Beginning What We’ve Already Begun
“How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4) This question from Nicodemus in John’s gospel is one that we often associate with new beginnings. For some of us, this story is the foundational narrative for understanding our re-birth in the Spirit as Christians, once we’ve realized exactly who Jesus is. For others of us, the story illustrates what happens to us in baptism, we are given a fresh start as God’s children, infused with the Spirit called upon the water from the font. There are, of course, myriad other meanings that Christian tradition and practice makes of this story, but across our traditions, we usually read it as a story of new beginnings.
As we begin a new school year here at Wake Div, we start something new. We all have new pens, new books, new classes, maybe even new clothes, new laptops, a new home, new friends, a new community. This time of year brings out the excitement, maybe a little anxiety, the adrenaline, the curiosity, and yes, the anticipation of future dreams. We begin our life together for this year with new faces who will become new friends who will lead us to new possibilities.
It’s this giddiness about new beginnings that we often equate with the story of Nicodemus. We make Nicodemus into a bit of a buffoon for asking such a silly, inane question of Jesus. “Can I enter a second time into my mother’s womb and be born?” Sometimes, in our own heads at least, we hear Jesus saying with a hint of exasperation, “Of course, you silly, silly, unsophisticated Nicodemus; of course, you can’t go back into your mother’s belly. It’s a metaphor. Why must you ask such stupid questions?” Nicodemus was just so giddy at the prospect of a new beginning that he didn’t think before he spoke.
But I wonder if we aren’t missing something here. As Christians we often think about rebirth as a slate-wiping, page-erasing, hard-drive-clearing, trash-bin-emptying thing that makes our future wide open with possibilities unrelated to our pasts. We don’t always hear the note of incredulity in Nicodemus’ question; a note that wonders what his life up to his meeting with Jesus was for anyway. After Nicodemus walked away from his night-time conversation with Jesus about re-birth with water and Spirit, we do hear a little about his life. First we hear him making a legal argument to his fellow Pharisees about the need for a hearing before judgment is pronounced on someone accused (John 7:50–53). Nicodemus hasn’t been traveling with Jesus, he’s gone back to his law practice. He hasn’t forgotten his training or even the law codes that he loves. He does argue for justice, for fairness, on behalf of those most stigmatized. He couldn’t have done that with a clean slate. The last time we meet Nicodemus he brings an enormous amount of oil and aloe to prepare Jesus’ body for burial (John 19:39–40). John says that he buries Jesus according to the custom of the Jews. Something he’d probably done for family and friends in the past. Something he would not have known to do with so much love had his religious world been erased. Nicodemus made Jesus’ life more just, more compassionate, and more loving because of what he brought with him to his new beginning.
We, students and faculty alike, have all done this school-thing before. Every single one of us. Some of us more recently than others, but we’ve all made it through at least 16 of these new beginnings in our lives. We don’t come to this place as clean slates, or empty bank accounts, or unshaped clay. We, each of us, have experiences to bring to the Wake Div community that will make our lives richer, more just, more compassionate, and more loving. We, each of us, also receive that richness in each new encounter. Must we begin with a clean slate? Please, no. What your life has already written is already the outline for the possibilities we hope to imagine.
Katherine A. Shaner
Assistant Professor of New Testament
Katherine A. Shaner is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. She comes to the Wake Div community from Nebraska via Iowa, Germany, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, and New York City. This year marks her 34th first day of school.