Sometimes we feel like we don’t know anything; the more we explore, read, study, discover, the less we actually know. Perhaps we agree with the historian who said: Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance. Maybe some of you are in that place today. Perhaps there are things going on in your life that you just cannot explain.
Today’s Gospel story is probably the most well known passage in the New Testament; it contains the most quoted text in the bible and it also scares people because it is about being born again. A phrase that some of our Evangelical friends use as a threat!
So lets see if we can unpack the story and get rid of some of the misconceptions. It is centred on a chap called Nicodemus who thought he knew about religious things.
The name Nicodemus means “peoples’ victory”; he was a member of the Sanhedrin, or the ruling Council in Jerusalem at that time. He’s also Pharisee and a leader of the Judeans, all of which means that Nicodemus was part of the group that didn’t care for Jesus too much. But actually, as I have said before the Pharisees and Jesus had a lot more in common than we think. They were avid students of scripture and people of prayer. The problem for the Pharisees was that they loved the status quo and the religious institution. People like Nicodemus were torn between two worlds. On one hand, Jesus of Nazareth made some good points in his sermons and teachings. But he was just too risky and threatened the dogma and doctrine of their religion.
Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. This is John giving us a clue, in his Gospel: Jesus is the light of the world. John contrasts darkness with light a lot to help us understand. You see, we live in this world, and oftentimes things can seem pretty bleak. We walk in darkness, so to speak, when tragedy, violence, injustice, guilt, and despair overwhelm us. When you try to walk in the dark, you stumble and fall down quite a bit. You cannot see anything. So light, the concept of Jesus as the light of the world breaks through the darkness and illuminates people with love, grace, and truth. Nicodemus came at night. He came from a place of confusion; he stumbled over to Jesus. He came to Jesus with his assumptions and his proud knowledge of what he thought he knew.
Nicodemus was sure that he knew who God was and who Jesus was. After all, he knew the doctrines. But Nicodemus, in the dark, was about to get shocked with some light. Jesus said: No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. That really wasn’t what Nicodemus wanted to hear. First, Jesus was basically telling Nicodemus that his knowledge was suspect. Second, he was teaching Nicodemus something new. Born after being old? How could a person go back inside their mother’s womb?
But Nicodemus still didn’t get it, and that’s obvious, because even though Jesus used the phrase born from above, Nicodemus asked how it was possible to be born again? He got stuck in semantics or the use of words. So Jesus continued: No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” Jesus clarified his point by using common, universal symbols of water and spirit. As any Mother knows, and those of us who have been following the Midwife on the TV, babies are born in water; that is our first birth. Now Jesus wants Nicodemus to understand what being born of the spirit means. Jesus is moving Nicodemus away from his narrow view of life and God to a more mysterious one.
Nicodemus, this Jewish leader and teacher who is sure of himself and his theology now opens up and asks Jesus, “How ?” Jesus seems a bit shocked at his question; “Are you a teacher in Israel and you do not understand these things?”
How could Nicodemus forget all the promises of God revealed through the prophets? What made him cling to his religious ways and his theological certainties, which were devoid of the wind and breath of the Spirit and made him blind to the new ways of God?
More importantly, what makes us blind to the ways of God, and maybe to the new? What makes us cling so desperately to our own ideas and plans, to our form of religion which are too often devoid of the wind and breath of the Spirit? What makes us think that we can be overly pally with an almighty God – and refer to " him upstairs"?
Jesus revealed that He is the one who has come to fulfil the promises of God; He is the one who will give us this new life in the Spirit. This rebirth into the kingdom of God, where we become part of a new people, the people of God, Easter people, His church, His bride. Little by little we are cleansed from our sinfulness, we are called to let go of our old ways, our certainties our securities, to gradually die to our self-centred ways of life and begin to live by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In this conversation with Nicodemus Jesus tells us that if we believe and trust in him we will have eternal life. We will be born from above, or born all over again, not by water this time but by the Holy Spirit. Eternal life does not refer to something we will get after death; it is the life of God given to us today. It is the very life of the Eternal One that is in each of us, flowing through us, given to us as we are born from above through Baptism and through our trust in Jesus.
As we trust Jesus and follow him, we receive the life that is him. As we increasingly recognise the Eternal life, the Holy Spirit within us, we will find ourselves less attracted by the idols of the world. We will begin to see people as Jesus sees them; we will begin to love them as Jesus loves them, and to see and love ourselves as Jesus sees and loves us. Listen again to the post communion prayer that we say each week: ‘ through him we offer you our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice. Send us out in the power of your spirit to live and work to your praise and glory’. In other words, transform us so that we can do things that humanly speaking we cannot do by ourselves:
Love our enemies, forgive others as we have been forgiven, be compassionate, reach out to the unlovely and the marginalized.
It’s not about what we know; it is about what we have been freely given. God has given us life, his spirit and inexplicable love. May we all learn, each day of our lives, to embrace our identity as a child of God, no matter what happens to us. We are born of water and spirit and love.