“Jesus answered, Verily, verily I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God. That which is born of flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”
John 3: 5-8
“Nay, for in all these things we are more than conquers through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus.” Romans 8:38-39
The most basic question a stranger is asked is “Where are you from?” Another question eventually follows: “Where are you going?” When the angel of the Lord appeared to Hagar in the wilderness she asked him, “Where have you come from and where are you going.” When Jacob’s wandering was nearly over and he found a well where other shepherds he did not know had already gathered: “Brothers, where do you come from?” One of the great mysteries of the Gospels is the origin of Jesus. On several occasions in a confrontation with Pharisees Jesus responded: “I know where I have come from and where I am going, but you do not know where I am come or where I am going.”
But we, like John’s audience, do know where Jesus came from. Before we get to this narrative about Nicodemus we have to go through the Prologue of the Gospel where we are informed about Jesus’ origin: First, that the Son proceeded from his Father. Last week I pointed out that there is a procession of love: The Father loves his Son, the Word, the Logos: “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God. And the Word was God.” The Word, the Son proceeds from the Father’s bosom, from his heart, from his interior life. John put it this way: “No man hath seen God at any time; the only-begotten God (the Word) who is coming to us from the heart, from the bosom, from inside of the Father has made him known.” The word John uses for “made known” is literally the word we could translate as “exegesis.” The Word is the exegete and the exegesis of the Father. The word literally means “to draw out,” the idea being that an exegete draws out the meaning of a text. In this usage it means that as the Word is in procession from the Father he draws out God’s full meaning, the perfect interpretation of the Father. When the Word came forth he was made flesh and the Blessed Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus, the Word made flesh. Jesus loves us, his disciples – and we love one another.
“There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: the same came to Jesus by night…” John 3:1
This event appears to have occurred fairly early into the public ministry of Lord. It is hard to tell exactly when Nicodemus visited with Jesus, but clearly it was a time when Jesus was in Jerusalem and it was after he had attracted the attention of the ruling class by proclaiming all foods to be kosher or neutralizing Moses’ death sentence for adultery and taking it upon himself to forgive the adulteress. There are those who think that Nicodemus was not a real person, but a foil invented by the Evangelist to contrast the Pharisees with Jesus. But there is no good textual reason for that position and, in my opinion, it is the product of an overly active imagination and suspicion brought to the text. It is a good example of how a scholar making unverified assumptions about evidence prejudices himself and brings him to bend the narrative to fit his assumptions rather than the evidence. It is reasonable to accept that Nicodemus was in fact exactly as he is presented by John: a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews, a member of the 70 – the Sanhedrin, as well as a member to a wealthy, aristocratic and prominent family. I think that most Jews upon hearing this narrative, certainly those in Jerusalem, would pretty easily identify the man and his household. His connections surely put him in sharp contrast to this itinerate, working-class preacher from Nazareth. When we consider how Jesus had behaved and how he taught his disciples to behave vis-à-vis the Law, the fact that Nicodemus came to Jesus under the cover of darkness has the ring of truth to it. Nicodemus spoke to Jesus:
“Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him…”
“Thou are a teacher…” not, “thou art a prophet.” Nicodemus is not alone in that judgment. “We know thou are a teacher…” There are others, probably in the Sanhedrin who recognizes in Jesus’ teaching and his works that he is a man sent from God. But you see how Nicodemus is all about what is here below, not what is from above? He has not one clue that he is having a conversation with the God his ancestors. That’s not all Nicodemus didn’t know.
“That which is born of flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”
The weather, the origin and destiny of wind, remains as baffling for us today as it was for people in antiquity. Nicodemus was as unequipped to recognize the origin and character of the children of the Kingdom as he was to gauge the origin and destiny of the wind blowing through the high grass of Jerusalem. It sways one way now and then another way. And yet even here we are not describing the wind, but evidence of the wind made visible or made audible through rustling leaves –“thou hearest the sound thereof.” The wind itself remains invisible, mysterious and untamable; and so is the Kingdom of God. And the children of Kingdom, as well, are mysteriously, invisibly born from above, born of heaven, born of God, and born again – and they ought to be untamable by the world.
Jesus is not saying that the children of God are impulsive and flighty. He is saying this: The children of God are those who are born of God from above – miraculously birthed into his family the Church. The new beginning required of Nicodemus and every other human being is not a new beginning on the mere human plane. It is not a matter of improvement of morals. That would be the case with the baptism of John the Baptist. Let me underline this point: this is not a matter of second chances or personal reformations. What is required for one to see the Kingdom of God is a new beginning from God – a miraculous birth into God’s family. That is something, as the liturgy of Baptism proclaims, that by nature we cannot accomplish. This is something that the intended readers of the Gospel already knew because they knew that the Holy Spirit descended from Heaven. John’s intended audience brought this information to the account of Nicodemus coming to Jesus and so if one passes over to their point-of-view one may see Nicodemus as the sport of a joke. John is bringing the Pharisee down and exposing his powerlessness and foolishness in comparison to the humblest Christian in John’s audience who turns out to possess true knowledge and understanding of the Kingdom as well as the power of God. John’s intended audience not only knew about the Holy Spirit, even their little children understood that through the grace of baptism they had been born again and made Children of God. The formidable, well-fed and well-dressed Pharisee was no match for Christian children when it came to the wisdom of God and Jesus is amusing his Church and the joke is on the grand “master of Israel.” They understood all this, but they also understood that the world is utterly unequipped to register, to know either the presence of the Kingdom of God or the Children of God.
This is the irony of hearing the sound of the wind. The world only hears wind. The world does not know what the assumed reader of the Gospel of John knows, namely that the wind is symbolic of the Holy Spirit. The sound of the wind is the voice of the wind and that is the voice of God. But only the children of God can hear his voice. The children know that Jesus is the voice of God, the Form of God, the Word of God, the enfleshed of Life of God.
“That which is born of flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
Jesus explains all this to Nicodemus. He repeats what he said before, but includes “of water and the Spirit.” “You must be born of water and the Spirit.” This is a new beginning that is required of Nicodemus and of every son of Adam in order to enter into God Domain. But listen: in no way is Jesus deprecating flesh by saying “that which is born of flesh is flesh.” He is trying to break it down for this ruler of the Jews. Look we have two realms: Flesh begets flesh. That is how you got here in the first place. It is also how Jesus got here. Flesh is good. Flesh is not the opposite of spirit. In fact, flesh is created such that, in order to reach its full potential, it must receive and even participate fully in the Spirit, but that requires the Spirit’s begetting.
Now we have to give Nicodemus some credit. He perceived that this is humanly impossible. In a way this is similar to Mary’s question to the Angel: “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” He saw that all things being equal the notion did not make sense. That much he got right. But he, a teacher of Israel, entirely missed the point that what is impossible with man, is possible with God. At the end of the conversation the only thing he can say is “How can these things be?”
“Are you a master of Israel? And you don’t know these things?”
Should he recall Ezekiel 36?
“I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I put within you: I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh…And I will put my Spirit within you…”
My point is that this is not entirely absent from the Old Testament. God has been, at least, hinting along these lines for several thousand years through revered ancestors. The fact is that Jesus scolded him for not getting it, but in all fairness to Nicodemus, he could not have seen what the first Christians saw in this Gospel narrative: A familiar experience in the Church. God begetting children of his very own through the water of Baptism, crafting temples suited for Divinity in our bodies of the flesh.
Well that is the account St. John the Theologian preserved for us. And I have given you the Church’s interpretation. But here’s one more question: Why would our Father’s in the Catholic tradition select this Gospel for Trinity Sunday? I think mainly they selected this passage because all three Persons of the Trinity identified and acting. It takes a Father to beget children and so we have God the Father as the One who begets. We have God the Son made flesh bringing the Divine Kingdom to his own chosen people. And we have God the Holy Spirit who actually effects, brings into being the new birth through the sacrament of Baptism. And this is why “it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.” And this is exactly why St. Paul wrote with perfect confidence to the Romans of the everlasting, steadfast, super substantial, unconquerable love of God for his very own children.
“Nay, for in all these things we are more than conquers through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:37-39