A Short Reflection on the Gospel of John Chapter 3, after Easter 2020.
In the lectionary Holy Communion readings for this week we’ve been hearing from the Gospel of John. And, in particular, John Chapter 3.
This Chapter begins with the Jewish leader, Nicodemus, visiting Jesus, in the night. Night is being used figuratively here: Nicodemus' visit is in secret and he is in need of spiritual illumination. This is not an attempt to outwit, contest or expose Jesus as a charlatan but a genuine search for understanding.
Acknowledging Jesus as a teacher, his Rabbi, when Jesus speaks of the need to be born from above, Nicodemus asks:
'How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?' 5 Jesus answered, 'Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, "You must be born from above." The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.' (John Chat 3:4-7)
It’s the phrase : ’You must be born from above’ that I would like to pause with here for a moment. The Greek word translated here as ‘above’ is (ἄνωθεν) anōthen. More usefully perhaps for us, it also translates here as ‘anew’ or ‘again.’ Our word, ‘above’ has spatial connotations, with an overlay of meaning to do with the power of higher status, or loftiness.
However, to be born ‘anew’ strengthens that sense of willingness to risk a passage of inner renewal. To be ‘born’ implies there is a death of some sort, and here the breakage is to do with loosening control over our passions, or in more contemporary sense, unhooking ourselves from a sticky ego. Ego: that very human instinctual clinging on to self identity.
Jesus’ words - ‘the wind bloweth where it chooses’ - is an invitation into a new way of living not governed by the ego. ‘Wind’ has the same cognate root of ‘Spirit’: pneuma and pneumatos. This is an invitation we can choose to accept; in this we have agency. But the process of ourself in the life of the Spirit we are never given full mastery. In this way, we are not the inventors of our own selfhood. We can hear the wind, and be in it, but the Spirit remains a mystery constantly inviting us to creatively undergo inner renewal.
Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus here resonates for me with last Sunday’s reading, again from John. Here, at John 20, after Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples have locked themselves inside the house where they have gathered for fear of the authorities.
Jesus, unexpectedly, appears to them, bidding them peace and then breathes on them, or ‘into them’ saying receive the Holy Spirit - the pneuma. But remember in the reading, Thomas, one of the disciples wasn’t with them. And later Thomas declares that in order for the risen Lord to be meaningful for him, not only would he need to see Jesus, but to feel the wounds on his body. The following week Thomas is with the others in the house this time, and Jesus comes amongst them again. And this time revelation comes to Thomas through Jesus’ invitation to touch his body.
English-American 20th poet Denise Levertov writes of this moment when Thomas touches Jesus’ body:
But when my hand
led by His hand’s firm clasp
entered the unhealed wound,
my fingers encountering
rib-bone and pulsing heat,
what I felt was not
scalding pain, shame for my
but light, light streaming
into me, over me, filling the room
as if I had lived til then
in a cold cave, and now
coming forth for the first time,
the knot that bound me unravelling,
all things quicken to color, to form…..(1)
We witness here Thomas being born anew. He’s has said ‘yes’ to the invitation, and when he touched the wounds of Jesus he has also touched the pulse of life itself. The light streaming into him has not only changed him but the world around him also is revealed as more alive than ever. Being born anew is to receive illumination and new understanding.
To be born anew in the spirit need not be as dramatic as Thomas’ revelation. Much more often for us it is that slow letting go, risking withdrawal of our instinctual human passions to let the Spirit in, unravel inner knots that bind us. It is to be like Nicodemus, seeking out Jesus in the night and listening to the Word.
This week our Gospel readings have helped us recognise Jesus as the Eternal Word of Life. He is the coming of the light which is generous and profuse and life giving. To be born anew, is that turning away our gaze from a dark cold cave towards that warm, profuse, generous life-giving light.
1. The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov
Introduction by Eavan Boland
Ed Paul A Lacey and Anne Dewey
New Directions Publications
from: St Thomas Didymus