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I always feel a lot of sympathy for Nicodemus. He goes to see Jesus because, even though he is a Pharisee, (indeed one of the ruling Sanhedrin) he has recognised and seen in Jesus something important and holy and he wants simply to understand. His approach is very polite; he calls Jesus rabbi; he acknowledges that He comes from God and this late evening call is an invitation for a private discussion. Jesus’ response is, however, very puzzling, certainly to Nicodemus and in many ways no less so to us. Jesus says “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” or in some versions, “Being born again”.
This conversation is mismatched and puts me in mind of an American and English couple I knew who, though happily married now, in their early years were separated by a common language. My friend, the English husband, one day in his armchair calls out to his American wife in the kitchen “Dear will you turn the heat off please?” Some time later he is still very hot in his tee-shirt next to the radiator and his wife appears without the cup of tea he was expecting. He gently enquires after it, “but you told me to turn the heat off and I did.”
It took a little while for him to work out that for her the “heat” meant the gas under the kettle rather than the central heating. They came from different places you see.
In the same way, Nicodemus is rooted on earth while Jesus is speaking from a divine plane. “Very truly I tell you no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of the water and the Spirit.” Jesus uses the image of birth throughout this passage, it goes without saying that birth is a defining event, a moment in time when something changes.
Before Patrick was born our lives had a certain pattern and then one day (or night actually in the way of these things), there is a Patrick breathing and crying and blinking against the unaccustomed brightness. We so frequently talk about our journey of faith but, in this case, it seems that Jesus is describing something more singular. We perhaps tend to forget that God intervenes in our lives and has the power to change us in an instant from one condition to another.
The reference to being born by water and the Spirit brings baptism to mind; a unique sacrament of initiation that includes the concepts of redemption, beginnings and the readiness to live a brand new life in the way of Christ.
But it is not just in the baptism service that we find references to being born, and to being purified. As a convent educated schoolboy, I remember well my weekly confessions. The system was that confessions were heard on Saturdays at ten in the morning and communion was taken on Sundays at eleven. Leaving the confessional, I often worried about what would happen next. How was I to avoid making any errors between this moment and eleven o’clock the next day; for when I left the confessional I was pure and forgiven. You see, the condition of being absolved is like a birth, at that instant of being truly repentant and absolved, we are in an innocent state, a change has happened. And to underline that in the words of our confession this morning we have said “forgive us all that is past and grant that we may serve you in newness of life” … notice, "in newness of life."
During our service, we have also asked for renewal in the prayer of preparation, “cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit.” All of this, the prayer of preparation, the confession, the prayer of humble access, is leading to an event; the event that, in the gift of communion, we shall joyfully meet Jesus at the altar rail. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life“
We can be reborn from above, and not alone, but together in communion with God and with one another so that we may be “cleansed and fed and so that we, with the whole company of Christ, may sit and eat in God’s Kingdom.”
And afterwards we will be sent out; sent out with the words “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” And so we, reborn, born from above, born through the gift of the spirit may go into the world, opening our eyes like babies to see it all afresh and to do Gods work in it.