Nicodemus sneaks up to Jesus after dark and says how impressed he is with Jesus’ credentials, but Jesus doesn’t seem to be paying attention. Instead he launches into something totally unrelated. “You’ll never see God’s new world unless you’re reborn from above.”*
You or I might have taken offense. But Nicodemus doesn’t. Instead he jumps right in with a point of clarification. Maybe he gets the “from above” part, but not the “reborn” part. Just how is a rebirth supposed to happen? After all, you can’t crawl back into your mother’s womb, can you?
Jesus basically answers, “Look, stop being so literal. We’re talking metaphorically here. We’re talking, as they say, ‘spiritually’ like when I say the Spirit moves around unpredictably, just like the wind. We use the same Greek word for ‘spirit’ and ‘wind,’ but if you can’t tell which I’m talking about I don’t know how I can help you. When you start to glimpse God’s new world it’s like being reborn, it’s like being born from above, it’s like being born from the wind, from the Spirit. Your whole world starts to shift, and you’re not in Kansas anymore. Get in touch with your inner poet, and maybe you’ll get a clue.”
Jesus is trying to get across the point that we can’t talk about God’s new world the way we talk about Biden’s new administration. God’s new world doesn’t show up after a new election or after a political revolution. God’s new world breaks into ours right now, and when it does, we’ll never be the same. It definitely will change our politics, but that’s not where it came from. We run into what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “the beyond in the midst of life,” and we’re left stuttering and stammering as we try to make some sense of what happened to us. Nothing’s quite the same anymore. We see the world not just as it is but as it’s meant to be, and we start to fall in love with it. It’s when a sacrament is really a sacrament—something in this everyday world opens us up to a world that’s never just everyday.
This Sunday is Trinity Sunday. I have to admit, when I looked at this “born again” Gospel lesson my first reaction was, “Where the ‘bleep’ is the Trinity in any of this?” What does being reborn have to do with the Trinity? It took a while to see much of a connection.
We date the doctrine of the Trinity to the council of Nicea in the early 300s. Now, if you’ve read popular novels like The Da Vinci Code, forget that stuff, because the real council wasn’t anything like that. That’s not when people snuck in the idea that Jesus was somehow divine. Everybody who came to the council thought that Jesus was divine in some way or other. They all thought of him as the Word of God who was with God from the very beginning. They all celebrated his risen presence when they gathered as his Body to share in the Eucharist. But the question they were trying to settle was this, “When we’re in Jesus’ presence, are we really in the presence of God, or are we just in the presence of one of God’s lesser representatives?”
One group said we’re just in the presence of one of God’s lesser representatives. God is too infinite to come to us on our own finite terms. God is absolute, but we’re relative. So the first thing God has to do is create the Word, God’s most important creature, and that’s what we meet in the presence of Jesus. We meet this spooky-sounding creature who represents God. But we never meet God, not in this life. So said the group that lost the debate in 325.
The other group won the day through some interesting arguments plus a good deal of trickery and manipulation. Sounds like the Church today! I can’t applaud their techniques, but I’ve come to love their conclusion. They said that, yes, we are in the very presence of no less than God when we celebrate Jesus’ presence. God may be infinite and absolute, but God can still come to us on our finite, relative terms, and still be the infinite and absolute God. Why? Because God is also the Spirit blowing where she chooses, and God isn’t confined by our shallow attempts to define the infinite and the absolute.
Being reborn is an echo of God’s very life. The Word, who was birthed before anything else ever was, can really be “born again” as one of us. The Word who always was, and Jesus who was born, lived, died and lives again, are one and the same, because God can be in more than one place at the same time: God from God, light from light, true God from true God. Jesus doesn’t confine God from God—the Spirit still blows where she chooses—but true God from true God is really present when we celebrate Jesus’ presence.
In one of us we meet the God who is beyond everything, the beyond in the midst of life, and in the Spirit we become one with the God beyond everything who meets us in and through one of us. If you even start to glimpse what that means, then believe me, nothing ever even looks the same! No less than God is reborn in us, and we’re reborn in no less than God. Life starts all over for us. We and God are reborn together.
That’s the part I love to talk about—all that mystical sounding stuff. Most of us Anglo-Catholics love to talk about worshipping a Mystery. We love to declare that we’re sacramental realists—when we share in this meal we don’t just feed on “representatives” of God in the bread and wine. We really feed on God—the God who is really with us on flesh and blood terms.
But the part that’s not so convenient to bring up is that our lives also intersect with God’s “Kingdom,” God’s new world, and that means we’re going to be tugged to keep changing the way we live with one another. That’s politics; that’s economics. You may not like those words, but that’s what living together always involves at some level. If we and God are reborn together when we meet, we’re never going to be satisfied with politics as usual or business as usual. Doing nothing at all about it is not an option—it’s not even on the table. You may not change how you vote; you may not change how you earn a living. You might, or you might not. But you will change how you live, and that’s going to have ripple effects, and often they won’t be popular.
Remember Bonhoeffer, the guy who came up with “the beyond in the midst of life”? He came up with the phrase while writing letters as a political prisoner. This wasn’t just some mystical insight he entertained in his study. He came across it while waiting to be executed by the Nazis. He didn’t plan for things to wind up that way. He started out simply by living out of step with the trends in his nation. Lots of people did that and never got caught or executed. But it’s still no great surprise to see where his living against the grain eventually took him. It often takes us there.
Do remember, Bonhoeffer lived that way not because somebody lectured him about it, but because he met a mystery, the beyond in the midst of life, no less than God reborn in him, and himself reborn in no less than God. If you wind up living against the grain—and many of you already do!—don’t let it be because somebody stood in a pulpit and made you feel guilty. Let it be because you met a mystery that will never leave you alone.
I almost always start a sermon with, “In the name of the holy and undivided Trinity.” It’s easy to say that phrase without letting its full meaning sink in. I do it all the time. But today of all days is a day to let the meaning sink in. It means that here and now we and God are reborn together. Nothing will be the same. And isn’t life richer for that?
*Some translations say “born again,” while others say “born from above.” The Greek word means both. “Reborn from above” combines both meanings.