2 Lent — 17 February 2008
RCL: Gen 12:1-4a Ps 121 Romans 4:1-5,13-17 John 3:1-17
What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.
“Like father, like son!” A familiar remark? How often do we condemn with faint excuse-making: “Well, what do you expect? I mean, look at the family he comes from!” Kind of a snotty thing to say, and certainly not universally valid — good strong families sometimes produce very strange children, and wonderful people sometimes come from quite peculiar backgrounds — our children are not entirely either our accomplishment or our fault! But as a general observation “Like mother, like daughter” does have some force. Our families do have a lot to do with the kind of people we are. After all, Jesus himself said, “Every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.…Thus you will know them by their fruits.”[i] To understand the present, and certainly to have any vision of the future, we must see and understand our roots in the past. We must know where we’ve come from. Thus the critical important of history as a subject for human knowledge. As has often been observed, those who do not know the past are doomed to repeat it. (And there may be a special circle of purgatory reserved for those schoolteachers who have made “history” dull! — a dry shell of lists of dates and places — which is mere chronicle, not real history at all. Real history is fascinating, because it’s a story — our own story, and it tells us who we are.)
But doesn’t all this suggest that our lives are in fact predetermined — that we are prisoners of our family background, our heredity, our environment, and our own past, and that our lives are simply the playing out of a script that has already been written for us? The answer to that is No — but a qualified No. Our backgrounds have a lot to do with who we are, but they don’t have everything to do with who we are. Despite all the formative influences upon us, at our core we are free: we have the capacity to make our own choices and decisions. We can choose how and where to commit our lives.
But in making that choice, by ourselves all we have to go with is our heredity, our environment, and our own past. We are free, but on our own there really aren’t all that many options! And so, however free we may be in theory, in actual practice, the way it works out in real life, we really are very much products of our families, our towns, our friends, our schools, our culture and its communications media — we are in fact to a remarkable and perhaps even dismaying extent conditioned by our heredity and our environment and our history.
Or, as Jesus said, “What is born of the flesh is — flesh.”
We are what we are. By ourselves that’s all we are, and all we can be.
But we are not by ourselves. We are not on our own. What is born of the flesh can only be flesh, but what is born of the Spirit is spirit. We are indeed formed by our heredity, our environment, and our past, but we are free, and what makes our freedom meaningful, what opens us up to the future instead of trapping us in the closed circle of the same old same old, is the presence to us of the grace of God. That is to say, in the power of God’s own gracious presence to us, we can have a whole new start, in which the determining power of the past is broken. We can be converted. That is the essence of spirit — openness to the new, to the beyond, to the transcendent, to the absolute, to the infinite, to God.
There are various ways we can talk about the reality of the offer of this new start, this breaking out of the determinisms of our own past nature. St. Paul, for instance, especially in his letter to the Romans, talks about “justification by grace through faith.” (This is what he’s getting at in the Epistle today, in his typically abstruse way!) Jesus, on the other hand, tends to use images that are more homey, if no less profound: “You must be born from above.” The word translated “from above” (in Greek, anóthen, if you care!) has the sense of “from the top,” “top to bottom,” not just “again a second time” (though that’s what Nicodemus hears) but “all over again from the beginning.” You must be born anew. You must be reborn. Of water and Spirit.
The immediate reference — which the first hearers and readers of John’s Gospel were expected to recognize immediately, and we too are expected to recognize and we usually do! — the immediate reference is to Baptism: the sacrament of new birth in which the water is the outward and visible sign of the inward reality of the Spirit. In the first centuries of the life of the community of the followers of Jesus Christ, set in the socio-politico-cultural context of the hostile pagan Greco-Roman Empire, admission into the Christian community, the Church, through baptism really was an experience of a whole new birth into a whole new world, the installation of a whole new “operating system,” entrance into the Kingdom of God. This really was new life, liberation from a closed world of stagnation, oppression even to slavery, and despair. In the world we inhabit — a world superficially Christianized, though certainly no more than that — our experience of Baptism is not as dramatic, but our need for it is as great, and the contrast between the old life of mere human flesh and new life in the Spirit is just as profound, if perhaps not as obvious.
But Baptism is a sacrament. It is not magic. And the ultimate reference to which today’s Gospel and the Sacrament of Baptism point is the birth from above, the birth anew, the birth all over again, wrought in us by God the Holy Spirit — what St. Paul calls “new creation” for those who are in Christ.[ii]
In the grace and power of that new birth we are delivered from the shackles of heredity and environment, prisoners of our past, flesh producing only flesh, free only for a Hobson’s choice of our own self-conditioned selves. We are brought forth into the freedom of the Reign of God, in which the gift of an eternally open future is ours for the claiming.
[i] Matt. 7:17,20.
[ii] 2 Cor. 5:17; cf. Gal. 6:15.