My first taste of a Protestant tradition was one in which the phrase “being born again” truly was what separated those who were right with God from those who weren’t. To be born again came with manifestations that struck me in my own profoundly cynical way as a religious SAT. Rather than trying to understand people who were so very different from religiously and their hunger and thirst for predictable and well understood signs that showed that they were faithful followers of Jesus.
I still believe that their hard-edged literalism about being born again was not helpful to them or to the larger community of the faithful, but I do have a great deal of sympathy for their desire for a tangible evidence that they are in relationship with God through Christ. Frankly, Jesus perhaps was a tad frustrated with Nicodemus when he said it. After all Nicodemus was a teacher who was respected and revered. He was the one who had sought out Jesus. Yet, what Jesus was saying simply seemed to confuse and confound him. I can understand why people would want to jump into this saying with some well-defined literalism.
The image itself is a striking one. While we are all born, that’s the image that unites us, we don’t think of God as creator giving birth to us literally or figuratively, very naturally. Jesus is claiming something that is very like what Paul writes in the Letter to the Romans, “…[God] who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” Each time our relationship shifts and changes with God we are born anew. We are not the people we were before that change.
I think there’s another challenge for Nicodemus and for all of us in this gospel. Part of why it is so difficult for Nicodemus to go public about his deepening understanding of Jesus and his identity as God’s Son is that he lives and works and has his being in the cozy womb of the Temple. In that world of relationship with God all things are governed by the Torah and the Mishnah there is great and complex clarity about relationships with the Holy One. Life isn’t messy and unpredictable. By using the image of birth Jesus shows Nicodemus that when the Spirit of God is at work it is messy and at times frightening, and the outcome may not be at all what we expect.
The invitation is clear we are to step out of the womb of our comfort in our faith, our traditions, our relationship even with the living God and be open to the messy world of God’s creation because signs of how God is giving birth to the new in us, and in the world, are all around us. This season is not an agenda of things to do so that we can bask in God’s love. It is a journey with the one who knows us and loves us as only a mother who has formed us in the womb can. It is always helpful to hear that the grace of the message is what matters most.