An old preacher tells the story of the Sunday morning he baptized a two-year-old boy. After saying the sacred words and baptizing the child with water in the presence of his parents, family, and congregation, the pastor spoke the baptismal promise directly to the child:
“You are a child of God, sealed by the Spirit, and you belong to Jesus Christ forever.”
To which the little boy replied, “Uh-oh.”
Well. You know what they say: Out of the mouths of babes, and all that.
Because, while we may laugh at the toddler’s response to the news that he belongs to Jesus forever, some of us may share his sense of unease. Some of us, the more we come to know about Jesus and the closer we come to understanding—if not God, then at least something of what a life of faith requires of us—may grow more than a little concerned about what we’ve gotten ourselves into.
Drawn as we may be into the Great Mystery—a Love that listens, a Justice that calls, and a Breath that empowers—we might also hope to maintain a safe distance. We might pay lip service to the Holy One who manifests in myriad forms and is known by many names, the Glorious Presence who dwells in our brokenness, and the Gritty Savior who seeks mere mortals to go for Them into the heart of humanity, but we don’t want to get carried away. When it comes to professing Christianity or even just joining a church, we want to set our own terms, thank you very much.
And so it it with good old Nicodemus, a leader of the traditional Jewish establishment. He is intrigued by Jesus, but his official standing requires some discretion. He realizes that simply exploring what this rabble-rouser Jesus is all about could jeopardize both his career and his social standing, and so he comes to Jesus by night. The better to go unnoticed. The better to protect himself from the judging eyes of the powers that be.
Nicodemus is trying to make up his mind about Jesus and—just like the just-baptized two-year-old, the awestruck Isaiah, and anyone who would prefer to keep all things religious at arm’s length—he gets more than he bargained for.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus in search of knowledge, but Jesus makes it clear that the faith journey in general and following him in particular is much more than an intellectual exercise. It is both a grander opportunity and a bigger ask.
It is a call to transformation. An invitation to renewal and a fresh start—and partnership. An encounter that will (or should) change everything.
“You must be born anew,” Jesus tells Nicodemus.
Jesus seems to be saying that Nicodemus cannot truly experience all the gifts and wonders, love, and truth of God’s realm unless he gives himself over and opens himself up—heart, mind, and soul—to the God who loves, the Human One who saves, and the Spirit who enlivens.
But Nicodemus wants to play it safe and make a logical assessment of this Jesus character so that he can make a rational decision. He is trapped by what he thinks he knows. He is stuck in the literal.
So when Jesus tells Nic he must be born anew, born of the Spirit, Nicodemus says, “How is that even possible?”
I find it both encouraging and telling that throughout the gospels, whenever anyone asks Jesus if he is the messiah, the chosen one of God, he does not speak in theological terms. He does not offer rational proofs. He rarely refers even to scripture or the law of Moses. Rather he advises his questioners to believe their eyes, to check their hearts, to take note of the changes that are happening within them and all around them.
“Go and tell them what you hear and see,” Jesus tells those who ask: “That the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
The “proof” of the God who is “maker and re-maker of all that is,” Jesus says to Nicodemus and anyone else who asks, is in the lives that are changed, the eyes and hearts that are opened, the love that brings unlike people together, the schedules that are turned upside-down to make time for service and worship, the humility that leads forgiven people to forgive others, the joy that motivates thrifty people to give generously.
The “proof” of the Love “whose weeping, words, and wounds” save us all is in all the little transformations and healings that happen every time someone puts their life on the line for love and justice, every time they pour out their hearts in prayer, every time they march or stand vigil, every time they gather together.
The “proof” of the Spirit “by whose urgency and fire, even the truth gets told” is in each time anyone puts their own interests aside to care for someone else, every time someone chooses to consider what justice requires, every time someone chooses to trust what can’t be known, every time someone makes the decision to devote themselves to someone or something other than, bigger than, poorer than, more oppressed than themselves.
That, to my mind, is what it means to be “born again”—and again and again and again. To be willing to be changed, healed, flipped head over heels by our encounter with Love and Grace. To be willing to give ourselves over—again and again and again—to the Spirit of Life and Love whose existence we cannot prove or understand, to a journey whose end we cannot see, along a path we do not know.
“Therefore,” says Mary Luti, “we also believe that everything that lives can be reborn, all hidden things come to light, all broken things can be remade, the empty larder can be refilled, and promises gone stale and hard can taste like bread again.”
On this Trinity Sunday, I am less interested in explaining the concept of the doctrine of the Trinity, which is not to be found as such in our scriptures, than in praising the Holy One whose essential nature is all about relationship. Relationship to the ever-moving and -flowing community of Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, yes, Father-Mother, Child, and Spirit, yes, Maker, Lover, and Fire of Life, yes, and also relationship to our beautiful and badly broken world, to the poor in things and poor in spirit, to the left out, left behind, and oppressed, to our neighbors and our enemies, to strangers and friends, and to you and to me.
The question, I think, is not so much what we think of the Trinity or what we believe about God as whether we are willing to enter into relationship with the Holy One, whether we will open our hearts and minds to the Great Mystery, and consent to letting ourselves be changed, healed, and born again by Love.
We don’t know how Nicodemus’ meeting with Jesus ended. We don’t know if Nicodemus ran out into the night in a huff, or if he fell down on his knees in prayer. We don’t know if Nicodemus kept his conversation with Jesus secret or if he began telling his friends what Jesus had said about being born anew. We don’t know if Nicodemus walked away from his life and became a Jesus follower, or if he lay awake at night tossing and turning, unable to forget what Jesus had said but also refusing to give himself over to it.
What we do know is that, at the very least, his nighttime encounter with Jesus planted a seed and that over time that seed sprouted and gave birth to new life. We know this because in John’s account of the burial of Jesus, Nicodemus shows up again. There in Chapter 19, verse 39, immediately after Pontius Pilate has given permission for the body of Jesus to be taken away, it says, Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came [to the burial], bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.
What we know, beloveds, is that whateverwe do or don’t believe about God, Jesus, and Spirit, when we are willing to enter into relationship with the Holy, we will be changed. We will be re-born. We will be delivered. We will be asked to go for God into the heart of brokenness, the messiness of community, and the countless unknowns of the life of faith.
What we know is that we will belong to the redeeming love of God forever.