“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
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 was wandering, he found a well where other shepherds he did not know were gathering: “Brothers, where do you come from?” he asked. One of the great mysteries of the Gospels is the origin of Jesus. In one confrontation with Pharisees, preserved in John’s Gospel, Jesus declared, “I know from where I come and where I am going but you do not know from where I come or where I am going.”
Like John’s audience, and very much unlike Nicodemus, we do know from where Jesus comes. 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 eternally begotten, forever being begotten, from his Father. There is a procession of love in the Trinity: 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 of his heart, from the bosom, from interior life of the Father has made him known.”
“There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: the same came to Jesus by night…”
This event appears to have occurred early in Jesus’ public ministry. It is hard to tell exactly when Nicodemus visited him, but clearly it was a time when Jesus was in Jerusalem and it was after he had attracted the attention of the ruling class, after he had turned water into wine at the wedding, and after he had cleansed the temple and declared his own body to be the greater Temple.
There used to be those who thought 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 biased scholar is predisposed to bend or ignore data to convince himself and others of the reasonableness of his preconceived narrative. But in fact it is abundantly reasonable that Nicodemus was as he is presented by John: a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews, a member of the Sanhedrin, as well as belonging to a wealthy, aristocratic and prominent family in Jerusalem. Most Jews upon hearing this narrative, certainly those in Jerusalem, would easily identify the man and his household. His connections 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 makes all the sense in the world. 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 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.
“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 baffling today as it was in antiquity. Nicodemus was as unequipped to recognize the origin and character of the children of the Kingdom as he was to assess the origin and destiny of the wind blowing through the high grass around Jerusalem. It sways one way now and then another way. And yet Jesus is not describing the wind, but evidence of the wind made visible or made audible through the susurration of leaves –- “thou hearest the sound thereof.” But the wind itself remains invisible, mysterious and untamable; and so is the Holy Spirit. And the children begotten of the Holy Spirit, as well, are mysteriously, invisibly born from above, born of heaven, born again –- and they too 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 the Spirit 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 as in a mere reformation of morals. That would be the case with the baptism of John the Baptist. What is required for one to see the Kingdom of God is 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, so if one may passes over to their point-of-view one may see Nicodemus as the sport of a joke. John is bringing the big shot down and exposing his powerlessness and foolishness in comparison to the little children in John’s parishes who have insider’s information. 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, well-dressed, well-educated Pharisee was no match for Christian children when it came to the wisdom of God. Jesus’ treatment of the grand “master of Israel,” must have been amusing to his Church when they heard this narrative read in the Sunday liturgy.
“Are you a master of Israel? And you don’t know these things?”
Jesus may have been thinking of an Old Testament passage like 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…
The point is that Jesus should have been anticipated and recognized by the teachers of Israel. But where Israel failed, Jesus succeeded. The fact is that Nicodemus did not see what the first Christians saw in this Gospel narrative: A familiar experience in the Church.
“That which is born of flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
Jesus explains that this new beginning is required of Nicodemus and of every son of Adam in order to enter into God’s Domain. But listen: in no way is Jesus deprecating flesh by saying, “that which is born of flesh is flesh.” He is trying to unpack it 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. This was the familiar liturgical experience of that first generation of 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 are 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.
“(God) has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature…” II Peter 1:4
I want to build upon the Theological Virtues I referred to last Sunday. Through Holy Baptism we have been made children of God and we now participate — Peter says we partake of the divine nature. Faith, hope, and charity were infused into every Christian at baptism. But, it would be a great mistake to assume that these virtues, infused gifts of God, make life in Christ easier. They make our participation in Christ a reality, but actualizing the virtues is not effortless.
Jesus said the faith you need is like a grain of mustard seed. Deification begins with believing that God is, of desiring and delighting in God’s will, and of loving God as God is in himself. Here is the point I wish to make: every single day what you take to be a temptation or a tough patch, a nuisance, or a hardship, or for that matter what you take to be a joy, a success, ease and plenty, are ample opportunities to appropriate and actualize the heavenly virtues. That requires conscious, intentional, intellectual, agreement with teaching of the Church concerning the sacrament of baptism. Whatever the trouble or the success, nothing diminishes the fact that God is, and nothing diminishes God’s finality, and the God who is God loves his creation and there is no joy or perfection is better than loving him back.
As “the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts” we mature and we rid ourselves of the myth of effortless Christian living. Anthony of Egypt, a Desert Father who lived for years in solitude and dedicated himself to constant prayer, wrestled with the world, the flesh, and the devil his whole life, never fell for the delusion of effortless growth in Christ. But neither did he fall into dejection. It is not true that Christians cannot but sin. Not true. But it is true that we have been empowered to respond to “the love of God shed abroad in our hearts,” believing that God is, desiring and delighting in God’s finality, and loving God as God is in himself. St. Paul was crystal clear when he wrote that we were in fact more than conquers in Christ. The reality of life is that you have been infused with the heavenly virtues of faith, hope, and love; and the reality is that you are able to exercise these virtues, but not without effort. I have cited frequently what Chesterton said: “It is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried.”