…no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above (Jn 3:3)
We must be born, as we hear Jesus telling Nicodemus, of water and of Spirit. Not only must we be washed clean, but we must be infused with new life, with new humanity.
I want to suggest that our rebirth in the Spirit gives us a future orientation. For the Holy Spirit is the dynamism in and through creation, which in Genesis is said to move over the primordial waters. The Spirit is the Wind, or Breath of God, the pneuma of God, who is always creating, always fanning and winnowing, always breaking down and building up. But if She breaks down, it is only to build up: for the Spirit is bringing all things to their unity and completion—through all the long course of history. St Paul tells us of this process that
All creation awaits the revelation of the sons and daughters of God. For the creation was subject to frustration… in the hope that it will be liberated from … decay … into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until this present time. [And] we ourselves, who have the … Spirit, groan inwardly as we await our adoption…the redemption of our bodies. (Rom 8)
The Wind of God blows, like a breeze from the future. We might build up strong towers of defence, but the wind beats them down irresistibly.
We must learn to bend with the wind, or we will be blown over. We must lean into this Wind of God, like Spirit-catchers, setting our sails as it were to the future. So we cultivate a certain detachment from the current order of things, knowing that the present age will pass away; and indeed, it is passing away even now. Of course, we are, like everyone, tempted to think things will be more or less the same forever. We are tempted to absolutise our present reality. But the Wind of God blows all the same.
We are children of God’s future. We live not as citizens of this age, but as citizens of the age to come.
The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.
Our freedom in the Spirit is something like the freedom of Israel in the desert. We find ourselves on an exodus journey through the desert places of life to a new land—not a land marked out with bounds and measures, but an eternal homeland. Undoubtedly it is an arduous journey. We face reality head on: the scorching winds that blow by day and the chill that cuts by night. Reality bites, as they say.
And perhaps, like Israel, we find ourselves surrounded by poisonous serpents. We hear of this episode, too, in today’s gospel reading. In the desert Moses lifted up a bronze serpent on a pole, so that anyone who looked upon it should live. A strange episode from the Book of Numbers. What can this mean for us but that even pain and suffering and death can become the instruments of life? When the Israelites gazed into this symbol going before them, they took a strange courage. They continued the march. They saw that, though they die, they live. Even evil can become instrumental to God’s future.
Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.
The Son of Humanity goes before us, lifted high–a symbol of martyrdom. For though the powers of the earth sentence us to death, though life itself ravage and destroy us, we live. We have definitive life, the life of the age to come. We are drawn forth by the power of the Spirit.
And on this journey through life, we are not left without joy. Like Israel, we have food from heaven—the manna that appears with the dew and the dawn. Jesus gives us his radiant humanity for food and for drink; he himself becomes our common life, sharing himself with all.
So we who eat deepen our humanity: we grow more deeply into that mystery. Christ shares his life with us, and we are empowered to share ourselves with others. We learn to open our hearts, to spend time, and to support one another. Even in the desert, we have a foretaste of the promised land. We are woven together in solidarity: we learn to be one body, one people.
We who live by the Spirit live not as citizens of this age, but of the age to come.
Listen to the ancient letter of Diognetus written in the second century,
“Christians are indistinguishable from others either by nationality, language or custom. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. …
And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. …
…they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. They love all, but all persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. …
…we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. …
The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven.” [adapted]
So, we who live in the Spirit live on the edge. We live into God’s future and God’s creativity.
Very, truly, I tell you, no one can enter God’s reign without being born of Spirit.