John 3:1 – “Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night…”
If I were to have a conversation with Jesus, I think I would also choose some time at night. Night conversations have a way of having a different quality about them than anything that can be discussed during the day. Some of my best and most meaningful conversations with family and friends over the years have come well after the sun has gone down. At seminary many of my best times of learning happened during a late evening discussion group that a few of us organized that met a couple times a month. After the classes for the day were finished, after supper, after we had done everything else we had to do for that day, we got together and talked about whatever essay or author, or idea was most interesting to us at that time. There was a certain level of openness and depth about these night conversations that couldn’t be matched with interactions during the day. Maybe less distractions, less inhibitions. In the last couple of months Eve has started wanting to be rocked to sleep again. She’s usually fairly preoccupied with her important work that she has to do around the house during the day to be very cuddly, so this is a special time of conversation through singing love songs and talking about what all happened that day. At their best, night conversations get us speaking and listening in ways that are hard to achieve otherwise.
In today’s gospel reading we are witnesses to a night conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus. Nicodemus comes ready to discuss ideas and thoughts and theology, and Jesus answers by singing him a love song. This conversation is our introduction to this fairly mysterious character. Nicodemus appears only in John’s gospel, and shows up three times: at the beginning, middle, and end of the story. The last time we hear from him, in chapter 19 after Jesus has died, John takes it upon himself to remind us about this first encounter with Jesus as he re-introduces him as “Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night.” Commentators suggest a whole variety of reasons for what this detail could mean. Those who come down against Nicodemus see him as a shadowy figure, not to be trusted, who won’t be seen with Jesus in the light of day. More favorable perspectives see Nicodemus as an honest seeker, needing to come at a time when he can have a one on one audience with Jesus away from the crowds, and ask his own questions. All we know at the beginning is that he is a previously unknown leading Pharisee who comes to Jesus at night.
John 3:3 – “Jesus answered him, ‘Verily truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’”
After Nicodemus begins the conversation, Jesus comes back with this line. This is interestingly, the only place in John’s gospel where Jesus uses the phrase “kingdom of God.” Kingdom language is at the very center of all the other gospels, with Jesus offering out metaphor after metaphor of what the kingdom of God is like – it’s like a seed thrown out and landing on all different types of soil; it’s like a tiny seed, the smallest seed you can imagine, that grows into a tree for birds to live in; it’s like yeast, it’s like hidden treasure, it’s like a great banquet where the master sends the servants into the alleys and back roads to invite people to come and feast. But in John, and only here, spoken to Nicodemus, seeing and entering the kingdom of God is like a pregnancy and birth process, being born from above.
The Greek word anothen, translated here “from above,” can also mean “again,” and this is where we get the phrase “born again,” as in “I’m a born-again Christian.” It’s a phrase that’s taken on a life of its own these last few decades with it becoming locked up in a particular ideological perspective, even to the point of becoming a political fault line about where you stand on certain issues. For those not fitting neatly into that profile, the tendency is to shun any kind of identification with being that kind of Christian. And so our ability to hear what Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus gets run through this filter and we get warning bells and danger signs about having much interest in what’s being said. The fact that John 3:3, along with John 3:16, is what is written on the sign of that fan who manages to make it to every football game and get prime seating right behind the field goal posts, only further convinces us that surely, this is not a verse we wish to have much to do with.
But we have here one of the most beautiful images in all of Scripture for what it means to undergo spiritual transformation. A God with a womb, who would have us be shaped and nurtured inside her, and then born again, from above, with divine DNA inside our spirit.
John 3:7-8 “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
This time when Jesus says “You must be born from above,” the “you” is plural. “Ya’ll, you guys, must be born again.” Nicodemus, is, after all, representing more than himself. He’s a religious leader, in this case a leader of the Pharisees, a group with a certain identity and certain boundaries to keep about who they are and who they aren’t. And, like any group, religious or otherwise, there is the tendency to get stuck in that identity. To allow that identity to make one more narrow and closed off rather than broad and open. It is this very stuckness that being born from above remedies. To be born from above, to be collectively remade in the womb of God, is to become, by nature, the kind of creatures who does not fit easily into any kind of category that we can create. Jesus portrays being born from above as making one not more predictable, but much less predictable. About as predictable as the wind.
I liked the picture that Jane gave us last week during the children’s story of Lent being a time when we shed off those extra things that we’ve acquired so we can be better available to God. Like Jesus in the wilderness getting down to the bare essentials of life. This John passage looks like it’s asking us to keep working on that. To become unburdened to the point that we are actually able to be moved by the wind of the Spirit. A little less like a fortress dug in and settled in the ground and a little more like a leaf that gets blown around whichever direction the wind is going. Unpredictable, not following any set patterns. Not falling so easily into all those categories that are supposed to control our behavior and tell us who we are. Born from above.
John 3:9 – Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”
These are the last words we hear from Nicodemus in this conversation. A fair question, probably filled with a combination of confusion, unbelief, and curiosity about how these things could actually come to be. The phrase is strangely familiar with the words that came out of the mouth of another gospel character who had just received a birth announcement. The young Mary, after being told that her womb would be directly involved in the formation of one who would bring mercy and justice to the world, also answered with “How can this be…”
How does one go about being born from above, reformed within the womb of God? Has anyone ever understood the pregnancy and birth process? How does it all happen? Who’s in charge of all the processes going on in the Great spirit helping give shape and size to a much our much lesser, much more frail spirits? Nicodemus is faced with the reality of being given a metaphor that isn’t meant to be intellectually grasped, but spiritually and psychologically experienced, the way we are affected by a love song sung to us. “For God so loved the world,” Jesus will go on to say to Nicodemus. Where does Nicodemus go from here, once his time with Jesus has come to a close and he’s left with these new images and this new melody starting to work their way into his consciousness?
John can be a little heavy on theology and a little light on narrative, but after the night conversation we do get two more glimpses of this person who is beginning to show signs of what it might look like to be moved, if ever so slightly, by the wind that blows wherever it chooses.
The next time we hear from Nicodemus, at the end of chapter 7, he is back with his people, in his role as religious leader, no doubt carrying out many of his same duties. It’s an occasion when his peers are unanimously calling for the arrest of Jesus. The winds of thought and opinion, in other words, are all blowing rather firmly in the same unified direction. The authorities had gone so far as to proclaim everyone who disagreed with them cursed, ignorant of justice and what the law required of them. Into this, Nicodemus is moved to speech with words that cut an entirely different direction. He offers an alternate interpretation of the law, one that includes the element of mercy, noting that the law provides that they first must give a hearing to find out if the one being charged is really being charged justly. It’s a small gesture, and he gets beat back in his place rather quickly, but it is an occasion of allowing himself to be moved by a new kind of spirit that blows in a different direction than the prevailing wisdom around him.
The last time we hear of Nicodemus it is toward the end of John’s gospel, and Jesus has died. He says no more words, but joins with Joseph of Arimathea helping perform the proper burial customs for Jesus’ body. Given that all the other disciples had fled and abandoned Jesus, this small loving act is another way that Nicodemus was showing signs of undergoing a re-formation of his being, moved by a gracious Spirit that was helping redefine him as a person.
That’s were we leave Nicodemus, or where he leaves us. Having an encounter with Jesus where we’re told what we need to see the Kingdom of God and then having a lifetime to work out what all that requires of us. Puzzled, and maybe a little put off with this born again talk, but also a little curious that there might be something to it that we haven’t understood or experienced. If Lent is a journey out of the depths of darkness into the light of God then it leaves us right in the middle of that journey, pretty much a mixed bag, with plenty of contradictory winds blowing us in all directions. And this is the very place where God delights to meet with us, as God loves us into becoming those little children who have been born from above.