Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born anew.’ 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?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.'
Maybe Jesus is being frustratingly figurative – and Nicodemus unnecessarily literal in his question about re-entering the womb. But it does prompt Jesus to clarify what he means by “born anew,” or “born from above” (the Greek allows either). He is saying that physical birth – our mere humanness – does not equip us to see nor “enter” the kingdom of God. We must be born of water and Spirit.
Water hints at baptism – John’s Gospel was likely the latest written, when baptism as a Christian ritual would already have been well established. His is the only gospel to mention Jesus baptizing anyone. And, of course, water, or fluid, is an integral part of physical birth as well – that’s partly why it is such a potent symbol of new birth for Christians, because every human comes into being in a bath of amniotic fluid. It is life outside the water, post-birth, that is the real shock.
But what does it mean to be born of Spirit? Well, even before Jesus came on the scene, John the Baptist is heard to say, “I baptize you with water; one is coming whose sandals I am unworthy to tie – he will baptize with the Holy Spirit, and with fire.” The idea of being “baptized” with the Holy Spirit suggests being bathed, immersed, drenched in the power and presence and peace of the Spirit of God. It implies spiritual purification and transformation so complete, it’s like a new birth. In fact, we claim a new creation does result from that union of Christ’s Spirit with ours in baptism.
Does your head hurt yet? Don’t worry – this conversation gets more confusing. Today let’s try to wrap our minds around the idea being born anew or born from above. And here’s a fact: no one can get themselves born – being born is something that happens to us. It is someone else’s work. We can’t even really resist the birth process – it happens, ready or not. The only difference with spiritual birth is, we get to say “yes.”
Have you ever had an experience of the Holy Spirit that you could feel? A sense of filling, or being surrounded with love? Sometimes there are manifestations like tingling, or our hands getting hot, or even weeping. Sometimes we feel our spirits want to praise and thank God. If you would like to know that aspect of God, simply ask the Spirit to come. “Come, Holy Spirit, I’m open…“will do just fine. Or ask someone else to pray for you to be filled with the Spirit. And don’t worry if you do or do not feel anything – sometimes we know the Spirit’s been with us later, by the fruits that result from that encounter.
Our physical birth was one event. Long, short, easy or challenging, it was eventually done and we were born. Our spiritual birth takes a lifetime. In some ways, what we are doing all our lives in this world is being born anew, being prepared for life in that Life where there is no death, only life and more life.