“Breaking the Barrier of Birth”
Homily preached by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson, priest-in-charge
Church of the Intercession, New York City
MNIPC Wednesday Evening Prayer in Lent
February 24, 2021
Text: John 2:23-3:15
Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
None of us chose to be born. We had no say in any aspect of our birth. We couldn’t pick our parents, our economic class, we couldn’t even choose the color of our eyes, let alone our race, ethnicity or gender identity. No one consulted us about when or where we were to be born, and no one asked if we were ready to leave the comfort and warmth of the womb to land with a thud in this much colder, more demanding world.
But as we matured, all of us slowly realized that we have the ability to make certain choices. Depending on whether our upbringing was strict or lenient, depending on our economic class, our gender and certainly our race, we have a certain amount of latitude to make choices within what we believe to be our sphere, based on what we know about ourselves – and, even more crucially, what others tell us about the limits of our choices. We experience these limitations as either freedom or barrier, depending on whether factors over which we believe we have no control threaten to limit us in some way.
For example, for a long time in our Episcopal Church, women were not allowed in leadership roles like the priesthood; that is still true at this very moment in other denominations and other faiths. The very same limitation is true for churches regarding LGBTQ people. And of course, Black people, Latinos, and Asians of every gender and orientation have been told in myriad ways and through various levels of threat and violence, to stay out White male power structures in America for hundreds of years.
But what’s interesting about today’s gospel is how Jesus goes about destroying these barriers to our freedom by showing us that we do have the power to choose in every situation, whether or not society or even biology tells us differently.
Enter Nicodemus. Nicodemus served on the revered Sanhedrin, the combination ruling council and Justice Department of Hebrew society, he was a well-known and highly respected man. But Nicodemus has a problem: he’s interested in Jesus; he finds something about him attractive, compelling. Now, talk about barriers – someone in Nicodemus’ position was not supposed to have anything but disdain for Jesus: the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin viewed him as a threat, so any whiff of the scent of even the idea that Jesus might be anything other than a pestilent troublemaker was unthinkable. Yet, Nicodemus felt that he had to meet Jesus himself because of what he’s heard about what he has done, like his changing water into wine at the wedding at Cana: John calls these Jesus’ “signs.” Something inside of Nicodemus was telling him that these “signs” mean that Jesus just might have been sent from God. So under cover of darkness to avoid being seen, Nicodemus sneaks off to meet him.
He greets Jesus very respectfully – he calls him “rabbi,” the Pharisaic term of honor for a teacher, and tells him that he is prepared to believe that Jesus is of God (not that he’s Son of God – not yet – but of God) because no one could do what Jesus had done without God’s power. Jesus for his part does not return the pleasantries but instead cuts straight to the chase, saying something deeply weird to Nicodemus:
Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
Say what? This makes no sense at all – certainly not physically: as Nicodemus points out, it’s an absurdity to think you can return to your mother’s womb. But beyond that obvious point, Jesus is making a much larger point, about taking control of your choices in the power of God, so that even when you come against barriers that seem impossible to break, all things are possible in God. Jesus is asking Nicodemus to believe that he could make a choice to be born anew. Although like all of us he had a mother and father he didn’t choose at his first, physical birth, Nicodemus could now – if he wills it – overcome even the laws of biology to choose a new parent (God) and a new family (Jesus’ disciples).
Jesus is asking Nicodemus to run face first into and through a barrier, perhaps the primary barrier that was considered unbreachable in those days. The family, the tribe, was literally the organizing principle of Jewish society since Israel traveled in the wilderness to the Promised Land. During that journey each of the twelve tribes had its own assigned spot to camp around the Tabernacle in the wilderness, and its own individual identity complete with its own specific duties. Now in Jesus’ time, several millennia after settling in the Holy Land, the meaning of “tribe” had evolved to meanings beyond family – like membership in a particular Jewish sect. Remember, Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a very tight tribe, very difficult to go up against if you were a member.
This is not the only time that Jesus asked his followers to choose a new family. Remember in Mark when Jesus’ mother and brothers come to see him, and he says, “who are my mother and brothers?” – And looking at his disciples says, “here are my mother and brothers, for whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother!” For the educated, influential and powerful Pharisee Nicodemus, Jesus distills this message down to its essence, but it is still the very same message. On its face, it is a message of individual power against the tribe, but beyond that, it is a message of power against any barrier.
Jesus spends much of his ministry breaking those barriers. Think for a moment about the conditions Jesus heals or perhaps we can say, overrides – like paralysis, blindness, leprosy, hemorrhage. What we generally don’t recognize is that Jesus only healed conditions that disqualified the sufferer from admittance to the Temple, where God’s presence was believed to reside; these were conditions that literally cut people off from God. He loosed his power to break those barriers in order to make people fit to again enter God’s presence. He breaks barriers for restoration.
The point is that we must choose that same power, the power of the spirit, the Holy Spirit, over the natural powers found in our world, declining to acquiesce to their demands, but this is guaranteed to be painful. The thing about spiritual birth is that the labor pains are usually not quick; they can take months or years before one is ready to make a commitment to the ultimate choice of confronting a barrier. I know my new birth, my baptism, was many years in the making, as I was terrified of how my Jewish family, my personal tribe, would react to my choice. It was a terribly divided, painful, anxious period in my life.
If we look at Nicodemus’ journey, it must have been similarly excruciating, although we are not given the details. Nicodemus appears three times in the Gospels, all in John; it is through these appearances we can follow the progress of his struggle. Today’s gospel is the first time we meet him, when we next encounter him he is telling his fellow council members on the Sanhedrin that Jesus shouldn’t be convicted of a crime without a trial – in other words he’s advocating for justice for Jesus, clearly sympathetic to him, but not yet an open disciple. Then finally, Nicodemus appears after the crucifixion, this time with Joseph of Arimathea, to embalm Jesus’ body and help bury him in Joseph’s tomb. Now he’s come out into the open. There is no more sneaking around in the dark, he has made his choice, his choice to be born anew, no matter what choice meant to his relationships with other Pharisees or to his reputation. We are never told what he suffered as a result You can be sure that he did suffer, but that it was worth it to him for the freedom he now knew in Jesus. He had broken the through the barrier and had been born anew.
That barrier-breaking power is available to all of us today, and boy do we need it. There is a pandemic that needs its back to be broken; there are structures of racial injustice that need to be demolished; there is a vicious political divide that needs to be healed, and all of that is just for starters. But the solutions won’t just fall out of the sky on us – this is about our choices, our desire for new birth, and our willingness to suffer the consequences in return for freedom.
We cannot do this only politically, legislatively or even legally through the courts; all of those can help but we need the power of the Holy Spirit behind them or they will not work and they will not last. Even the pandemic won’t simply be overcome with vaccines although they are undeniably important – we need our orientations and behaviors and beliefs about science, truth, our responsibilities to each other in society to change. And this is also true of all of the inequities that the pandemic has revealed and exacerbated in our society.
My sisters and brothers, today Jesus is inviting us to be born anew. This first Wednesday in Lent, we too have choices to make, individually in our own lives, collectively for our church, as citizens of our country. Barriers surround us on every side, yet Jesus calls us to lay aside fear, lay aside idol worship of any kind, including worship of our tribes, whatever they might be. Jesus is calling us to access his power to transform our own personal worlds and this world into the kingdom of God. That is way to freedom: we must be born anew.