Saturday, June 2, 2012

Where Does This Come From?

Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 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 who is born of the Spirit. (John 3.7-8)

An Eternal, God-Like Life

Indulge me as I delight in a bit of pride. The older of my two nephews, Zach, graduated high school this weekend—in typical Zach style, I might add, not making a big deal of his achievements (which are many), but with eyes focused straight ahead. Next autumn Zach will enter college to prepare for a life of ministry. This will be the fourth generation of Wolfes who, in some shape or form, have dedicated their lives to the Gospel. Our family’s joy knows no bounds.

My sister-in-law, Renée (herself a minister’s daughter), and I were talking about Zach and she told me, “When he announced he felt called to ministry, of course we were pleased. But we were also surprised. We’ve never pushed our boys in that direction. They’ve always been free to find their own way. And so, when Zach told us how he was being led, we knew it was real.” (Alex, my younger nephew, will graduate middle school later this month and has already expressed a desire to enter medicine—another ministry, to be sure, and the continuance of another family tradition.) As we discussed the boys’ aspirations, Renée and I wondered where does this compulsion to serve God and others come from. “I honestly don’t know,” she said. Neither do I.

By no means is the question unique to our family. Indeed, each of us witnesses the same desire to honor God’s purpose in ways that benefit those around us. Something inside you and me compels us to follow Jesus—to study His teachings, to emulate His example, to live in ways that fulfill His promises. It’s an inchoate longing whose origins run deeper than upbringing or need for a governing set of life principles. It is something altogether amazing that God imbeds our beings long before they take shape. It springs from precognitive awareness of a new life—a transcendent life—that Christ makes possible in each of us, a seeking life, a richer life, a better life beyond mundane existence. It’s an eternal, God-like life that, as Jesus explains in Sunday’s Gospel (John 3.1-17), is born of God’s Spirit.

A Bold, Completely New Idea

Nicodemus—whose nighttime visit occasions Jesus’s comments—is a seeker. And John wants us to know that he comes to Jesus from a rare place. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, “a leader of the Jews” (v1), meaning that he’s mastered a theological construct that prides itself on having figured everything out. Yet the Pharisaical tradition also puts great value in asking questions, and something down deep in Nicodemus alerts him that he hasn’t found all the answers. Everything he’s seen and heard from Jesus tells him there’s more to know. So Nicodemus calls on this Rabbi Whose preaching radically diverges from the Pharisee tradition in hopes of launching a new period of discovery in his life. At great personal risk (which explains his decision to meet Jesus under cover of night), Nicodemus is compelled to find out where Jesus is coming from. If he can pin Jesus down, perhaps he can identify the origins of his own hunger for something greater than a religiously and morally doctrinaire life.

From the first, Jesus’s message has been this: “The kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1.15) How near? In Luke 17.20-21, Jesus explains: “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among [or within] you.” Jesus senses the stirrings of God’s kingdom within Nicodemus and wastes no time telling the Pharisee what he needs to know. In John 3.3, He says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” This revelation throws Nicodemus. First, it tells him that their conversation is not going to go per expectation. Jesus isn’t going to parse Old Testament texts in the grand rabbinical tradition. Here is a bold, completely new idea—something Nicodemus has never encountered before—and the adept theologian can’t quite wrap his head around it. Born from above (or “anew,” or “again”)? What does that mean?

The Very Breath of God

Jesus enlightens Nicodemus. “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit,” He says. (v6) Mortal birth brings us into the world. But there’s more, much more, to life than biological existence. The Spirit of God gives birth to our spirits—the very breath of God that inspires our beings—and that new life comes out of us, enabling us to gain entrance to God’s kingdom. Jesus tells Nicodemus it’s entirely possible to live in a world that transcends the physical; once we acknowledge the Spirit’s presence within us, we’re transformed. We obtain eternal life—life as lived by God, as God desires, life devoted to building God’s kingdom on earth, a kingdom of love, peace, justice, and harmony. 

Thus, this spiritual birth brings with it a compulsion to live in ways that supersede natural living. Indeed, it’s a peculiarly unnatural way of life that places love for God above all else and love for others on par with love of self. So, while we recognize the deeper, richer, and truer life that results from this compulsion, its beginnings will always remain a mystery. And Jesus appears perfectly comfortable with that. “Don’t be astonished that I said, ‘You must be born from above,’” he stresses to Nicodemus. “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 who is born of the Spirit.” (v7-8)

Something Within

We don’t need to fully understand where this comes from. We will never be able to identify what compels us to love God and others, what drives us to seek justice and peace not only for ourselves, but also for anyone who’s denied them. The passage ends with Nicodemus not really getting the answers he came looking for. Instead, Jesus gives him something far more glorious and essential. He assures the Pharisee that what drives his desire for more than mundane existence is a godly gift. His search brings him to the door of God’s kingdom and belief in a Spirit-born life is all that’s required to enter. “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish, but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him,” Jesus says. (v16-17) This mysterious compulsion that inspires young people to pursue lives of faithful ministry and all believers to live out Christ’s teachings and example does not—and cannot—end in condemnation. It leads to eternal life.

Understanding new life in Christ has no bearing on our ability to experience it. In fact, we should celebrate the mystery of our faith-ignited compulsion as the first sign of life it creates—a life that defies logical explanation and makes real God’s kingdom in us. And as I ponder the singular beauty of this irrevocably transformed, unnatural lifestyle, I’m reminded of a hymn that Zach’s great-grandfather often sang to his father and me. With my brother, Steve, perched on one side and me on the other, Papa Wolfe would rock us gently in the backyard swing as he sang:

Something within me that holdeth the rein
Something within me that banishes pain
Something within me I cannot explain
All that I know, there is something within

Have you that something, that burning desire?
Have you that something that never doth tire?
If you have it, that heavenly fire
Let the world know there is something within

There is something within. That’s all that we know. And just knowing that is enough.

Something within us—something we can’t fully understand or source—compels us to lead Spirit-born lives.

Postscript: "Something Within Me"

Here’s Take 6’s jubilant rendition of Papa Wolfe’s hymn, “Something Within Me,” admittedly performed with a bit more (though not much) doo-wop swagger than what my brother and I heard as kids.

Note: S-F will return to its “Sitting with Scripture” series on Monday, and continue on weekdays throughout the month of June.

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