I have a special fondness for the story of Nicodemus, and not just because we share the same name. In 2010, after a few decades of suffering apparent separation between God and me, something happened. It was a very sudden something and it brought spiritual transformation, healing, and gratitude. At the time, the words which came spontaneously to mind describing the experience, the words that felt most true, where that it felt like being born again.
Not long after I found a church and when I told the rector about the “born again” experience she very gently suggested that I call it something else, perhaps a kind of spiritual awakening. I assumed she offered that advice because of the political reality associated with the phrase “born again.” Still, I’ve never forgotten that first Easter I celebrated, how there was an overwhelming and joyful recognition of the baptismal dying and rising of my self in Christ.
Back in the fourth century the sacrament of baptism was seen as the culmination of a Lenten journey, a journey of instruction, spiritual exercises, and ascetic disciplines. Those on this journey, the catechumens, were baptized on the Easter Vigil, a celebration of their participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. As a symbol of this dying and rising, they would enter a pool of water on one side, as entering into a tomb or womb, before emerging on the other side.
Over the last couple of thousand years there’s been some changes to the timing of baptism, the ritual itself, and in the case of adult baptism, the means of preparation. Since the earliest days of the church we’ve also wondered about the connection between the outward sign of baptism and the interior spiritual reality, the baptism of water and the baptism of Spirit.
In his book A Guide to the Sacraments theologian John Macquarrie explores this question, summarizing the issue at hand by writing “It would make a neat theological theory if water baptism and Spirit baptism were simultaneous, but… neat theories do not always accommodate the facts of spiritual experience.”
That the facts of spiritual experience resist easy classification can be seen as early as the New Testament. For example, in the Acts of the Apostles, Pentecost, apart from a water ritual, is described as a descent of the Holy Spirit, a baptism of Spirit and fire. We also have the converts at Samaria who were baptized by Philip, who only later had the Holy Spirit fall upon them. Or there’s the case of the converts at Caesarea who received a baptism of the Holy Spirit before their baptism with water by Peter.
All this is to suggest that when Jesus makes a distinction between being born of water and Spirit, we can understand one meaning of these words to be the distinction between the ritual baptism of water and the spiritual experience of being born again with Christ in the Holy Spirit. In other words, the reality of spiritual baptism, that which allows us to see and enter God’s Kingdom, unfolds according to God’s grace in God’s time.
For Nicodemus as for most us, the journey starts with a sincere desire to seek out the Light of Christ. Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, he was literally in the dark, and like a moth to a flame he was drawn to Christ. Jesus, discerning the desire in Nicodemus’ heart, knows it isn’t enough for him to assent intellectually to Jesus being of God. No, Nicodemus wants nothing less than to intimately know and participate in God’s Kingdom.
So, Jesus, says “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Unfortunately, Nicodemus doesn’t understand this, and is still very much in the dark. How can anyone be born again after growing old, he wonders. Are we supposed to reenter our mother’s womb to be born a second time?
Next, Jesus offers a bit more detail, saying that one must be born of water and of Spirit, and similarly one must be born of flesh and of Spirit. This puts being born of water and of flesh on similar ground, suggesting that in addition to water referring to the baptism ritual, both metaphors are describing our first, worldly birth from below.
The word translated as “flesh” in the New Testament has a variety of meanings. It refers to our physical bodies as well as materiality of the world generally. Also, “flesh” can refer to the tendency of human beings to act of their own will imagining an independence from God. In this day and age we might call that “ego.”
Our first birth then, is our entrance and ongoing experience of being in this world with all the joys and sorrows that materiality and ego have to offer. First we enter this world as inspirited bodies and minds, and then we come to our second birth, the recognition that we’re not of this world, but rather of Spirit. This also suggests that our second birth of the Spirit is at least in part a continuing, lifelong process.
In his book, Experiencing God Directly, Marshall Davis describes being born again as “a direct experience of the Presence of God here [and] now.” Being born from above, of the Spirit, is like our eyes being opened to the reality of God’s Kingdom, and in that sense it does always unfold now, although it may also exist simultaneously as our hopes for the future. And what seems to most often get in the way of this being born of the Spirit is our egos, our “flesh,” or, more precisely our overidentification with worldly things.
Nicodemus is described as a leader, a Pharisee of some standing, a person of quality, a doer, an achiever. The idea that this highly accomplished person would need to be born again into something new is shocking, and, at least at first unacceptable.
Of course, being born again, of the Spirit, is not about the person of Nicodemus at all, just like it’s not about us. All the initiative and grace comes from God, so that it’s less about doing something or adding something and more about letting our attachments to worldly things of the flesh simply die.
In fact, we might call this spiritual baptism a sort of being “unborn.” The author of the Cloud of Unknowing called this the unknowing or unlearning of everything we thought we knew about God and ourselves, in the process coming to know God in a new, more intimate way. This baptismal transformation, the dying to self and rising with Christ is ongoing, although it may seem to be punctuated by momentous shifts in perception.
And as if to hammer home the need for complete reliance on God, Jesus tells Nicodemus that this birthing process of spiritual transformation is like the wind blowing wherever it will. None of Nicodemus’ many accomplishments and worldly qualities can force entrance into God’s Kingdom. All he and we can do is practice, perhaps for the first time in our lives, doing nothing at all, and letting it truly be all about God.
First, there’s a desire for the Light of Christ, then there’s a willingness to surrender everything for that desire. And then there needs to be a commitment to the unfolding of this spiritual rebirth within the fleshy, worldly reality of our lives. While it’s true that we shouldn’t overidentify with materiality and our egos they’re also not the bad guys. God’s will, after all, is made manifest through those things, and so we should resist the urge to bypass worldly things entirely, instead coming into a new relationship with the world and how we see it.
Meister Eckhart, the 13th century theologian and mystic, talks of this Spiritual birth as God being born in our souls, and how even the way we see worldly things of the flesh changes after we’re reborn from above. I’ll quote him at length because he wonderfully combines the sense of this birth being both an event and self-reinforcing process. He writes:
“I am often asked if a [person] can reach the point where [they are] no longer hindered by time, multiplicity, or matter. Assuredly! Once this birth has really occurred, no creatures can hinder you; instead, they will all direct you to God and this birth… In fact, what use to be a hinderance now helps you most. Your face is so fully turned towards this birth that, no matter what you see or hear, you can get nothing but this birth from all things. All things become simply God to you, for in all things you notice only God, just as [one] who stares long at the sun sees the sun in whatever [they] afterwards [look] at.”
What Nicodemus most desired was to be enlightened by the Light of Christ, dispelling his darkness, allowing him to enter God’s Kingdom, and recognize the reality of God within and without. Jesus told him what was required, a radical, probably painful, dying to self so as to rise again in Christ. This spiritual birth from above would not so much deny worldly things from below, but would instead see flesh itself transfigured, allowing one to see God in all things including, most importantly perhaps, in our True Selves.
We never find out what happened with Nicodemus. We’re told he defended Jesus amongst the Pharisees, and that he helped at Jesus’ burial, but that’s about it. My sincere wish has been that Nicodemus saw his heart’s desire fulfilled, that he surrendered to God’s healing and transforming grace, beginning a lifelong process of participation in God’s Kingdom, intimately knowing the Peace and Joy of Eternal Life promised by Jesus. And that remains my wish… for all of us as well.
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