The Prelate’s Message, April 18
Today, the second Sunday after Easter, according to the Armenian Church calendar is known as Green Sunday, as well as the Sunday of the Universal Church, dedicated to the Upper Room. Both names bring us the spirit of blossoming of the Mother Nature and the flourishing of the first Christian Church.
The Gospel reading for today is from Saint John, presenting a discourse between the heavenly Rabbi and a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. Nicodemus visits Jesus by night and expresses his admiration, even confesses that “Jesus is a teacher come from God.” Jesus answers, “I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus was not expecting this kind of answer, and obviously surprised, asks how a person so advanced in years might be born again? Jesus replies, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” The dialogue goes on and Nicodemus seems more perplexed and asks, “How can these things be?” Jesus as a true teacher, once again with tremendous tenderness and understanding replies, “if I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things…?”
In this conversation, we see the intersection between the parameters of earthly knowledge and limitless heavenly wisdom. For Christianity, such an intersection may be understood as a moment when divine teaching is revealed within human perspective. Such opportunities for instruction are often called “catechism”, and I would like to focus upon several points found in the teachable moment between the divine teacher, Jesus, and the earthly instructor, Nicodemus.
- The timing of this visit is indeed remarkable, and tells us a lot about the personality of the visitor. Nicodemus, as an open minded teacher, having witnessed the Teaching and wonders of this unconventional Rabbi, was convinced that Jesus was ‘a teacher who comes from God’. On the other hand, Nicodemus could not confess it openly for fear of censure from many of his fellow teachers. Therefore he came under cover of night so that he would not jeopardize his position and reputation. The word “martyr” is derived from the Greek word martyras which means “witness”. Sometimes, we pay a high price for witnessing for a noble cause: it may lead us to be a martyr, and even to sacrifice our very lives. Faith is not only self-content conviction. It should go through trial to justify its validity. Our Lord Jesus Christ clearly announced in advance that “everyone who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heavens; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven” (Mt 10:32-33). Out of fear or different interests if we hide our belief and convictions, it means our identity is at stake.
- Instead of being flattered by the praises of a high ranking teacher, Jesus offers a crash course and lays down the platform of His teaching: “you must be born anew.” For the sake of the Redemption of mankind, Christ emptied Himself from His glory. It is imperative therefore to be born again to start our journey of faith anew. Using different parables, Jesus teaches us the importance of newness by saying, “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth onto an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins…but new wine is put into fresh wineskins…” (Mt 9:16-17). Saint Paul, through his own experience, reminds us this principal by saying, “You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:21-25). Therefore, the Alpha of being a true follower of Christ is to be born again.
- Immediately a critical—actually a logical—question follows when we talk about the imperative of being born again: How does it happen? After all, as human beings, without exception, we experience one birth and one death. The issue, therefore, is not how it may happen, but are we willing to be born again? The rest is actualized through the Divine completion by the Holy Spirit. Throughout His ministry, before bringing any miracle to completion, our Lord Jesus Christ first asks what the will of the person in need is. Once it has been expressed, then no matter how difficult or impossible the solution might seem, the will of the person is granted abundantly. Simple examples derived from our daily life may help us to understand this teaching. Do we question a surgeon about how he will complete a complicated operation? We trust him. In the same way, when we place our trust in God, He transforms us in our essence with all its parts.
Likewise, following a safe delivery, a mother witnesses a new creation, which she cannot fully explain. By believing in the redemptive love-action of Christ, and by committing ourselves to His care, we enjoy the birth of a new person in us. Let us be reminded that while the first birth was involuntary and unconscious, the second is based upon our own free and conscious will.
- The statement of our Lord, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” is quite factual and fascinating. We, the earthlings, created in the image of God, have been bestowed with incredible grace and potential. Unfortunately, after the fall from grace, we have limited the privileges and blessings granted to us, and we are not able to go beyond the limits of material and earthly borders in order to understand heavenly things. The grant to be born again is an unparalleled opportunity that can only be offered by a loving and caring heavenly Father. Saint Paul, once a zealous Pharisee, initially dedicated himself to eradicate the roots of the early Church. However, once he was confronted by the Risen Lord, and by His grace was born again, Paul boldly could declare that “we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen in temporary” (2 Cor 4:18).
Let us seize hold of this one-time opportunity to be born again, which is granted freely and with unconditional love, to understand and enjoy first the earthly, and then more abundantly the heavenly blessings prepared for us all since the Creation, and praise the All-loving Holy Trinity. Amen.