Many Christians begin their annual preparations for Easter by having ashes smudged on their foreheads in the shape of a cross as they are told by their pastor, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” On its own, it can seem like a pretty morbid tradition. What kind of person chooses to get their face all dirty just to be reminded that they are going to die? But remember, that’s just the beginning of Lent.
Being reminded of our mortality is just the beginning of our seasonal pattern of preparations through Lent, not for death, but for the new and unending life we celebrate when we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus at Easter.
In our gospel for this Sunday (John 3:1-17), we are going to look at a conversation Jesus had with a man named Nicodemus about this very same movement from death to new life. Jesus introduces to Nicodemus a concept which, despite Nicodemus’s extensive religious training, seems to have been completely new to him – the concept of being ‘born from above’ or ‘born anew’ (the original Greek can mean either or both of these things). Later in the same conversation Jesus calls it being ‘Born of the Spirit’.
Jesus’ description of this new birth is mysterious but he is clear about at least three things: 1) the experience of being born anew is unpredictable, 2) it begins with the recognition that we are doomed to die; and 3) it is fulfilled by looking to Jesus himself as the source of new life.
Now, to someone like Nicodemus, who was at the height of his career and in the prime of his life, a lot of this talk about death was clearly both weird and kind of a turn-off. But Jesus insists that this is simply the way that it is, and that no one can even see, let alone enter the new thing that God is doing (what Jesus calls the “kingdom of God”) without going through this process.
What is really striking, however, and what may be especially hopeful for those of us who are forced to confront our frailty and death right now, is that according to Jesus being born anew and being born of God’s Spirit isn’t something we have to wait to experience in some far distant future. The experience of being born of the Spirit is something that we can experience right now.
I hope you can join us as we explore and hopefully experience for ourselves more of what it means to be born of the Spirit.