Born of Water and the Spirit

Text: John 3:1-17
Date: Lent II + 3/16/14

“Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” That invitation of Isaiah 2:5 comes from the revelation and because of the conviction that salvation does not originate with man but with God, not from our wisdom but from God’s as it says, “‘that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Is 2:3).

The Gospel readings heard in the three-year lectionary of Lent in this first year are those that historically formed the instruction of the ancient catechumenate, the enlightening, shaping and preparing of candidates to become members of the household and kingdom of God. For this reason it is good that we listen in and receive again for ourselves the fundamental teaching of becoming a Christian for our own renewal.

We began last Sunday with the temptation of Jesus by the devil in the wilderness hearing two important things. First, how Jesus has power over the devil, that fallen angel bent on the destruction of God’s good creation and the kidnapping, if you will, of people from their true Father and home. We learned how Jesus did this not by any miraculous, super-spiritual powers but solely by relying on the Word of God and the Spirit of God. And that is the second thing Jesus’ temptation tells us, namely, that we receive the same Word and the same Holy Spirit for our own struggle against the old evil Foe, Satan. In other words, it means, in the face of your temptations, you don’t have to give in! Though we are weak and will indeed struggle with sin and temptation all along the way in this life, the Word of God and the Spirit of God give us assurance, help and hope in our struggle.

On this second Sunday we hear the nighttime conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, a teacher and ruler of the Jews. From this conversation we are to hear and to learn that becoming a Christian (becoming a member of the Church) is the result not of our own wisdom, logic, preconceptions, plans and procedures but of God’s action of giving us new birth through water and the Spirit. Now at the mention of water and the spirit we naturally and rightly think of the goal of the catechumenate, which is the receiving of holy baptism at the Easter Vigil, or for those who are baptized the remembrance and re-awakening to the miracle that God gives through this sacrament. The wonderful hymn declares of baptism:

See this wonder in the making:
God Himself this child is taking….
Miracle each time it happens
As the door to heaven opens (LSB 593:1-2)

But as I considered this it struck me that holy baptism would not be the first thing or any thing to enter Nicodemus’ mind. For Jesus did not institute this sacrament until after His resurrection, before His ascension in the words, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:18-20). So what did this midnight seeker understand that Jesus meant? And what even deeper meaning, therefore, might these words have for us?

It is the blessing and drawing of God the Holy Spirit when a person begins to perceive that saving faith is more than just an outward association with a particular church, and that the Church is a deeper, more reliable thing than any merely human institution. What was it, after all, that drew Nicodemus to Jesus? He doesn’t even ask a question but only makes a statement of what they think they know about Him as if to see if they were at least on the right track. For me it was enough that the Christian Church for now 2,000 years has preached this Jesus (whoever He was). With such a history there must be something to it. Right? “We know,” he says, “that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Fair enough. He says their knowledge and understanding of Jesus is based on Jesus’ miracles as St. John said in the previous chapter of his Gospel, “when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing” (John 2:23). This we need to know, however, and we shall see is not yet enough for true, saving faith.

Therefore Jesus takes over the conversation as He takes over our conversation and inquiry directing it beyond mere human certainties to a higher reality. For, you see, ol’ Nick is still thinking of Jesus merely as someone pointing to the kingdom of God. He needs, and we need, to come to know that Jesus Himself is the kingdom of God, the rule and reign of God’s grace.

He answers with a solemn oath, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nick, however, didn’t understand how a person is to be born again. So Jesus explains a little further, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” As I asked before, since Christian Holy Baptism was not yet known, what actually went through his mind and how did he understand these words?

Nicodemus certainly understood the Spirit as referring to God. But what was this water Jesus mentioned? Certainly he knew of water baptisms or washings from God’s laws of purification and cleansing and even more recently from the witness of John the Baptist who testified, saying, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie” (John 1:26-27). Maybe Nicodemus thought this water was like the Baptist’s call to repentance, putting off the old nature and then the Spirit as the creator of this new life. And he’d be correct. Here you need to discover that your entire existence, your whole life is at stake when it comes to your relationship with God. Faith and Baptism and the Church are much more than you or Nicodemus might claim to know only from your own observation or experience.

Jesus goes on, saying, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” In other words both true knowledge about God and being a Christian cannot be discovered or produced from our own fallen human powerlessness but only from the Spirit. Jesus compares the Spirit to the wind. Both Hebrew and Greek have but one word meaning both “wind” and “spirit.” As the Spirit working through the Word of God is the only source of true spiritual knowledge and faith, so the life of faith and the life of the baptized is directed no longer by mere human reasoning or perceptions. As St. Paul says of the baptized, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph 2:19). “We are no longer children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph 4:14). Rather he says that each baptized Christian must say, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).

It is to this higher, spiritual, objective call and working of God that we are called through Holy Baptism to live as people of faith in this world and, in the world to come, as the children of God and co-heirs with Christ forever. So you see that though Holy Baptism is the goal of our instruction, it is not the end. Like the wind, faith is seen in our work, words and worship, we are led where God pleases; faith is mighty and untraceable in its movements because it is Christ who lives in us by faith.