“I love my kids. I love being around them to experience their quirky senses of humor, to hear their views on the world. I like seeing the ways in which they are bright and creative and accomplished. And even when they struggle or are disappointed, my heart goes out to them. I am delighted to see them being compassionate or kind or generous. I am especially delighted to see the ways they love not just me, but the people around them.
I remember my pregnancies. I was lucky to have easy pregnancies with both kids, and I liked being pregnant. I liked feeling the kids’ little kicks and little elbow jabs, even though there’s not much elbow room in the womb. I was glad they were there, glad they were active. But now that I’ve gotten so fond of the people my kids have become, I wouldn’t want to go back to just being pregnant.
They are able to love now in a way they couldn’t when they were in the womb. Each of us here today is able to love now in a way we couldn’t when we were in the womb. In order to love fully, you have to come out of the womb.
That’s what Jesus is getting at in his conversation with Nicodemus in today’s gospel reading. Everybody’s got a spirit, or a soul, or a divine spark, or whatever you want to call it. Nicodemus’ problem isn’t that he has no soul. It is that his soul is kept inside him constrained in a small space in the dark. What Jesus is telling him is to let his soul come out of the womb, to let his soul come out into the light and breathe the air and kick its legs freely. And love.
That is what Jesus is telling all of us. It’s not that we have to invent a spirit for ourselves. There is a spirit already in each of us. What Jesus is telling us is that we can let the spirit that is in us come out and be born. We don’t have to keep it curled up in a tiny space inside us with no wiggle room in the darkness. We can let it out, let it grow, let it love.
Every once in a while you read about some girl who hid her pregnancy through the entire nine months. This is surprising, but not impossible. If you’ve got baggy clothes, and a heavy-set frame, and you’re a person nobody really notices or pays attention to, you can often hide it. There are some girls who can hide their pregnancies even from themselves, and who insist that they had no idea they were pregnant until they went into labor. As they say, Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.
Similarly, there are a few people who deny that they have a soul, and will claim that they are only bodies, that the things other people call spiritual are nothing more than physical or chemical reactions in the body or the neocortex.
I don’t think Nicodemus is one of those people, though. There is something in him that prompts him to go to see Jesus in the first place. He goes to see Jesus “by night” John tells us, but he goes. Nicodemus begins by saying to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”” So he’s off to a good start here. Then Jesus answers, “”Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”” That’s where Nicodemus gets thrown off, of course, since he thinks Jesus is talking about physical birth, and Jesus says: no, no, I’m talking about the birth of your spirit here. “What is born of the spirit is spirit.” Nicodemus has a spirit in him, as we all do. But if he keeps it small and silent and hidden inside him, it will never grow, it will never love. His spirit is in there, moving around, kicking a bit, and it needs to come out and be born.
What does it mean for your spirit to be born? That’s the heart of today’s sermon, and the part I hope you will remember: Your spirit being born means loving God.
It is common for people to walk around knowing they have a spirit inside them. They can feel it move from time to time. But they keep their spirit small and hidden inside. Like Nicodemus does. What Jesus says to Nicodemus is let your spirit out so it can love God. What Jesus says to us is let your spirit out so it can love God.
Our spiritual birth is in some ways a turning point. We make a commitment to a life of loving God. In other ways, our spiritual life is a constant process of growth and development. How do our baby spirits grow? The same way all babies grow: they are fed, they learn, and they exercise. How do we get spiritually fed, learn spiritually, exercise spiritually? You know this stuff already: prayer, scripture, worship, sacraments, acts of generosity, acts of compassion, acts of forgiveness, acts of thanksgiving to God. Love God. Love your neighbors. And part of loving someone else is letting yourself receive their love for you. The same thing is true in our love for God: that part of loving God is letting ourselves receive God’s love for us. Babies start out by receiving love, and then gradually learn to love back. It isn’t about earning love or deserving love; it’s about receiving love, then loving.
It is probably pretty common to feel spiritual stirrings inside ourselves. Are we willing to let our spirits out, to commit to letting them live a full spiritual life in which they can love God, to feed and teach and play with our spirits as they grow? Or, to shift the metaphor slightly, are we willing to let God feed and teach and play with our souls, are we willing to let God love us, and are we willing to love God?
To see our kids growing and loving is a wonderful thing. To see our souls growing and loving God is even better.”