May 31, 2015 John 3: 1-9
Rev. Catherine Purves
You may well be thinking that Nicodemus wasn’t exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer. How could he not understand what Jesus was trying to say to him? Why did Nicodemus insist on taking everything literally, to the point of making absurd statements about crawling back into his mother’s womb in order to go through the birth process again? Was the idea of rebirth and of being born of the Spirit really all that hard to grasp? We do know that Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews, so he was no slouch when it came to matters of religion. Maybe this is not quite as simple as we might suppose. Maybe Nicodemus is sharper than he appears, even if he can’t quite follow what Jesus was saying about being born again. Or, maybe we’re not as smart as we think we are.
If we look at the rather strange conversation that Jesus had with Nicodemus, it looks like the two of them are speaking at cross purposes. Having come under cover of darkness, Nicodemus begins by acknowledging that Jesus is a rabbi, a teacher, that he has come from God, and that he is a wonder worker. “No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God,” he says to Jesus. Nicodemus was thoughtful and perceptive. He was intrigued by Jesus, and he had worked out all of that on his own. We might think that he was well on his way to becoming a disciple, which was quite remarkable, considering that he was a Pharisee.
But Jesus’ response to that excessive praise is rather surprising. Instead of acknowledging that what Nicodemus saw in him was true, Jesus criticized him for what he couldn’t see. “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” This is where the misunderstanding begins. Nicodemus got the “being born” part, and that’s what he latched onto. But that other phrase, “from above,” was ambiguous, and purposefully so, because Jesus was saying more than one thing.
The Greek word, anothen, has no English equivalent, so the Bible translators were stuck and had to resort to footnotes. Born anothen could mean any one of three different things or perhaps all three things at once. It could mean “again” or it could mean “anew” or it could mean “from above”. So Jesus could be referring to this birth in terms of time (again) or degree (anew), or place (from above). No wonder Nicodemus was confused. And perhaps we are now confused too.
Christians often throw around the term “born again” rather carelessly. For some, it becomes a kind of credential. You aren’t a real Christian unless you are born again. What is generally implied by that label is that a “real” Christian has to have had a life-changing experience, a conversion. A decision to follow Christ must be made, and you should be able to pinpoint a time and date when you were “born again”. That time, that moment of personal decision is all important. But is that what Jesus was saying to Nicodemus?
Other Christians might emphasize the huge difference that Jesus has made in their lives. They feel born anew. It is a question of degree. Everything is different. They look at the world in a new way. What they “see” is not this broken and struggling world, but the kingdom of God unfolding. They feel like totally new people in Christ. The degree of the change is huge and it not only affects them as individuals. It is a change that is perceived in the community of the church, and there is a genuine hope that this change will come to encompass the whole of creation as Christ’s kingdom and rule are finally established. Those who are born anew in this way often have a deep desire to work for and to be a part of that kingdom. This sounds closer to what Jesus may have been trying to say to Nicodemus, but it was too difficult for him to grasp. Perhaps it is a struggle for us too.
The third possible meaning of the Greek word anothen relates not to time (again) or degree (anew), but to place (from above). What does it mean to be born from above? Here the emphasis is not on something we do, a decision we make for Jesus at a particular time. And it is not on the extent of the change that is taking place in our lives or in our world, the total newness of this birth. Here, a different claim is being made about where this new birth is coming from and how it must take place. It is “from above”. It is an act of God.
When Nicodemus obviously doesn’t understand, Jesus tries to focus his attention on this vital aspect of seeing and entering the kingdom of God. “Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus says, “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” This clarifies the other two meanings of anothen for us. It is a birth by water, which for the readers of John’s Gospel would have been a clear reference to baptism. Poor Nicodemus probably didn’t get that, but we can see that while an individual’s time of decision for Jesus is significant, this birth is not just an individual thing, because we are always born into the body of the church through baptism. Being born again is not a personal claim to fame. It is a recognition that we are together part of the body of Christ. It is a corporate birth by water.
Secondly, we are born of the Spirit. This is not just a question of degree, but of kind. We do strive to live entirely new lives and to work for the transformation of this world, but the energy and impetus for this birth does not come from us. It is from the Spirit. That would have completely confused Nicodemus, and perhaps we are equally mystified by such language. Jesus even acknowledges that it is difficult to grasp. But he insists that, “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” We can’t create new lives for ourselves through our decisions. We can’t build up the church or safeguard its future through our efforts. We can’t bring in the kingdom. Only the Spirit can do all that.
But the movement of the Spirit is like the wind, Jesus says. In fact, the biblical word for Spirit and wind are one in the same: pneuma in Greek, and in Hebrew, ruah. The Spirit and the wind blow where they will. They are uncontrollable, mysterious, powerful, and free. We can see where the Spirit and the wind have been, we can feel their power, but we can’t anticipate where they are going or what they might do. To be born of the Spirit is to be humbled and changed by a force that we cannot understand and can only worship. “How can these things be?” Nicodemus asks Jesus. His awe is totally appropriate. To be born of the Spirit is a truly amazing thing.
Today we are celebrating the sacrament of baptism and we are rejoicing in the confirmation of three young women. This is a day of beginnings, a day of rebirth. And, above all, it is a day when the Spirit of God will act to transform lives and to build up our community of faith in wholly mysterious ways. Let us praise God for this glimpse of his kingdom and for the promise that the Spirit will continue to move in and among us as God’s purposes are fulfilled in all of our lives.