I preached this sermon on Sunday, March 5, 2023, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is John 3:1-17, wherein Nicodemus visits Jesus at night.
When I was born, my parents were living in a log cabin on the California coast. I went back to see it many years later, and it was nothing fancy, but it was nestled among tall trees, eucalyptus and cypress and and Monterey pine; and the breeze off the ocean would stir the leaves beyond my nursery window, like a lullaby.
Now, I was an infant so I don’t actually remember that, but I would like to remember. I would like to be able to remember how the first sounds I heard in this world were my parent’s soft voices and the wind in those trees, both speaking gently, assuring me that the world was a good and green and generous place, and that being born, being part of all this, meant being held, being found, being loved from the very first breath.
Of course, I don’t know for sure, but I want to imagine it like that. I believe that it was like that.
The memory of being born and being nurtured (assuming we were fortunate enough to be nurtured) is something, it seems, our minds can’t hold onto. Some researchers call this “infantile amnesia,” and they suggest that we don’t remember our earliest days because we are still becoming, our sense of self is not fully developed at birth; there isn’t quite yet a “me” to do the remembering.
And spiritually, I think this makes sense. When we are born, we emerge from the deep darkness of the womb in which we were first formed and nourished and known—we come by night, as it were, our infant body a bearer of the hidden, unspoken, unbounded mystery from which all life springs forth, a fragment of the fabric of creation that only gradually learns how to recognize its own unique shape.
And so as we grow, we learn how to exist, and thus how to remember. But there is always that inaccessible part of us, the hidden origin point, the life before remembering, when we were indeed born, and held, and (God-willing), loved from the very first breath, and even before. It’s there, but we can’t quite recall how it felt.
I sometimes wonder if our long search for the fullness of love in our life is rooted in that hidden memory, lost to time, retained only as a shadow, an impulse in our yearning hearts: yearning to know what it actually feels like for the world to be a good and green and generous place. Yearning to be born again, if only to reclaim the experience of being that seen and safe.
And Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
So often Nicodemus, in this story, is regarded as someone who doesn’t get it. A Pharisee coming by night, still learning how to remember good things, drawn toward the life he perceives in Jesus, but missing the full truth of his teachings whether because of fear or suspicion or simple confusion.
But I don’t hear suspicion in Nicodemus’ question. And I don’t hear confusion. I hear longing. I hear a bit of sadness, maybe a flicker of hope.
What if his question is in earnest: How can anyone be born after having grown old? Tell me.How can I get back to that place and time when the wind sang in the trees and a face smiled at me simply for being here, for breathing? How can I get back to when love was free and true, when it was unconditioned by the bitten fruit, by snakes in the garden, by mistakes and ulterior motives? How can I get back to that, the time I long for, but can’t quite remember? I want it to be possible, but how?
How can anyone be born after having grown old?
Because Nicodemus, like most of us, is a man who has lived through many seasons. He knows his own pain and the pain of his people and the long pain of the earth. He sees the passing of time looking back at him in the mirror, he sees how the years escape and don’t come back, how death looms, how it waits to greet everything that lives. While birth, with all is hopefulness, is a stranger to us, a face long forgotten, unfamiliar, inaccessible behind the veil of memory and time.
Or is it?
Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above,’ Jesus tells Nicodemus. ‘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.’
It is lost on us in the English translation of the text, but Jesus is speaking in layers, here, not in riddles. And so I would argue that he is not trying to confuse Nicodemus or chastise him, but rather he is trying to reveal something deep and multi-faceted about his purpose. Because the Greek word for ‘wind’ used here, pneuma, is also the word for ‘Spirit’, and this word is connected to the Hebrew word ‘ruach’, which also means ‘breath.’ Wind. Spirit. Breath. The animating forces of God and the breaths we take and the breeze off the ocean: they are all connected, all bound together in Christ.
And so Jesus is saying, do not be astonished that I am talking about being born again, about finding a way back to the unreachable memory of where you began, for I have come so that your breath, your life, will be caught up in the eternal Spirit of God, in the windstorm of heaven, which is not bound by time or space.
And you do not know where your breath, your life, comes from or where it goes. So who’s to say that you can’t go back, that you can’t experience the unconditional love by which and into which you were born? Who’s to say the trees can’t sing a lullaby to you once more? Who’s to say you can’t be held and found and loved by your mother, by your Father, breath by breath? Who’s to say that you can’t remember, for the first time, what it is to be born, what it is to know that you are part of the fabric of creation?
Jesus says, you can. Jesus says, this is why I was born. Jesus says, you may have grown old, but you need not perish. Jesus says, follow me, abide in me, and you will know a love so real and pure that it will indeed feel like being born again.
For the Son of God has come to make all things new, including you. He has come as midwife, as cradle, as sustenance, as song, to birth you into a new creation. He has come to remind us what we could never quite remember: that we are born, and born, and born again each day into the loving arms of a Divine parent who sees past our mistakes, who has no ulterior motives, who is good and green and generous and who will never let us go.
And when we fall, he will help us be born again. And when we grow old, he will help us born again. And when we die and return back to the deep, dark mystery from whence we came, he will help us be born again, this time everlastingly, to stand among the rustling trees alongside an ocean of undying light, the Spirit and the wind and our breath moving as one.
For God so loved the world. For God so loves you.
Of course, I don’t know for sure, but I want to imagine it like that.
I believe that it will be like that.