Bryon and I are big fans of the British TV show, “Call the Midwife.” Each episode tells the story of a number of births attended to by the hard-working, adaptable and compassionate nurses and Anglican nuns of a very poor neighborhood in London after WWII. It’s based on a true story written and narrated by a woman reflecting back on that period of her life.
We are in the fifth season and by now we’ve watched at least 100 childbirths and the midwives have attended many times more than that number. The show is pretty realistic, and I’ve been told by a real midwife that it’s quite accurate. No matter the circumstances in which the births take place, there is always a moment that feels like a miracle, and the joy of the birth eclipses the pain and the poverty and the difficulty involved. True confessions: I always cry at least once during the show.
Jesus uses the experience of birth and the language of new life to describe what happens when we find ourselves transformed, brought into awareness of God’s loving presence, living in a new kingdom with a new identity. “Born from above.” “Born again.” “Born anew.” “Born of water and Spirit.”
The language is poetic and fluid and beautiful. It attempts to describe what can only be fully understood when it is experienced. It’s not a formula or a manual on how to be “saved” but rather an opening into a new reality that comes as gift and miracle.
All births have some things in common. There is a ritual and a structure that a good midwife will attend to. But no two births are ever the same. Each one has its own individual character and circumstances. Babies are born in hospitals and homes, in cars and elevators, in open fields and in operating rooms. Babies are born in their parent’s beds, or via c-section or even underwater in a tub. The “right way” for birth is different in different cultures and times.
The new birth Jesus speaks of is similar. There are common characteristics. We have rituals and structures that help us to be present and witness to the new birth. And yet each new beginning is unique, a gift from the God of Life who breathes into us fresh breath and awakens us to joy and wonder by opening our eyes and ears to the really real and the truly true.
How were you baptized? The rituals differ. Most are baptized as infants. The faith and love of parents or even grandparents or guardians along with the presence and promises of a Christian Community welcome the child into the life of faith, hope and love that the ritual of baptism embodies.
Just this past Easter at my husband’s church, 3 babies were immersed in the waters of baptism. Their parents made this decision based in their commitment and their desire for their child to know from the earliest age that this child is the beloved, the child of God, in whom God is well pleased.
Little Ruby, Rogue and Cameron went naked into the waters of baptism. It was very real and very powerful. All the small children in the church wanted to get as close as possible to the water and the babies. As they emerged all wet and wiggly, they were anointed with oil and ritually sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as “Christ’s own forever.” All the adults sang and made promises to help the parents raise their children in this new reality, this new kingdom, this new family to which they belong. Everyone wanted to get close to these new lives, to touch and bless them. True confession: I cried. I always do. And I’m not alone.
This is one way in which new birth by water and Spirit takes place. But there are many others. I was baptized at age 17 after I had experienced the transformative power of the Spirit and recognized that God was really present in my life. Some are baptized in an emergency when physical life was at risk. Others are baptized only when they reach the “age of reason” when they are supposed to be able to make the decision for themselves. Your experience will be different and absolutely unique even though many of the rituals are similar.
Water baptism only has to happen once. Since Jesus came, we don’t need to be cleansed over and over by a ritual bath as it was practiced by John and others. Whether we recall the actual event of our baptism or not, we are still baptized. We have entered into the resurrected life of Jesus. He has shared our lives so that we might share in the eternal life that he experiences with God. Just as in physical birth, we don’t have to remember or understand or even be conscious of this event. It is real and we live into it every day we draw breath.
Of course there are many who have been baptized in water who have no profession of faith in God or who have chosen another religious tradition besides Christianity or who are angry that this decision was made for them without their consent. They might say that they experienced the religious ritual but not the spiritual reality.
Nicodemus was familiar with that attitude and experience. He participated fully in his religion but missed the Spirit. He was drawn to the teaching and ministry of Jesus, but it scared him so he came by night to meet Jesus in secret and to try and understand where Jesus got his authority and why he seemed to be different from the established understanding about God.
Jesus never answers his question directly. Jesus never gives him a formula or provides a “how to” manual for new life. In fact, what Jesus tells Nicodemus is different from how he encounters the Samaritan woman or the rich young ruler or the blind man or the tax collectors and sinners. There are some things all followers of Jesus have in common but every one is different. Every encounter he has is specific to that person. Each new birth is unique.
Interestingly, the language Jesus uses when he talks to Nicodemus is ambiguous. We never know how to translate this new birth into English. It can mean new birth or born again or born from above. It is like the wind. You know it when you experience it but who can tell where it comes from or how it’s created or where it will go. There is a freshness and a mystery to this birth. It doesn’t follow a formula or fit into a neat box. It is filled with the awe and the holiness of God, it is as real and tangible as our own breath and present in real human flesh as Jesus was and it is enlivened by the ongoing presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
The other interesting thing about how Jesus speaks with Nicodemus is that instead of using the singular form for “you,” he uses the plural. He may be speaking to one person but his message is for a much larger audience. He speaks to all those who may be religious but not spiritual, who never experience the life-giving birth of the Spirit. He speaks to those who are longing for more, for waters that spring up to eternal life, for a new sense of purpose and meaning in a life that has lost its relevance. He speaks to all those who in the nighttime, come to Jesus with their unanswered questions and wonderings. His message is to the faith community who has lost sight of the presence of God, who cannot hear the message of God’s love in Jesus and the call to follow him.
When I preached on this text in Lent, I had the opportunity to share some of my own faith journey. As we hear this text again a few months later in between the seasons of Easter and Pentecost it offers us a vision of the new life of the spiritual community, enlivened by the Holy Spirit, proclaiming the good news in word and deed and midwifing the new birth by water and the Spirit of those who are drawn to the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Reverend Canon Britt Olson