In today’s reading from the Gospel of John, we are presented with Nicodemus “a teacher of Israel” struggling to understand what Jesus meant when he said, “You must be born from above.” Jesus attempted to clarify for Nicodemus with an analogy of the wind, yet this still did not help. Jesus went on to explain how much of a problem it was if Nicodemus and the leaders of Israel did not understand things that are concrete and plainly in view: “If I tell you about earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”
Thinking at that point that Jesus would soften his message he instead deepened his discussion, talking about how no one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, that the same Son of Man would be lifted up as Moses lifted up a snake in the desert, and God sent his only Son so that all might have eternal life. If Nicodemus’ head wasn’t already spinning with Jesus’ born from above statement, the follow-up statements would have really done it.
What Jesus conveyed to Nicodemus, his Apostles, and disciples, as well as anyone in earshot, and ongoing for generation after generation and up to us to this present day, is that Christianity is not Gnosticism, some secret sect of knowledge that is passed on for a select, elite few. Neither is Christianity a form of dualism or Manicheism such that our body and all that is material are bad and we need to shed the physical as soon as possible to attain the fullness of our potential through the absolute embrace of the spiritual only. Nor is Christianity Pelagianism, where we just need the proper discipline, will power, and persistence to follow the teachings of Jesus.
Jesus offers us a universal invitation for all to “be born from above”, which means to be baptized in his name, to follow him into his death, to die to our our false sense of self, to our sin, our pride, that attitude and disposition that strives to set apart, diminish, devalue, dehumanize, divide, and polarize, and to rise with him. In being born from above, we receive the offer of divinity and so, instead of rejecting our humanity, embrace the fullness of our humanity. The grace of God builds on our nature, the goodness of the creation he has made and formed into existence with his love. We accomplish this the same way Mary, the Apostles, Mary Magdalene, the disciples, and Nicodemus did. We answer the call to holiness and sanctity. We say yes to Jesus and give him all we are and recognize all that we have is a gift from God the Father.
Day by day we need to be willing to be lead by the hand of Jesus, the firstborn of the new creation, and participate with him by offering our hand to others. We are encouraged to resist the temptation to put up barriers, to keep others at arm’s length. We are all, every one of us, invited to become saints through our participation in the life of Jesus.
I agree with Pope Francis who in his exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate (“Rejoice and Be Glad”), that we cannot “claim to say where God is not, because God is mysteriously present in the life of every person, in a way that he himself chooses, and we cannot exclude this by our presumed certainties. Even when someone’s life appears completely wrecked, even when we see it devastated by vices or addictions, God is present there. If we let ourselves be guided by the Spirit rather than our own preconceptions, we can and must try to find the Lord in every human life.”
God is present to each and every one of us. May we embrace the gift of our baptism, so as to understand what Jesus was teaching Nicodemus, that we have been born from above. Through our dying and rising in Christ, we have better access and a share in the breath and life of the Holy Spirit. In this way, we are transformed and made new by the Holy Spirit, the very Love of God. This is a gift to be received and shared.
Painting: Nicodemus talking to Jesus, William Brassey Hole