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Born from above

New life in communion

Jesus said to Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews who had come to him secretly at night:

There is a deep meaning in this and there is a double meaning. Sometimes the last words are translated "born from above" and sometimes "born again". It comes from a root meaning something like "from the very first or from the top", so possibly both "from above" and "over again from the beginning". It appears to have been deliberately ambiguous. The course of the conversation depends upon the ambiguity. Nicodemus first takes it to mean "a second time"; Jesus responded with the meaning "from above", in the sense being born of the Spirit who comes from above, from God.

Clearly, what matters is being born of the spirit, entering a new life with God in the Spirit, and that can happen even if a person is old. A believer entering into a new covenant with God begins a new life. So it is both a new beginning and a gift from above. Entry into the Kingdom is not something to which people grow naturally as in physical development; one can only be a citizen of the kingdom of God by being a child again there -- a spiritual birth which brings a person into the spiritual realm in a new set of relationships. It is that new life in the spirit that we celebrate in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's supper.

Sharing new life in the spirit at the Lord's table

At the Lord's table today, we meet in the Spirit, with one another and with God, that in our spirits we may be in communion with God, who is Spirit. We have this communion through the Spirit of the risen Lord who welcomes us to his table. Having been born of water and the Spirit, especially in baptism, we who belong to Christ share now in the Holy Communion of his body and blood as members of his body the church. In the power of the Spirit, the ordinary creatures of bread and wine become for us the heavenly food and drink to sustain us on our pilgrimage to the fulfilment of his promise to be with us to the end of time; that is, until we are raised up to eternal life.

What a great and glorious mystery it is! The bread we share is the very bread of heaven. As he said, where John tells of these mysteries just after the feeding of the five thousand, a little further on in the gospel from today's reading:

and further,

The life we share that is the food of our pilgrimage is the life of the one who came from God, and who, having been raised from the dead, was lifted up to ascend to heaven and share again the glory of God the Father that he had given up to be with us. Indeed, it was made possible for us to share in the bread of life which came down from heaven because he was raised up. It is in the life of the resurrection that we share in the body of Christ at the Lord's table. That is, it is in the new life of being born from above that we have communion with God in Christ.

The bread that came down from heaven

How could this be? It was a deep and significant mystery even amongst the apostles who had shared his earthly life, and who had been there at the Last Supper when he told them to "Do this in remembrance of me." Looking back they recalled his teaching, as in John 6, which at the time hardly seemed to make sense.

He said very strange things about the life they would share with him:

How could the Jews who heard this understand him?

We need to be reminded of this direct teaching about the Eucharist, hard though it is. John tells us that many among his disciples found it hard to accept and

They said,

So it is in the Spirit that we share this mystery of eternal life the new life into which people may be born from above; but how much depth there is in these sayings of Jesus! You see the people of that time were not very different from people today. People then as now have been offended by this saying. He had to explain but not to take away the mystery. In the Eastern Church the sacraments are called "the mysteries" and they remain mysteries for us. He said, The flesh is useless -- it is the spirit that gives life, so eating the flesh in the sign of the bread is not the thing of value in itself, but what lies under it, beneath the outward sign the heavenly body is present in the spirit, so that his spirit may commune with our spirits and give us the life that endures in relationship to God. That life is his life which overcame death. What is more, the same life is communicated to us through his words, as well as in the bread, The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. So in our worship we celebrate his life in both word and sacrament.

Life in the blood of the new covenant

You might ask, if that is the meaning of the bread, what is the meaning of the wine. What corresponds to the bread of heaven in which there is the life of Christ? It is really the same: it is the life of Christ under the symbol of the wine that is communicated to us. The wine as the sign of the blood had special meaning in the way the Israelites and other people of that time understood life. They believed that the life of a person or an animal was in the blood. The belief was there from the beginning:

The blood had to be drained from the animal before it was eaten. It was for similar reasons that blood was important in the sacrificial rites of their religion. It was the life that was in it that was a precious gift, worthy to be offered up to God to make atonement for their sins:

It general, it was important to be careful in what one did with blood because it could mean that in sharing blood you were sharing in the life of another and thus in communion with the character, even the spirit of that other being, good or bad. Similarly for orthodox Jews and Moslems even today meat has to be prepared in a special way to ensure that the people who consume it are not contaminated. That is why we have a life sheep trade to Moslem countries.

It is also why, when gentiles were admitted to the church in the days of the apostles, Peter and others in Jerusalem agreed with Paul not to impose the Jewish law on them except in a few things which were thought so basic to their understanding of life that they should apply to all people. After the council of Jerusalem they sent a letter to the Gentile churches which concluded:

Incidently, it is interesting that fornication is included here because sex is another way of sharing in life and creating new life. And there is a strange parallel in the way that HIV is spread, through blood and sex, so the most basic sharing of life can also be the way of death. To the early Christians that would have been highly symbolic of what they believed. It would have been like the worship of idols which they were learning to avoid by not entering into communion with the alien form of life.

Later there was controversy about whether Christians could eat food that had been sacrifices to idols. [1 Corinthians 8 and 10:14 to 11:1.] Some said that as they did not believe in the power of the idols they would not be contaminated, and Paul agreed that it was a matter of conscience; but he instructed them to be careful, nevertheless, in case there should be confusion about whose life it was that they were sharing. They certainly believed that when they shared the cup, remembering that Jesus said "This is my blood of the new covenant", they shared in his life; and they wished to remain faithful to hiim.

As with the bread, so with the wine, beyond the physical sign, the spiritual life that we share gives us a share in the life of Christ and in eternal life. So later in the service I will say to you, "The blood of Christ keep you in eternal life."

The one who was lifted up

Then there is the reference to the Son of Man (the name Jesus used for himself) ascending to where he had been before. What has that to do with the food of eternal life? It is that the food for eternal life comes from God, from heaven [the Jews often said Heaven when they meant God] -- the bread that came down from heaven -- and it was after the disciples had experienced his resurrection and ascension that they knew by faith where he had come from.

Let us now go back to the story of Nicodemus and see the foundation of it. That teacher of Israel was puzzled when Jesus had spoken of people being born from above, of the spirit or born again:

Then Jesus, while chiding him for not understanding even earthly things, claimed authority to speak of heavenly things because he had come from heaven and would return there:

In telling of this John is recalling the memory of Jesus from the perspective of the apostles after the resurrection who knew that he had ascended. No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. Because they knew that God had raised him up, they could believe that he had come from God. That is the same as he claimed when speaking of the communion of the body which is the bread of heaven [chapter 6], but in this case he adds something else that tells us how it became possible. It was through sacrifice, through the shedding of blood.

The Son of Man being lifted up has a double meaning too, like being born again or from above. It refers to his being raised up to a life with God (that is, to his resurrection and ascension) and to his being lifted up and displayed as a sacrifice on the cross (that is to his death, for to John his death and resurrection always belong together). People who looked faithfully towards him on the cross, and who thus accepted the benefits of the shedding of his blood, would have their lives saved and would thus enter into eternal life. The comparison with the sign of the serpent that Moses put up in the wilderness would remind them of the time when their ancestors were afraid of being killed by snake bite [Numbers 21:9] and how they were given confidence of saving their earthly lives by looking at that sign. -- so must the Son of Man be lifted up, {15} that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

So people who believed in the sign of Jesus being raised up would be saved:

That is how Nicodemus was told that it was possible to begin a new life when he was old. It came from sharing in the life of Christ through faith, through belief in the benefits of his death. In that way people who believed in him were able to share in a new life of the Spirit who came from above. So it was that Jesus said

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APPENDIX: Notes on the Biblical text

Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born(1) from above(2)." -- John 3:3

(John 3:3) re born from above or born again see word note. John Marsh commentary: `The adverb is deliberately ambiguous and the course of the conversation depends upon the ambiguity' (p.175).Nicodemus takes it to mean `a second time'; Jesus meant `from above', that is of the Spirit.

(1) "BORN" GENNETHE from verb to procreate: beget, bear, give birth. G1080 gennao

(2) "ABOVE" FROM ABOVE NRSV `again' REB & NIV. 509. anothen, an'-o-then; from G507; from above; by anal. from the first; by impl. anew:--from above, again, from the beginning (very first), the top. 507. ano, an'-o; adv. from G473; upward or on the top:--above, brim, high, up. 473. anti, an-tee'; a prim. particle; opposite, i.e. instead or because of (rarely in addition to):--for, in the room of. Often used in composition to denote contrast, requital, substitution, correspondence, etc. 508. anogeon, an-ogue'-eh-on; from G507 and G1093; above the ground, i.e. (prop.) the second floor of a building; used for a dome or a balcony on the upper story:--upper room. Mark 14:15 = Luke 22:12; cf Acts 1:13 huperoon anebeson

{15} Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." -- Mark 10:15

Entry into the Kingdom is not something to which people grow naturally as in physical development; one can only be a citizen of the kingdom of God by being a child again there -- a spiritual birth which brings a person into the spiritual realm. [Marsh p. 176] -- thus, by the quickening Spirit, discerning in the historical Jesus the incarnate Word:-

... no one can say "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit. -- 1 Corinthians 12:3

The age to come has already been linked with the person, the flesh and blood of Jesus of Nazareth. Nicodemus, in this sense is earth bound. Even the finest religion, Judaism, cannot produce Christian belief, but is exposed to human limitations [Marsh p.177].

Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible." -- Mark 10:27 [re camel going through the eye of a needle]

The Christian church was Judaism baptised by the Spirit -- the spiritual begetting enables a person to see the presence of eternity in time, the end in the historical, the divine itself in the human flesh of the Christ.

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