My father died some years ago, but if you had ever met him you would know immediately that he was my father. There could be no doubt really. I have his nose, his lack of height, his crinkly hair and his eyes. And if you had known us both well, you would soon see that the resemblance wasn’t just physical. I am like him in temperament too – the same impatience, the same inclination to perform, the same kind of shyness hidden as bravado, the same love of adventure and the same longing for home. His spirit is in me and there’s nothing I can do about it really. And mostly there’s not much I want to do about it. I am his daughter and part of his life is in me. The same breath that when I was a child made those rude noises on my stomach so that I would giggle and squeal, that same breath breathes in me today. I am my father’s daughter. I was born in the naval hiring that went with his job, while he counted the tomatoes in the greenhouse and my mother held the midwife’s hand and pushed me into the world.
Perhaps you were as struck as I was by the news story that emerged last year about Justin Welby, when he discovered that his father was not the man who had brought him up but was Anthony Montague Browne. It was the kind of story you could hardly make up. But the most striking thing of all was Justin Welby’s response to what had happened. He said, ‘There is no existential crisis, and no resentment against anyone. My identity is founded in who I am in Christ.’ At that moment I realised I could at last forgive Justin Welby for not being Rowan Williams. He spoke with such bold and certain clarity about who we are as Christian people. He seemed to understand, as Nicodemus didn’t really, that who we are born of in the fleshly sense, doesn’t define us completely, that we have another kind of birth and origin too, a birth ‘from above’, and that this birth might shape us even more. I am my father’s daughter, but I am also a daughter of God, part of the family of Christ, and that birth, the birth that was celebrated at my baptism, is really now the place where my spirit is being shaped and made. I am born, as our Gospel reading put it, ‘from above’, or born again we might say. The spirit, the breath that I take in, is not only the spirit of my earthly father, but of my heavenly Creator. And if I can breathe deeply enough, and if God wills it, I am being born anew and filled with a Holy Spirit, so that there might even be moments when people look at me and see something of the spirit of the one who made me, and find even in me something like the image of God. And that is an amazing thought.. but it is what the Gospel, and this story, promise.
John’s Gospel makes a lot of this birth ‘from above’. Unlike Matthew and Luke, John doesn’t begin his Gospel with a genealogy. He isn’t so interested in who Joseph, or even Mary, were and who they were all descended from. He almost seems to suggest that that way leads to a blind alley. The important thing about Jesus, and the important thing about us too, is not who our ancesters were, not who our earthly fathers or mothers were, but whose spirit breathes in us now. It’s not so important who gave birth to our flesh or who bequeathed us that strange look we have when we are deep in thought, or that tendency to be artistic or those long thighs, but where we get our spirit, the life force in us, the values we hold and the love we show. It is our birth ‘from above’ that really counts. So don’t worry if you’re not in Debretts. Don’t be disturbed if it turns out that your parents were not who you’ve always thought they were. Don’t define yourself by your genes or your ancestors, by the story of your body and your family. But let God’s spirit be in you and see what God will make of you.
I once met someone who been a missionary in Madagascar. He told me that he lived there in world of spirits. It was common to speak of someone being possessed by a spirit. This was everyday language. But he explained to me that it helped him understand the Gospels, for they come from a world like this too. And he said that in Madagascar everyone believes that everyone has a spirit in them – and the Christians are no different. But what makes the Christians distinctive is that they long to be possessed, to be filled, to be brought to life, by the holy Spirit, by the very breath of God. They value their ancestors and remember them in ways we have forgotten even how to, but for them the spirit for which they pray is the spirit of the living God. They want to be born from above.
I’m sure that you have many times watched TV dramas where they anxiously waiting for a baby to take its first breath. Perhaps you have had such an experience yourself – those moments that seem to last forever, until, if all goes well, the baby’s chest draws in breath and lets out a great cry. The Gospel of John seems to say that, even if we breathe easily in the flesh, that there come moments in all our lives when we will long to gasp and draw into ourselves the breath of God. There is more to life than just drawing in air and repeating what human beings, even the ones we love most, have done and been before us. There is a different kind of birth that waits for us, when we shall draw into ourselves the holy breath of God, and learn, perhaps slowly and over time, to let our bodies beat to a different rhythm and our living find a new pattern and our hearts to live a fuller kind of love.
I know I will always be my father’s daughter. But even more than that I am now the daughter of a loving God, who has promised to teach me how to breathe in time with love. At the Eucharist I take Christ’s body into mine, with the promise that I can become more like him, the brother who was given for the life of the world. At this service I find myself with those now my family, within the household of faith. I know that I, with you, am being born from above. Being born is not an easy process and is often a painful one. But I am confident that through this new birth I am being welcomed into life – even more fully and more completely than I was on that day when the tomatoes were counted and the midwife’s hand was bruised with squeezing. And I hope and pray that you will recognise in me something of the image of the God who made us all, as I am glad to see before me my brothers and my sisters, for we breathe the same breath of a loving God. Amen.