“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
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit. Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. Abide in me, and I in you.” John 15:1-5
Remember that we are presently in chapter 15 of John which is the narrative of our Lord’s last evening with his disciples only hours away from his crucifixion. This famous event involving Nicodemus appears early in the Gospel, chapter 3, and early in the public ministry of our Lord. Nicodemus’ visit was at a time when Jesus was in Jerusalem and it was after he had attracted the attention of the ruling class by amending the Law when he proclaimed all foods to be kosher as well as neutralizing Moses’ death sentence for adultery by 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 bends 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. His family and connections put him in sharp contrast to the itinerant preacher from Nazareth. When we consider how Jesus 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:
“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…”
“We know thou are a teacher…” There are others, probably in the Sanhedrin who recognizes in Jesus’ teaching and his works that he was a man from God. But beginning right here 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.”
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. Nicodemus thought that the children of the Kingdom were the Jews – pure and simple. But Jesus said that the children of Kingdom, like the wind, are mysteriously free, born from above, born of God, and born again — and the world cannot tame them.
Jesus is not saying that the children of God are impulsive and flighty. 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, Jew and Greek, is not a new beginning on the mere human plane. It is not a matter of improvement of morals. Let me underline this point: this is not a matter of second chances or personal reformations. A miraculous birth into God’s family is required for one to participate in the Kingdom of God. That, as the liturgy of Baptism proclaims, cannot be accomplished by nature. Thus, as I have said before, God’s destiny for us does not overthrow our true human nature, but it requires a supernatural means that he provides through the sacramental life of the Church. But always remember, grace perfects nature, grace does not annihilate nature. Our destiny to be children of God, is not metaphorical, but real. This is something that the intended readers of the Gospel of John already knew because they knew that the Holy Spirit descended from Heaven. John’s intended audience brought this information to the story of Nicodemus 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 several notches and exposing his powerlessness and foolishness in comparison to the humblest Christian in John’s audience who possess true knowledge and understanding as well as the power of God. Even little Christian children understood that they had been born again and made children of God through baptism. 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 by his treatment of the “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. Now Nicodemus deserves some credit. He perceived that what Jesus said is humanly impossible. He saw that all things being equal a new birth did not make sense. We can once again say, man’s natural destiny requires a supernatural means. But he, a teacher of Israel, missed that point entirely. 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?”
Does he recall Genesis 1: 1 & 2?
“The Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters;” and the first thing God did was to call forth Light and then Life.
My point is that what Jesus said is not entirely absent from the Old Testament. God has been hinting along these lines for several thousand years through revered ancestors. Jesus scolded him for not getting it, but again in all fairness to Nicodemus, he could not have seen what Christians saw: 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, which brings us back to deification. How could me miss the sacred logic that since God is begetting children through baptism, that state of being a child of God is one to which the Church Fathers consistently gave the name “deification.” How is it that this venerable, august understanding of our destiny has been nearly lost in the western Church? But thank God for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that it did not elude the Apostolic writers:
“(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 something that I said last Sunday: “Our participation in the divine nature by the grace of God schools us by drill and exercise in the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity; and the theological virtues habituate and dispose man’s faculty for participation in the divine nature.” I want to underline the importance of drill and exercise in the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. They are supernatural in origin but perfectly natural in finality. Faith, hope, and charity were infused into every Christian at baptism. But it would be a great mistake to assume that these virtues, infused, gifted to the Christian, make life easier, or that once baptized and endowed with the heavenly virtues our growth into conformity to Christ should be effortless. That is very far from reality. There may be occasions in life when growth in Christ seems effortless, but there are sure to be more occasions when we have to wrestle with the world, the flesh, and the devil and we should not lose heart because of that. Jesus said the faith you need is like a grain of mustard seed. Deification is not a matter of bulking up, but of believing that God is, of desiring and delighting in God’s finality, 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 drill in the heavenly virtues. 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. St. Paul declared such to the Romans:
“we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope: and hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.” Romans 5: 3-5
As “the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts” we mature and we rid ourselves of the myth of effortless Christian living. Our knowledge of saints like 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. Above all the most holy saints, seasoned years in faith, hope, and love, never fell for the delusion of effortless growth in Christ. But neither were they dejected. 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. Chesterton said it: It is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried.