In our Gospel today, we see Jesus engaged in a spirited exchange with a religious teacher of the Pharisees. The rabbi Nicodemus considers Jesus to be a teacher like himself: as he says, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God” (Jo. 3:2). This sounds like the beginning of a promising ecumenical dialogue, like one in our own time, giving everyone a place at the table. With his statement, Nicodemus is showing respect, graciously extending to Jesus the same status as himself.
But Jesus overturns the board when he tells him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” or “born again” (Jo. 3:3), as it might be translated. A more diplomatic move might have been to extend the same courtesy to Nicodemus that had been extended to him; or at least to tell him (as Jesus tells the scribe in Mark’s Gospel) “you are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mk. 12:34)! Instead, he cuts right to the chase by asserting the very basis of lasting relationship with God, the necessity of being “born again.”
Nicodemus probably was a bit bumfuzzled by Jesus’ response to his gracious greeting. This non-sequitur right at the start of the dialogue raises questions for the Pharisee, a series of questions that begins with the word “how”. So, Nicodemus asks, how can a person be born a second time? We know where everyone comes from, the common human origin. How can anybody emerge a second time from the womb? Nicodemus is astonished. He’s never heard anything like this. “How can these things be?” (Jo. 3:9). How indeed.
Jesus tells him that rebirth comes through water and the Spirit. Nicodemus ought to know better! “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above’” (Jo. 3:7). Rather than reciprocating Nicodemus’ gracious greeting, it now seems like his own credentials as a rabbi are up for grabs. Jesus says to him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (Jo. 3:10).
Nicodemus really should know better than this, because the conjunction of water and the Spirit takes us back to the very beginning, to the story of Creation. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Gen.1:1-2). The word for “wind” is the same as the word for “spirit” in the Genesis text, as well as in the Gospel. If you want to know how these things can be, Jesus tells him, you need to go back to the start of everything, and read how God gave birth to all things through water and the Spirit.
This is a story that Nicodemus surely knows. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Jo. 3:8). Here Jesus makes explicit the connection between the wind that stirred up the waters of Creation, and the Spirit that gives new life to those who seek the kingdom of God. The process of Creation is mysterious, and so is the process of re-Creation. The work of the Spirit is basic to both.
The Spirit, like the wind, works in an unseen way, though it is clear to the eyes of faith. We can hear the sound of it, and mark its passing, but we cannot comprehend it. The Spirit blows where it wills, in ways that cannot be calculated or contained. But no one can cast a doubt on its presence. It is the Spirit of God, after all.
Each of us has a notion, I think, that life is larger than the container that we’re given here and now. We may not know where we’re coming from or where we’re going, but from the perspective of faith we do know. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is the pledge that God will raise us up with him. We may not know how it’s possible, but that’s how the Spirit works. We, and those we love, are “born again” for the sake of this larger life, the new life that comes from new birth. Birth and death cannot contain us, because the Spirit blows where it wills, stirring things up and creating the possibility of new, resurrection life.
If we, like Nicodemus, want to know how these things can be, we need look no further than the sacraments. Implanted in each of us, through water and the Spirit in baptism, is the gift of this larger life. The gift of new life is nourished each time we come to the altar rail, to share Jesus’ resurrection life through his body and blood. We renew this pledge of new and everlasting life each time we reaffirm our baptismal vows, as we do today. God gives us the means of grace, so that we can enter into lasting relationship with him. “How can these things be?” (Jo. 3:9), Nicodemus asked: well, faith replies, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord.