March 5, 2023 Born of the Spirit by Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to our God.

Rev. John Buchanan had just finished baptizing a two-year-old, saying, “You are a child of God, sealed by the Spirit in your baptism, and you belong to Jesus Christ forever.” The two-year-old responded, “Uh-oh.”

I wonder how many of us have taken our faith promises as seriously as this two-year-old did? He knew it was a big thing. He knew that there might be some changes afoot. He knew more than most of us have ever dreamed.

Nicodemus had the same response. He came to Jesus with sincere questions and deep respect. But Jesus wanted more than respect. He wanted Nicodemus’ entire life. He wanted Nicodemus to be transformed, born anew of the Spirit. Taken aback, Nicodemus must have thought, “Uh-oh.” He came to learn, not to be transformed.

As a leader of Sanhedrin, Nicodemus had a lot to lose by identifying publicly with Jesus. He had come to Jesus at night—some say under the cloak of darkness, where all is said and done in secrecy. But others remind us of a rabbinic teaching that the Torah (the Jewish scriptures) is best studied at night when it is quiet with fewer distractions. We don’t know why Nicodemus met Jesus at night, but John tells us that he came with good intentions, sincerely wanting to deepen his faith.

While Nicodemus was quite unsettled with Jesus’ response, he did not forget it. He is mentioned two more times in the Gospel of John and we learn that, slowly, Nicodemus found himself being transformed into a courageous disciple of Jesus who was not afraid to challenge his colleagues when they sought to arrest Jesus: “Does our law not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing?” (John 7:50) Nicodemus’s defense of Jesus immediately made him suspect as a follower of Jesus. The other reference to Nicodemus was near the end of John’s gospel, when he accompanied Joseph of Arimathea to ensure Jesus’ body was buried respectfully with the proper spices, according to religious ritual. (John 19:38-42) Nicodemus’ faith in Jesus slowly transformed his life.

What does our faith mean to us today? Is it something we simply respect, or do we allow ourselves to be transformed by it? Some have remarkable stories of transformation. In 1995, 14-year-old Tony Hicks shot and killed 20-year-old Tariq Khamisa. Tariq’s father, Azim, was a Sufi Muslim who practised meditation.

Shortly after his son’s death, during Azim’s meditation practice, a “spark of clarity” arose, prompting him to begin a journey of forgiveness. He explains, “Every saint has suffered the dark night of the soul, yet in every dark night of the soul, there is a spark of clarity. And that spark of clarity for me was that I saw there were victims at both ends of the gun. That clarity later helped me forgive my son’s killer, understanding the real culprit was the societal forces that [drive] many young men and women to fall through the cracks.” He describes how he found his divine purpose while addressing these forces, “Once you are on your spiritual [path], you have a perpetual tailwind and the road rises to meet you. I believe when you are [focussed] on your spiritual purpose, God is your partner, and with a partner like that, what is not possible?”

Azim started the Tariq Khamisa Foundation to help train community leaders in accountability, empathy, compassion, forgiveness, peacemaking and peacebuilding. Shortly after Azim founded this organization, the grandfather of Tony, who was by now incarcerated, joined Azim. Together, the two men gave over 1,000 presentations worldwide. In 2018, when Tony was granted parole, he joined his grandfather and Azim in giving these presentations.[1]

This is an amazing example of how faith can radically transform lives. But some transformation, like that of Nicodemus, is more gradual and less dramatic. It can start with a simple stepping back and allowing oneself to be held by something outside of ourselves. The scriptures often say, “Behold.” It’s a word that gets our attention, but it has a deeper meaning. It asks us to stop holding onto things and instead to allow those things to hold us in awe or wonder. When we behold the intricate pattern of a flower or the curl of a snow drift, we are being held by its beauty. When we behold something, we look at it differently. Instead of just noticing it, we allow ourselves to receive whatever wonder it is offering. Our walls can begin to expand.

You can try this in your own home. Spend a few minutes allowing the wonder of colour or design, aroma or sound, taste or feel to wash over you. Allow yourself to be held by this wonder and you just might feel a subtle shift in your energy. As you slow down and receive, you might find worries and anxiety begin to diminish. Your capacity to receive might expand. You will be making space for the Spirit around and within you. In essence, you are beholding the Spirit or allowing yourself to be held by the Spirit.

Jesus explained 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.” Both the Hebrew and Greek words for wind are the same words for Spirit. To allow the Spirit to blow through our lives as she wills, is to learn to be open to both the wonders and the troubles of life throughout each day. It’s to listen for the Spirit’s guidance, to feel the Spirit’s nudging. We could be nudged towards forgiveness. We could be led towards civil disobedience against the support of fossil fuels. We could be prodded to phone someone who is having a difficult time.

To be born of the Spirit is to welcome the Spirit’s guidance into all aspects of our lives 24/7, not just on Sunday morning. Jesus truly is asking for our lives, to which we might join Nicodemus and the two-year old in responding, “uh-oh”.  We never know where the Spirit might lead. But when we welcome the Spirit into all aspects of our lives, I’m pretty sure that we will find Jesus’ promise of abundant life to be fulfilled.

[1] Maria Okorn, “Azim Khamisa, the Tariq Khamisa Foundation,” September/October 2020, p. 16-17.