Gospel: John 3:1-21
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ 3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ 4Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ 5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 8The 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.’ 9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 ‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’
To be born is to be absolutely dependent. It is to begin to learn life and language from scratch. To be born is to be profoundly ignorant of the world, more lost than we can know. Being born demands we find a new myth.
It is impossible for a human being to live without a guiding life narrative ... we are incapable of living without them. (Gordon Atkinson)
To be reborn — born from above — is a kind of dying. William Temple said of Nicodemus that he
has inherited a great tradition, for he was a Pharisee; he has tested it in the experience of life; he has conformed to it his habits of conduct, speech, thought and feeling. How can he break away from all this and begin again? It is as hard as it would be literally to return to his mother's womb and be reborn. (pp44)
Nicodemus is sometimes treated as a foil, or dramatic prop, for Jesus. But when we see in him the foolish Jewish leader, it is testimony to our own anti-Semitism. Nicodemus is, rather, testimony to the fact that even if we are learnèd, even if we are listed among the rulers of our roost, we need to be reborn. In John's Gospel, he is a great figure of hope for us, for fully embedded in his tradition, part of a leadership which, in the main, did reject Jesus, he is not only able to look up at Jesus upon the cross— it is by this that we shall live, John says — he also climbs the cross and carries down Jesus' body. Will we be as thoroughly reborn?
Nicodemus comes by night; he is "in the dark." Lindars says "Nicodemus' nocturnal visit is a search for truth in which he himself will be exposed." (He is referring to the imagery of verses 19-21.) Will we allow ourselves to be exposed, or will we prefer to remain safe in the dark?
Among the first things to be exposed by the imperative for rebirth, is our ignorance of spirit. Nicodemus has recognised Jesus as someone sent from God. He calls him Rabbi, a term of honour. And, clearly, he and Jesus are talking about the Kingdom of God: you can only see it by being reborn, Jesus says. And Nicodemus, well aware he is "in the dark," issues a flat challenge to Jesus: is this real, or are you hiding behind empty words? Do you really know what you are talking about? How can we humans even know what spirit is?
Jesus says he does know. In fact, you not only see the Kingdom of God, you enter the Kingdom of God. It's no idea or theory. It's not something you merely observe. You enter by being born of water and spirit.
But what is spirit? I often say my culture is spiritually illiterate; we do not remotely understand the spiritual imagery of other cultures, or even of our own past. Perhaps the fact that we so often speak of other cultures as "primitive," indicates not only that we are illiterate, but that we are in denial of spirit. Gordon Atkinson says in his essay that
it's not just that we desire myths. It's more than that. We are incapable of living without them. Human beings cannot abide a metaphysical vacuum.
Yet much of what I read suggests that "the metaphysical vacuum" which so undoes us is really just an evolutionary and biological artefact we will outgrow. Yet rather than outgrow it, we have sought to fill it with things, and the meltdown of the West suggests that things don't work.
Spirit is the meta physical. It is the reality that is more than gross matter. Spirit affirms that we are not merely meat machines. Spirit is not a hangover of our naivety; it is the totality in which we live. "Not a component part of humanity, but the influence which directs the whole human once reborn." (Lindars pp153) Christian theology says that we are creations within spirit, subservient beings in some sense, and not our own masters.
Spirit is what we seek to describe with art and poetry, and what we seek to live in, and by, with acts of compassion. It is the bit of us which scientific formulae simply cannot encompass. It is the greater reality in which we aspire to become human. We are Homo sapiens; only God is human, as Walter Wink said.
God is HUMAN … It is the great error of humanity to believe that it is human. We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness. Only God is human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness — which is to say, we are capable of becoming human. (Walter Wink Just Jesus, My Struggle to Become Human pp 102)
William Temple said that "being born of water required us openly to become an adherent of John's revival, the mission of repentance ... but that is not enough." There is a choosing of how to live, we can choose baptism, but it only takes us so far. To be born of the spirit is something of a different order.
There is a radical discontinuity between the new world and the old. [A] religious system ... cannot emerge into the Kingdom of God. [Humanity] as it is cannot evolve into it, for its continuity is in [its] own history and in [its] own sin. (Douglas Webster pp21)
There is a break, a birth, a new beginning. This is not from ourselves. We are, if you like, baptised into it, thrown off balance, drowned. "The spirit, like the wind is out of our control and comprehension. We have to yield to both." (Douglas Webster pp21)
Gordon Atkinson's Negev Manifesto provides a context for understanding this. He notes that, born into our parents' "guiding life narrative," we eventually have to leave home. Many of us "pretty much grow into a second generation of our parents." But others seek a new narrative,
and here's an interesting thing: most of these seekers will simply adopt some other packaged worldview they find along the way.
If we find a religious package which 'works' for us, it will likely tell us what spirit is — it may even give us words to say in order to be born again! But what if we're tormented by passages like John 3? What if we hunger for spirit— something unpackaged, which we sense is there but which we can't quite define, or find?
What do you do if you just can't stomach the packaged narratives and your own creations are too ugly to live in? … I'm a wandering soul in the wilderness.
Gordon calls this wilderness the Negev— "You have to go through it to find the Promised Land." I think "the Negev" is often the path for being born from above, or born of the spirit; and we are not as lost as we feel. Yet if we are not lost, then we are not on a path of being reborn, but are only playing with words.
The old stories say that in the Negev wilderness, the Israelites were being bitten by serpents, and dying. Moses placed a poisonous serpent, cast in bronze, up on a pole, "and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live." (Numbers 21:1-9) The Israelites
received a symbol of deliverance to remind them of your law's command.
For the one who turned towards it was saved, not by the thing that was beheld,
but by you, the saviour of all. (Wisdom Chapter 16:5-7)
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever trusts/believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:14)
To look at the serpent on the pole was to return to look upon the thing that was killing you. It was to look at your death being held over you. To look up to Jesus was the same: Rome held the cross of death over the people of Jesus' time.
We Protestants have an empty cross in our churches. It symbolises resurrection, we say, but this symbol also allows us look up at a nicely sanitised view of death, whereas John says we live by looking upon the crucified Christ.
Dostoevsky said of Holbein's Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, "Some people may lose their faith looking at that picture!" To be born of spirit is to risk this, it is to look unflinchingly upon our mortality, to recognise our absolute poverty, and to stand alone before his death, and our own, and trust. And we will live, he says.
Is this real, or is it empty words to hide behind; just one more sophistry to deny our death, and to deny our limited agency as frightened, driven animals?
John's only answer is that he speaks of what he knows, and of what the church knows. There is no proof, no formula. And us? We can run no experiments— life goes on; we do not get to repeat it again at the end, for another try! There is only trust in the inkling which sometimes drives us out into the Negev, only trust that what turned our stomachs about the easy answers to life, is real.
God so loved the world, John says, that he gave Jesus, the son who has, like the chosen sons in his culture, all the authority of God— he gave Jesus so that trusting him we may not perish. God loves the world. God does not seek to condemn it. Our trust is true; looking on him, elevating him as the way to God— his being lifted up holds a double meaning— means we will live.
But is this real? How can I see this? What must I do? Where will I find landmarks in the wilderness?
How does a baby know if the things he imagines at the bottom of the garden are there? I know quite a lot about flesh— about the material life, and about the life which is not focussed on God, but which loves darkness. I know that much of what I have seen simply is imagination. In fact, some of that stuff which people called spiritual, was the stomach turning which drove me out of the package holydays offered by church.
But the other things I see? I am so little, so ignorant, so barely born, that I can hardly describe what I am seeing, let alone say if it is "true."
I say to my congregation that if we trust our lives to God by being compassionate — if we make ourselves vulnerable, and put our lives at risk by loving others— then we are doing two things:
We are beginning to look upon the Christ lifted who was lifted up. We are looking at, and joining, a way of living which diminishes us, which makes us vulnerable, which could cost us our lives. And this vulnerability can come home terribly quickly. I once tore up my shirt to stop the bleeding of an accident victim. Older and wiser now, I understand the risk I took. Such compassion makes us, but if HIV or Hepatitis C comes with the compassion, it will nail us down.
Compassion places us in the way of spirit. It means we stand where spirit will wash over us. We do not get to choose what the Spirit may give us, or how it will touch us! Being brought into the light sometimes seems only to mean that I see misery and suffering more clearly; perhaps my good deeds are being shown to be done in God, as John said, but the darkness feels like a more comfortable place to be; even a place to hide from life.
Yet something has been done to me. On my better days, I know something in me is more alive. And as soon as I stop the compassion which costs me, as soon as I seek to stay safe, I start to shrivel. I become unwell.
I feel like a toddler splashing in the shallows, a bit blown about by the wind. But it is real.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Gordon Atkinson Negev Manifesto
William Temple Readings in St. John's Gospel (First and Second Series) MacMillan 1955
Barnabas Lindars The Gospel of John (Eerdmans 1972)
Douglas Webster Good News in John (Fontana 1974)
Walter Wink Just Jesus, My Struggle to Become Human pp 102
Previously on One Man's Web
John 3:1-17 - Don't believe in signs
John 3:1-17 - Doctrine for the rest of us
John 3:1-17 - Lift up your horizons
John 3:1-17 - The Dummies Guide to the Trinity
John 3:14-22 - Standing in the Good Wind
John 3:1-17 - The Humiliation and Healing of Nicodemus