Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. In this Gospel most everything has some symbolic significance. Words have multiple meanings. Nicodemus coming by night points to where he is in his own spiritual journey. He is in the dark, but he is drawn to the light. He clearly recognizes something real and authentic in Jesus: No one can do the things you are doing, Jesus, unless God is with us. Nicodemus recognizes that Jesus is of God, that he connected to God.
We know this, says Nicodemus. But what Jesus knows is that there’s a lot that Nicodemus does not yet know. What Jesus knows is that Nicodemus, who stands in the text as a representative of so many religious and secular people today, has a major obstacle to overcome in his quest for the truth. And what Nicodemus needs is what so many Christian and non-Christian people need today, namely, a birth from above or a new birth (the Greek word can mean either above or anew). Many Christians, I believe, miss the intent of this story because they literalize this image. It’s just an image, a symbol – as is all religious language. What Jesus is saying that Nicodemus needs, as well as so many of us need, is a spiritual awakening. What we need is spiritual illumination that opens us up to the larger world of the kingdom of God, to the larger world of life in the Spirit.
Jesus says to Nicodemus and to us: “Your physical birth, your birth of flesh, your birth by water does not automatically mean that you will experience life in God’s world.” You see, sisters and brothers, our physical birth, our very existence is by grace and we all have access to God. We are children of God – all of us – by grace whether we know it or not. However, it takes some spiritual illumination and awareness to be able to claim and live out who we are as children of God. And one key to that I’m convinced is our capacity to move beyond confining, limiting, and sometimes diminishing religious beliefs and practices. Unhealthy religion keeps us in the dark. Keep in mind Nicodemus is a Pharisee; he is a religious teacher. Jesus is saying to him: Your physical birth into the covenant people of God does not automatically qualify you to see, to know, to experience life in God’s world. Just because you are a child of God doesn’t mean you are spiritually enlightened or in tune with God’s will.
You see, Nicodemus is approaching Jesus from a place of theological and spiritual privilege – or so he thought. He felt that because he was born into the right people he automatically was right with God, that he automatically was enlightened. Many Christians feel the same way. They think that because they have said the sinner’s prayer, trusted in Jesus for forgiveness of sins, confessed their faith publicly, joined a particular Christian church, or whatever else they have been taught is essential, that having done those things they are right with God. Why change if you are already a Christian and a member of God’s chosen people? Who needs conversion? Like Nicodemus, so many of us today have reduced being right with God to being right – believing the right things, making the right confession, being a member of the right church, and so on.
Nicodemus responds: How can one enter a second time into their mother’s womb and be born? I don’t think as some do that Nicodemus totally misunderstands Jesus. I think he understands what Jesus is saying, and is offended just the way so many of us are offended when we are told that we are not all that, that we are not God’s favorites after all, that we do not have this special or exclusive access to God that others don’t have. There are Christians who get offended at that, because they want to believe that they are God’s chosen. We can’t all be chosen they say.
And just like Nicodemus, when we think that God is exclusive to our group (our church, our faith, our religion, our nation) this becomes a block, a hindrance, an obstacle to our own spiritual transformation. This can keep us from entering more fully into the eternal life of God. And by the way, it’s really important to understand that eternal life in this Gospel is not a reward for believing or doing the right things. It’s a present reality as well as a future reality. Eternal life is life in the Spirit, life in God that we enter into now. It is both now and later. Or we could say, it’s now before it is later.
And what Nicodemus and all of us need to realize is that eternal life, life in the Spirit, life in God is far more wondrous and mysterious than so many of us grasp. Our tendency is to put God in a box, so we can control and manage God, and thus control and manage who God loves and blesses. But we should know that we can’t control God because God is like the wind. God is Spirit (and by the way in the Greek the word for wind and Spirit is the same word). God is like the wind. We cannot control or manage the wind of God, the Spirit of God.
If we think we have all the answers, like the sales lady who tried to sale me an answer Bible – a Bible with all the answers – then our answers become a hindrance to experiencing life in the Spirit. Because God is so much larger and bigger than the box we tend to put God in. Most of us who think we have all the answers are not even asking the right questions.
In the final book of The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis there is scene where a group of dwarfs are huddled together in a tight little knot thinking they are in a pitch black, smelly hole of a stable. In reality, however, they are out in the midst of an endless, grassy green countryside with sun shining and blue sky overhead. Aslan, the Christ figure, is present with them, but they are not able to see him. When Aslan offers them the finest food, they think they are eating spoiled meat scraps and sour turnips. When Aslan offers them the choicest wine, they mistake it for ditch water. Lucy, the most tenderhearted of the Narnian children, feels compassion for them. She tries to reason with them, but to no avail. Finally, frustrated, she cries out, “It isn’t dark, you poor stupid Dwarfs. Can’t you see? Look up! Look round! Can’t you see the sky and the trees and the flowers!” But all they see is pitch blackness.
Why are the Dwarfs so blind? Why can’t they see? The one constant refrain on the lips of the dwarfs, their incessant cry is: The dwarfs are for the dwarfs. They lived by that mantra: The dwarfs are for the dwarfs. Christians are for the Christians. Americans are for the Americans. Our group idolatry, which we mistake as simply being a loyal Christian or American or Democrat or Republican or you name the group, our group idolatry can keep us from seeing the beauty and wonder of God that is right here right now. Our group idolatry which we mistake for group loyalty keeps us from experiencing life in the Spirit.
Nicodemus says, “How can these things be? How is this possible?” He wasn’t taught this in Sunday School. This was not part of his religious training. Jesus gently rebukes him: “You are a highly respected religious teacher and don’t know this? Then you don’t know diddly (my paraphrase). If you don’t understand how God’s Spirit works in the world, on this earth and in human lives, how will you know anything having to do with God’s Spirit?”
And then what follows are two spiritual riddles, two spiritual paradoxes. Jesus says, we don’t grasp spiritual reality by traveling to a different world. We do not need to be transported to a different world. We do not need to go into heaven to understand heavenly, spiritual things. We just need to open our eyes in this world. God is present in human life. And we who follow Jesus should know as well as anyone, because we see in Jesus a definitive model and illustration of what a human being filled with Spirit looks like. Jesus as son of man, as son of humanity, embodies on this earth, in human flesh, what a human being connected to Spirit is like, and this gives a glimpse into the heart and nature of God.
And even in his death, life springs forth. That’s the second riddle – the second paradox. The first disciples discovered that the Messiah’s death somehow carried redemptive and transformative power. This is what the text is referring to when referencing the serpent in the wilderness. In that story in the book of Numbers poisonous serpents invaded the camp of Israel and many were bitten and grew sick unto death. Moses interceded to God and God instructed him to make an image of the serpent, the very instrument of death, mount it on a pole and hold it up before the people. All who looked on the image of the serpent were healed. Like that serpent on a pole, Jesus was lifted up on a cross. And somehow the very instrument of death, becomes the instrument of life. Those who look upon Jesus’ death with spiritual eyes find in it healing and hope.
We have seen this work in our own time in the deaths of MLK, Gandhi, and Oscar Romero. Their deaths ignited and fueled movements of life, movements toward the kind of restorative justice that brings healing and redemption. For followers of Jesus, his death is a death that imparts life. His willingness to die for God’s cause and our good ignites and fuels the healing and redemptive power of God.
What John’s Gospel calls eternal life Luke, in the book of Acts, call “the way.” Eternal life is simply walking in the way of Jesus. And what is the way of Jesus? It is the way of love. For God so loves the world. Now, according to John, the way we Christians participate in the flow of the eternal love and life of God is by believing in Jesus whom God sent. (Keep in mind this is a Christian text written to Christians; it does not address how people of other faiths enter into the flow of divine love.) I believe it is critical in our day and time that we develop a more inclusive understanding of what it means to believe in Jesus. As I have already said this is not about believing the right doctrines or confessing the right words or performing the right rituals. It’s not about being right. To believe in is to trust in and be faithful to. And to trust in and be faithful to Jesus is to trust in and be faithful to the way he lived, the values he embodied, and the instructions he gave. There is nothing magical in the name of Jesus; the name of Jesus simply represents the life he lived and the love he expressed. For us to claim some kind of superiority over other religions is, I believe, to actually distort the basic character of God. God’s love is an inclusive, expansive, universal love. Anyone can enter into the flow of God’s love by trusting in love the way Jesus did and by being faithful to love the way Jesus was. This is what brings new life, namely, loving like Jesus. This is why Jesus says later in John 13 that this is how the world will know that we are his disciples – by our love for one another. Not by faith, but by our love.
Spiritual teacher and writer John Shea says that he knows a man who was born twice from the same woman. One day this man was driving his mother to a funeral. She had been to many funerals – her husband’s, her brother’s, and most of her friends. She was out-surviving everyone she knew. But not without pain and grief. She had lost most of her money, suffered a heart attack, and went through bouts of uncontrollable crying. As they drove along, she was calmly talking about her own wake and funeral. She wanted it done a certain way. Then, quite suddenly (the wind blows where it will) as if this were a decision she just then made, she said to her son, “I’m giving up on fear.” She said it without a lot of emotion. She said it in a matter-of-fact kind of way. Her son let his foot off the gas pedal and looked over at his mother. This was a deeper conversation than he was used to having.
She continued, “Everybody dies. Nothing is left. I’m giving up on fear.” Her son said, “It’s not easy to do. I’ve tried.” What he really was thinking is that it’s impossible to do. He had been haunted by fears – fear of sickness and death, fear of the future, fear of losing his job and his money. In a moment of insight he saw, maybe for the first time, just how fear completely structured his life. He looked again at his mother. She was beaming. He was incredulous.
They never talked about this again, but his mother began to change. She was not afraid to speak her opinion on any topic. Yet she did so without anger or a sense of self-righteousness or grandiosity. Her words were wise and came from the heart. She grew more patient and tolerant of human weakness. Her words and presence were gentle and yet strong. People wanted to be around her. And if you asked them they probably couldn’t tell you what they took away, and yet they left richer than when they arrived. Her son also came around more, not out of obligation but because she had become a fountain and he was a thirsty man. And slowly, it took a little more than nine months this time, but slowly she gave birth to his spirit. Though long ago she brought forth his existence, now she brought forth a new spirit in him. He was born twice from the same woman.
And that is one version of what it looks like to rest and trust in love enough to face our mortality and let go of our fears, our insecurities, our guilt and worries, so that we are free to step into the flow of Divine Love, which is the eternal life of God present in the world right now.
This is what can happen when we trust in and are faithful to the way of love. We can’t control it or manage it. There is much mystery and wonder to the working of the Spirit. But we can be open and receptive to the Spirit, to the way of love, by letting go of our biases, our fears, our claims of superiority, our selfish ambitions, and anything else that would keep us entrapped in our little selves.
You know sisters and brothers, it’s not just that we need to be born again, we need to be born again and again and again and again. We need to be spiritually awakened to the reality of divine love over and over again. As we share in the bread and cup right now in remembrance of Jesus’ death may our hearts be open to receiving a fresh revelation of God’s love to us.
O, God open our hearts and minds to your love. May your Spirit bring awakening to our spirits so that we can see how much you love each one of us, but not just each one of us, but the whole world.