We continue on the pilgrimage through the wilderness of Lent by examining our scripture lessons through the lens of our Baptismal Covenant. If Lent is all about remembering our identity as baptized people, how does that enrich our understanding of our weekly lections?
The second question in the Baptismal Covenant is this: Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
I fear that many of us interpret repentance as an exercise in humiliation and abasement – wearing sackcloth and ashes – doing hard time in penance – or perhaps wearing a scarlet letter of some kind. What would it look like if our repentance was the key to the door that offers new life?
Nicodemus goes to Jesus, at night, apparently looking for a theological clarification. The nighttime visit symbolizes the shadows of the world, a lack of hope which influences those who live without faith. Nicodemus seems to want to know more about the kingdom of God. Jesus tells him that one needs to be born “from above” by water and the Spirit in order to enter the kingdom. To us, and possibly to Nicodemus, this may sound a lot like baptism. (Remember John had been baptizing in the Jordan). Nicodemus is a Pharisee, and a member of the Sanhedrin, the board of judges of Jewish Law in the Temple. The Jewish tradition considers him a mystic with miraculous healing powers. What Jesus tells him seems to make no sense in terms of biology or theology. Jesus keeps talking about new life, eternal life, salvation. Nicodemus – who seems to hear this in a literal way as being born all over again – is puzzled. The narrative portrays Nicodemus as an intelligent and theologically sophisticated man. The metaphor puzzles him. Jesus gently teases Nicodemus about his misunderstanding.
Since Nicodemus and the gospel raise the issue, let’s think about being born anew as a sort of repentance.
When people talk openly about being born again, some who dwell spiritually in the catholic and protestant mainline tend to put them into a particular category. This is not a benign label. We forget that we Episcopalians, too, have been born again by our baptism. We are new creatures, we have new life, re-born though the water and the Word of God. The practice of repentance in Lent offers us the renewal of our unblemished baptismal identity.
Think about it. Have you ever messed up or done something you regret? How would you like to have a second chance? The opportunity to start fresh, in a new life, without the burden of things gone wrong over the last however-many years. Like being a youngster again, but with the knowledge and experience of someone who has lived longer. (Possibly not like reincarnation, where karma may bring you back as a lower life form if you don’t do it right the first time around).
On more than one occasion, I have encountered people who have survived terrible accidents or serious illness and have resolved to live the rest of their lives in a different fashion. Time and again, they speak of fresh starts and new beginnings, making amends and serving others. Their physical experience of new life often leads to a spiritual revelation as well. Having been saved from certain death, they choose to go on and live differently. It was as though they had been born all over again.
Repentance – choosing to turn back to God – offers the opportunity to experience a spiritual re-birth, without the prerequisite of a dramatic accident or illness. Speak the words of the confession, and repent things done and left undone. Listen to the eucharistic prayer speak about the forgiveness of sins, and experience reconciliation with the God who loves you always. During Lent we travel through the wilderness with our sins and human limitations, and at Easter we get to rejoice in a newness of life we can have in the Lord. We can actually be born all over again, every year, as we walk through Lent. We can become the people God created us to be, if we are open to that.
This sort of spiritual rebirth depends on faith and trust like Abram’s. Faith because we all know that once we are born, we are born. We can’t change our biology, yet we can believe that God can guide us beyond the limits of our humanity. Trust because we have to rely on someone else’s power to guide us through the process. Spiritual re-birth can be a life-long process of getting closer to God. I think that this is one of the most attractive dimensions of the Episcopal tradition.
Being born again means we cannot live compartmentalized lives. We cannot allow shame to separate out our regular self from the self we present to God and the world. We need to be our real selves. Our best selves. The people God created us to be. Not perfect yet. Still good enough. With God, there is always another chance.
At the end of the Gospel of John (19.38-42), it is Nicodemus who assists Joseph of Arimathea with the burial of Jesus in the tomb. Apparently the two men know one another. Joseph provides the tomb, and Nicodemus the embalming materials. The two are secret disciples, and the gospel says it is out of fear. They abandon their secrecy when Joseph goes to Pilate and asks for the body of the crucified Jesus. Without shame or fear, they go public.
By the end of the Gospel of John, Nicodemus and Joseph are new people. By burying Jesus, Joseph has in effect taken him into his family. By assisting Joseph, Nicodemus has rejected the teaching authority of the Sanhedrin. They reveal themselves for who they really are: faithful, heroic, noble people.
We might call them saints. Let’s not underestimate the social and religious penalty that almost certainly fell on their heads after their acts of faith and charity. The tradition tells us that Joseph was imprisoned and later left Israel to plant the church in Briton. Nicodemus was probably martyred in the first century. They paid a price, and they also spread the gospel.
If we are really open to repentance – by our baptism and by our spiritual experience – we may end up making a very intentional return to God. This profession of faith is not necessarily one of mere words – it is a profession of action.
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? May it be so!