Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God (St. John 3:5)
Today’s epistle and gospel present two very different reactions to the might, majesty, and glory of the Trinity. In Revelation we see the presbyters of heaven, kneeling before Christ’s throne, casting their hard earned crowns to the ground, praising God and saying, “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.” (Revelation 4:11). What a joy to know, without a shadow of doubt, that you and I were created, not by random chaotic forces, but by the loving and sovereign will of God. Behind the eyes of every man and woman we will ever meet is a purpose placed there by our Creator. What we see when we share with St. John this privileged view of heaven, even as it feverishly prepares to invade and put right our fallen earth, is a view of a healed people fully committed to living within the divine order: an order which can only come from not just laying down the weapons of our mutiny, but even laying down the very accomplishments for which we are most proud. Compared to the glory of the first good man, seated on His altar/throne, it is only reasonable and right for us to offer our everything to the God who gives us everything; the God who makes us new.
But, if allegiance and praise and worship are the only reasonable responses to the Trinity’s creative and salvific glory, what other options are there? Well, in the three verses before today’s Gospel we read this, “Now when [Jesus] was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man” (St. John 2:23-25). These men saw signs and wonders and because of what they saw formed a superficial belief in Jesus’ power, but partially surrendering to a superior power is not the same thing at all as trusting the living God in faith and love. Jesus knows just how damaged the human heart, will, soul, body, and mind is: He made us, watched us corrupt ourselves, and became a human man to heal and save us from our corruption and decay and evil. Even in these men who “believe,” Christ sees the sin and rebellion it will take more than good intentions or social equality or material plenty to defeat. To put it another way, Christ can’t trust humanity to save itself because He knows us, and He has seen what it looks like when we try.
A verse later, when the powerful Nicodemus, himself representing the puppet government of Judaea, comes to Jesus with guarded or outright false praise on his lips, we can see why our Lord responds to him with hard truth rather than soft comfort. Jesus doesn’t say to Nicodemus, “Hey buddy, you’re doing great, but here are 10 life hacks to help make you even better” An answer like this one is comforting because these kinds of actions cost us nothing real while feeding our fallen need for immediate gratification—centering salvation in ourselves and our accomplishments: the HOLY ME. Rather than feed us lies like these, Jesus states the reality of our fallen condition in dire terms: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (St. John 3:3). In our own time, this familiar quotation has become a kind of brand label, a slogan to distinguish real Christians from some kind of fake Christian (“I’m not like those other Christians, I’m born again”), but sadly, branding oneself as “born again” tends to have as much meaning as choosing between Coke or Pepsi. It has become more of a sign of the team we think we are on, like a tribal marker or a gangland hand signal.
But, of course, Christ has something very different in mind here. Throughout His conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus uses words with multiple meanings to describe both the visible and invisible realities by which the Trinity is remaking the world. Here the adverb we generally translate as “again” also carries the meaning of “above,” centering the new birth of the children of God in the mighty and unstoppable grace of God. As St. John describes it, “[the children of God]…were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” To be born again is not to choose a label which makes us sound more sincere, it is to be involved in a violent and dangerous journey from death into life; a journey just as violent and dangerous as the first journey we took from the darkness of uncreation to the light of creation.
But how does this rebirth happen? This same question throttles Nicodemus until he starts babbling about climbing back up into his mother, probably half laughing as he said it. Jesus, however, is not in a jesting mood. After all, this new birth is why He has come down from heaven to suffer the pain and indignities of the human experience; this new birth is why He will suffer death so that He might be the first entirely reborn man of human history—in Himself the beginning of the new creation. This same Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (St. John 3:5). Here we see the method and means of our rebirth unto righteousness. What has been called in Christian theology: regeneration (a kind of “re-Genesising” us). It is in Trinitarian baptism that the Holy Spirit makes alive (rebirths) the spiritually dead by uniting us with the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. As St. Paul writes, “We were buried therefore with [Christ] by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). This imagery makes much more sense if we understand baptism to be a kind of symbolic drowning where our old sinful nature succumbs under the water, and we are reborn, washed clean in the cleansing blood of Christ.
It is this grace filled new birth which is so beautifully displayed in the Christian service of baptism, particularly, in the baptism of infants. Who else among us so wonderfully displays the reality that it is God alone who quickens us to spiritual life, rescues us from darkness, bondage, and spiritual death—God alone who makes us born again? It is this new life God promised to Ezekiel 600 years before Christ, as we read, “For I will take you from among the heathen, and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land. Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them. And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God” (Ezekiel 36:24-28). Again and again, God announces Himself as the doctor, the hospital, and the cure for the broken human person. We don’t do open heart surgery on ourselves, we don’t birth ourselves, and we don’t regenerate ourselves. It is all God, it is all undeserved, it is all grace.
And so, as we contemplate what it means to be saved by the Trinity, we must lean on the faith and trust with which it is our duty and privilege to offer our gracious God. This faith and trust must be in God alone because all other paths lead to the sucking, unending darkness we are daily asked to join. There is no hope there. Whatever side we think is right is just one more distraction from the truth we have been set free to proclaim. How easy it is for us to become like men on a life raft bobbing in the Pacific who in their madness and thirst begin to drink saltwater only to find it makes them thirstier and thirstier until the darkness comes and makes thirst their everything.
But alas Christian, it is worse than that if we drink the bitter water. We who are born of the water and the Holy Spirit are already in the ark of faith, and we have been given the living water which if men drink they shall never thirst again. We don’t need to measure ourselves by the fallen world’s standards—those standards nailed the Prince of Peace to the Cross; we don’t need to engage in the civic religion of outrage and tribalism because we have nothing to prove to anyone. God already knows we are defined by how much we need Him, and it is only His opinion which counts; it is only His love which saves. Liberated by this truth, we can bring peace to wherever we are; we can bring the peace which comes from knowing victory has already been won; we can bring the peace which knows our Savior’s greatest moment of victory was when He was exalted on a wooden device of torture and death, and so we too can grab our cross and do likewise. What does that look like in our actual lives? It looks like praying the daily office, humbly receiving the sacraments, finding actual human persons with whom to share Christ’s love, and repeating this pattern for life again and again until we die or Christ returns. No one but the angels will celebrate us for offering these simple but hard sacrifices, but if we mean it when we beg God that His will be done on earth as it is heaven, then that is what we will do. We will make our lives a celebration of true salvation; we will make our lives a celebration of the Trinity.