Tennyson was born after forty hours of grinding labor. I can remember the relentlessness of those hours, the starts and stops, the anticipation and the disappointment. But I mostly remember the time, how day stretched into night, night yawned into the morning. And still, labor.
Tennyson doesn’t seem to remember any of it. As I labored she was born. Something nascent within her told her to corkscrew through the birth canal, to wait for the muscles that pushed her down, from safe, red, warm darkness into the cool evening of late August, into the world. Without meaning to, without willing it, her lungs began to breathe.
Today we hear a story about someone being born. A man name Nicodemus, a Pharisee. John’s Gospel has, embedded within it, Nicodemus’ birth story — the story of being surrounded by the waters of Spirit, the story of God’s slow and agonizing labor, the story of being birthed forth by God, the story of emerging from the womb into the day. Like all newborns, he has no idea it is happening to him, happening each time he comes face to face with Jesus.
Being born is not something you undertake, a task to be accomplished, or a goal to fulfill. We are born, an act of grace to enter the world through this rushing of water. You were born because a woman took the time to labor you into this world.
Nicodemus is confused by the suggestion that this would happen to him again. He scoffs at this idea of “being born from above,” of birthing. Jesus’ answers are hardly clarifying. There is this long rush of metaphors, none of them pointing back to anything concrete. Water and spirit. Flesh of the flesh. The wind blows where it chooses. Spirit born of spirit. All these words and expressions flowing together, rushing water, all the work of the Spirit within Nicodemus.
But what Nicodemus doesn’t know is that the Spirit is already at work upon him, that he is, without knowing it, being reborn.
Nicodemus is a minor character in the Gospel of John. He appears only three times. We know he is a leader among the Pharisees, and that Jesus and the Pharisees had a relationship that was, to say the least, tense.
We can chart Nicodemus across these three stories. We can see a story of rebirth from above, birth that takes place by encountering Jesus.
Nicodemus’ first encounter with Jesus happens in the background. Nicodemus sees The Signs.
In today’s Gospel we learn that he sees The Signs. He’s heard stories, like this one: Jesus, in the midst of a buzzing crowd as a whisper makes its way around the room. The wine for the wedding has run out! Mary is there, urging him on, urging him towards the empty stone vessels. He tells them to fill them and drink. And where there was water there is now wine.
Nicodemus saw things, like this: Jesus, red with sweat and anger, tore through the Temple, knocking over the carts of doves and the stalls of sheep. Nicodemus remembered the way the coins gleamed, scattered on the ground, the screams as the moneychangers fled. He remembered the unsteady feeling, the movement around him as Jesus looked him in the eyes, stared into him, saying the temple could be destroyed in three days, then built again.
A sign. He could tell it was a sign. The world, Nicodemus’ world, was unsteady.
So he stole away at night, away to see the teacher, to ask him, to find out, to search for the questions. No one would see him at night, his fellow rabbis immersed in their evening Torah study. He’d come here, hidden and unseen, ask his questions and go home.
But he finds himself awash in the words, awash in these strange ideas of birth and Spirit and water.
The next time Nicodemus appears, a few pages later, he is sunk deep in the wrath of his fellow teachers of the law who wish to see Jesus arrested. When it doesn’t happen on their terms they are furious. No one of authority believes in this man, they sneer.
And with considerable courage Nicodemus replies that a hearing should be in order. I imagine this is what Nicodemus could muster, the argument from within the law for the teachers of the law. It is a tentative step, surely, but an emerging, a being born, a first separation from the things that have always made sense of him.
We’ll see him once more, this Nicodemus. He makes one more appearance in John, this time at the end, beside the body of Jesus. Touching this body would have, no doubt, made Nicodemus ritually unclean, unavailable for the life he had before. We come to find that this Nicodemus, the one who first came by night, has now emerged into day.
Nicodemus breaks the law, the law that has centered his life, has made sense of his existence. He breaks the law by touching Jesus’ corpse. Nicodemus preparing Jesus’ body, wrapping it with perfume and linen, resting it in the tomb. He’s born into the precariousness of the Gospel, the unsureness of this new life, what it will mean, what he will have to leave behind.
Throughout our lives we are being born again, born from above, born from the Spirit, each encounter with the Risen Jesus pushing us further along, each encounter bringing us towards the day, the air, the world outside the womb. Sometimes we don’t know it, we can only look back to see that it happened.
Some of us grew up in church cultures that utilized and sometimes weaponized the language of “being born again.” If you could not point to the day and hour, your salvation was in jeopardy.
But Nicodemus tells another story. It is the story of the long, steady contractions of God’s womb, that being born takes time, that being born is God’s work, that we always come to find Jesus is there, waiting to encounter us, over and over again.
So we wonder, of ourselves, of one another – how are we being born again? Where have you encountered the Risen Jesus? How is that encounter pushing you into the world, away from what you have known, towards breath, towards the Spirit?
I’m thankful for the members of Raleigh Mennonite Church who shared their stories of slowly being born again through encounters with Jesus. Ann Robertson shared about discovering her vocation as an immigration attorney through an encounter with a refugee family, prompted by her former pastor. Al Reberg shared of his rebirth over decades into anti-racism. Hugh Hollowell told us one of the founding stories of Love Wins Ministries. You can hear these stories on our audio recording of the sermon.