“St Augustine is walking along the beach when he sees a little boy digging a hole in the sand and running back and forth from the ocean to fill the hole with water. Curious, Augustine asks the boy, ‘What are you doing?’ The little boy replies, ‘I’m putting the ocean in this hole.’ Augustine says, ‘ Little boy you can’t do that the ocean is too big to put in that little hole.’ The boy who is really an angel responds, ‘And so Augustine is your mind too small to contain the vastness of God.’”
The Gospel of John, as I remember Herbert O’Driscoll once told us at the College of Preachers, is John remembering as he looked back at the meaning of the life of the Christ. John is the mystic and poet who writes sixty or seventy years after the death of Jesus. It is somewhat like the older man I am, as all of us look back at what Jesus’s message and life means to us and our communities.
John uses Jesus and Nicodemus as a teaching opportunity for the emergent and struggling early church. Nicodemus represents the seeker who wants simple answers. He asks Jesus ” How am I born again? Do I enter back into my mother’s womb?” We looking back may understand Jesus response: “You have to be born again with water and the Holy Spirit”. Many may have no idea what Jesus is talking about at the time John writes. John’s church was at work to establish Baptism as the rite of initiation into the Christian community. As such Baptism was and is the river into which one dips or plunges to receive the Holy Spirit. And yet Jesus (and John) may have had something more in mind: Maybe Nicodemus’ idea of God was too circumscribed, narrow and acculturated. Being born again has something to do, John says, with unfurling the sails to catch the wind of the spirit and inhale the breath of God. Although Jesus can be powerfully present to those who choose to be in relationship with Him, to be born again is more than to have the warm feel of Jesus’ nearness. The dangers of this approach if you take it too far is the risk placing God in a box, tie God up in a nice package name it Jesus and stop looking, become closed and smug and self-satisfied. Jesus did not come to be another box for God. He came as a door opened to the world and time through which we can pass with new eyes and a new heart. (This image also is a gift from O’Driscoll) Jesus works for us who are already believers as this prime door opener. Don’t you think that Jesus would find joy in any who would access the door to the Eternal? If people can find any door to the eternal are they not among the blessed? That’s what I want for every one, to find that way to the spirit, the door to a wider compassion, to justice, to a loving and merciful heart and mind. For John and me that way is the face of Jesus. We show as much of that face as we can as an offering and a bridge to the holy. We try to keep the door unlocked and open. We are in the same boat as John, looking back and remembering how to open to God with John’s images and metaphors coming to us in our prayers: “Be born again. Become flame. Listen to the wind. Be washed and cleansed from your broken places. Drink living water. Be still and know that I am God. Be light. Life. Truth. Peace. Be.” “Have mercy.” While a part of me is like Nicodemus who wants simple answers to eternal questions , I need the language of John whose images and words of Jesus visit my prayers and remind me that “the mind is too small to contain the vastness of God.” And each day is a reminder to be born again. I send you a story from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, which is in the preface to Mary Oliver’s wonderful collection of poems entitled Thirst. “Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will you can become all flame.’”