A few years back, I took a group of confirmands up to the Sierra Foothills to a Christian adventure youth camp called ‘Rock ‘N Water’. For five days, we did a lot of fun stuff, like team building exercises, rock climbing, canyon hikes and, my favorite, white water rafting. But, since this was a Christian camp, we also had our share of Bible studies and faith talks around the camp fire, led by young volunteer counselors burning for Jesus Christ. The theology was more on the fundamental side. And most of the groups that went up to Rock ‘N Water were from more fundamental churches. We as representatives of a Lutheran church were a little bit of an oddity, and I have to admit that I mainly went up there for the very cool and inexpensive adventure part. And my confirmands had some good questions about the spirituality they experienced up there compared to the rather measured spirituality in our Lutheran church.
One night, as we were walking from the campfire to our sleeping grounds, a large youth group with their young and enthusiastic youth director passed us by. And the youth director shouted gleefully, ‘Tomorrow at sunrise we have a rebaptism in the river – for you have to be born again of the water and the Spirit if you want to be saved!’
Now my small band of confirmands didn’t say a word but just stared at me quizzically as they heard this. I only said, ‘We don’t do that as Lutherans.’ And the next day, we had a fruitful discussion about the meaning of baptism and that, in our tradition, we understand it as a precious one time gift from God which cannot be taken away and is so powerful that we don’t have to repeat it – for nothing causes us to fall from God’s amazing grace.
But I have to admit that Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in the gospel we heard today, ‘You have to be born from above of the water and the Spirit if you want see and enter the kingdom of heaven’, could be interpreted in the sense that, no matter what age we are, we need to be open to receive this new birth – and, since water and Spirit are mentioned, possibly be baptized anew.
But let’s backtrack a little bit here and look at today’s gospel story of Jesus and Nicodemus. What an intriguing story this is! It happens in chapter 3 in the gospel according to John. In John’s gospel, Jesus’ story is quite different from what we hear in Matthew, Mark and Luke. For example, in John’s gospel, Jesus is not tempted by the devil after he is baptized, as we heard last Sunday. No, Jesus gets right to work and calls his first disciples. Then he takes them to the wedding in Cana, where he turns water into wine. Then he already goes to Jerusalem and cleanses the temple – which is quite a euphemism for Jesus getting mad at all the money changers and merchants in the temple porticoes, driving them out with a whip and turning over the tables; and as he is asked by what authority he is doing this, he answers cryptically, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’
Now I sometimes like to say that the gospel according to John is written in code and is pregnant with symbolism John’s audience clearly understands: Jesus’ first signs hint at his death – turning water into wine, which is his blood – and his resurrection – the cleansing of the temple with the words, ‘after three days I will build this temple up again’. However, as Jesus’ violent outburst in the temple and his words about the destruction of the temple show, new life cannot happen without radical changes. Resurrection cannot happen without death. And Jesus makes this clear from the very beginning of his ministry – or as clear as it gets in the gospel according to John.
Nicodemus may have been among those who witnessed Jesus’ riot in the temple court. At least he was informed about this incident, since he was one of the leaders of the Jews, as we read. Nicodemus doesn’t just come to Jesus on a whim, no, the events in the temple have alarmed him. We can sense his ambiguity about Jesus as he comes to visit him at night, under cover of the darkness. Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from God. Rabbi, WE know – Nicodemus isn’t just hiding in the dark, but also behind a mysterious and unidentified group. He doesn’t expose himself, he is playing it safe.
Nicodemus is probing. He wants to know what is going on with this Jesus, a carpenter’s son, an unlikely candidate to be a man of God, possibly even the Messiah everyone has been waiting for with longing. And Nicodemus may be knowing, deep within his heart, that Jesus might be the one – but at the same time seems afraid and unsure of the implications. For if this man is the Messiah, a Messiah who attacks the religious establishment and talks about destruction and rebuilding, what would that mean for him, a religious leader, an established and esteemed member of the upper class? Nicodemus is torn between his desire to follow God and his desire to keep his status and his comfort. I want the Messiah to come, but I don’t really want him to change anything for me. Don’t rock my boat, Jesus! Ah, and can’t we all relate to that? Why would we want changes, radical changes, for our lives if we are pretty comfortable with our existence?
In the light of all that, the exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus makes much more sense, doesn’t it? The mission of Jesus Christ is about new life, which can’t happen without destruction and death. New life comes into this world through birth. And so Jesus talks about this new birth, about being born again, about being born from above of water and Spirit. Now this is a concept that Nicodemus either can’t or doesn’t want to grasp. Can a grown man enter the womb again? He can’t or doesn’t want to get that Jesus is talking about something else, a renewal from and through the Holy Spirit, a surrender to God and God’s will.
And it looks like Nicodemus just can’t surrender, at least not yet. He’s still in the dark, he doesn’t want to be exposed to death and destruction of the old so that the new can be born. Birth is a joyful thing in many cases, a hopeful, but then we, and especially the women among us, also know that birth is a difficult thing – it IS hard labor, it hurts, and it takes much more time than we wish it would. It looks like it will be a very difficult birth from above for Nicodemus – at the end of the conversation in the night, we don’t hear that Nicodemus is convinced or becomes a follower of Christ. He disappears into the dark again – until after the death of Jesus, when Nicodemus helps Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus and provides about 100 pounds of embalming nard for Jesus’ body.
That’s impressive, it is a great act of benevolence. 100 pounds is much more than is needed for embalming a body. Is Nicodemus finally showing his believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed, by anointing him with all those costly oils?
But let’s stop speculating about Nicodemus and come back to us, here, today. We are in the season of Lent, and Lent is a time of repentance and renewal. Lent is a time for us to reflect on death and new birth. Lent is a time to evaluate and reevaluate what we hold dear in our lives. It is not a coincidence that, in the early church, Lent was THE time to prepare candidates for baptism, which in the very first centuries would only happen on Easter – candidates for baptism would go through 40 days of wilderness, fast, pray, have discussions about God and faith with their sponsors. They would experience the destruction of the old, the death of the old self, in order to be reborn on Easter morning by the Spirit and the waters of baptism. And to signify the new birth and their new identity in Christ, people would also be given a new name.
As I mentioned in the beginning, in our faith tradition we believe that baptism is a precious one- time gift, which cannot be taken away from us. And most of us were baptized as infants, long before we can remember. We already were reborn in Christ after the ‘old Adam’ in all of us was drowned, as Martin Luther deftly describes. We don’t prepare for a re-baptism during this season of Lent. However, the Holy Spirit is not simply done with us on the day of baptism. The Holy Spirit is described as a wind or fire, a life force that moves and consequently also moves us. We are constantly called and moved by God the Holy Spirit, to check if we are still on the right track – that’s why we have confession – and ask for God’s help to correct our course and to be moved in the right direction. For we have all sinned, and if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us, as the old liturgy says.
According to Martin Luther, every new morning is a rebirth. We get a new chance to start over. That’s why Luther, though an opponent of re-baptism, encourages us to remember our baptism each and every morning – to start every new day with the words, ‘I am baptized, I am baptized’ – to be reminded that the old is drowned and new life can begin. But then also to remind ourselves of the baptismal grace, a grace that envelops us and comforts us and strengthens us – to follow God’s will, even though this means to give up our comforts and our comfort zones – to be moved by God’s Spirit and to change our ways and love God and our neighbor more, and not just give lip service, but act accordingly. To allow ourselves to be born again and embrace the new life God’s promises all creation.
In this baptismal grace we rest – and this grace blows and moves us to an a life that is ever new in Christ.
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