we know what it meant to us to be born at all?
The very reason that we don’t like thinking about our birth shows that we feel strongly about it. Indeed the evidence goes to show that many of us have buried deep in our unconscious minds the events of our birth. They are nearly always painful. During my clinical rounds as a student nurse at Kaiser Redwood city, I was stunned when I heard the words “Leonard!!! If had it not been because of you, I wouldn’t have been in so much pain like this” Screamed a woman in the delivery room trying to push the baby out of her womb. Then the baby came out crying. I thanked God that Leonard wasn’t me.
Let me draw your attention to two points in connection with our birth, and each case I would like to invite you to consider their relevance to spiritual rebirth.
First, to us, our birth must have been a trying experience. When we were born, we did nothing ourselves to assist our birth. It was not our own effort but the force of our mother’s muscles. We had to be pushed through a narrow passage into the light of day from being under pressure in a tight place. Many doctors have claimed that this experience was so vivid that it persists in our feelings later in life. Although of course we do not recognize it as such. When we are in a panic, we may be reliving the experience. When we are under pressure, we may feel that everything is closing in on us. We may experience breathlessness. We may feel constrictions of movement. We may seem to be in a state of helplessness. It should be the same experience with spiritual rebirth. Our Lord Jesus Christ himself went into the same experience when he was forced by the spirit in the wilderness, almost as it were in spite of himself. And if this was true for Jesus, how true must it be for us if we are spiritually reborn! But people so often feel that they are only making progress in their spiritual life when everything seems to be going easily. If they feel emptiness, depression or panic, they usually feel like something might be wrong. It seldom occurs to them that. On the contrary, this may well mean that things are going right. This principle remains true for us all though we may differ in ways. Spiritual pressure prepares us for spiritual life.
The second point about our birth is that it was the end of a comfortable and sheltered existence. Before we were born, we lived effortlessly, cushioned and protected and fed by our mother. Indeed we were still part of our mother, so that we did not have to take upon ourselves the strains and stresses of an individual life. But after we were born, how different it was! A baby at birth is exposed for the first time to cold and heat, to pressure and roughness, to nice and nasty sensations. A baby at birth no longer has oxygen supplied free. He has to breathe in the cold air and his very first breath shocks him into a cry. I suppose the best commentary on our birth is that the first noise we uttered was a cry.
“Ungeee” That’s our first word. “Well, had it not because of that midwife slapping my behind, I wouldn’t have cried.”
A new born baby experiences the same discomfort of cold. The effort of breathing, the feeling of hunger and yet all this is essential if a baby is to make progress and fulfill the potentialities within him and grow up into a mature person. Because of love, God sent His only Son to the world that he may lead us to salvation by going into the same experience all of us have gone through in our birth. He felt the same discomfort; Breathing, the feeling of hunger, pain, even death, his painful death on the cross that we might be saved. Like us, he made progress and fulfilled the potentialities within him and grew up into a mature person. God made this possible for us to learn that bewildering and unfamiliar surrounding experiences are essential to salvation. Although that happened, many of us still long to get back to that haven of peace and security that we had before we were born. We often feel what bliss it would be to have no responsibilities at all. How marvelous if we could just have peace and security all over again. How wonderful if we could just sink ourselves in someone else’s personality and forget everything else. When we feel like that, and we all do from time to time especially if we are frightened or confused, then we are probably harking back to the security we had before we were born. Now if birth means the loss of peace and security, so also must spiritual rebirth. We can no longer lean on the conviction of others. We can no longer take things for granted on the authority of others. Jesus was telling Nicodemus that being born again means he has to live the life of a mature individual person, no longer cushioned and protected or insulated against the heat and cold of life. Often we hear people say, “If only we could rely on the authority of the mother church or the diocese and place ourselves unreservedly under her protection.” Let us be quite clear that such people are very far indeed from spiritual rebirth. They are going in the opposite direction. They remind us of Nicodemus question “Can a man go back a second time into his mother’s womb?” That is the just what this people would like to do. They want to escape from the responsibilities of personal existence and return to that unreflective peace and security which they have in the womb.
Spiritual rebirth means the opposite. It means maturity. It means no longer an effortless existence but reliance on our own convictions and on our own experience in life, our relationship with God. We need to rise up from where we are, able to stand up and sustain ourselves and experience rebirth spiritually. Of course we do not stand alone. We belong as Christians with the Christian society, but our relations with others, if we are spiritually reborn, must be characterized by maturity and not by dependence.
In this season of Lent, let us open ourselves to God through Christ in faith, hope and love to prepare ourselves for the Holy week and finally arrive in Easter with great celebration. May we all learn from our birth experiences and grow from that experience to become more matured in our spiritual rebirth. Amen.