When we hear the phrase “to be born again” today, it calls to mind specific images of conversion for many. But at the heart of it, the story of Nicodemus’ night meeting with Jesus from John chapter three is about recognizing that there is a fundamentally different way of living that does not rely on our own understanding of how the world works. Faith in Real Life discussed that topic this week.
1Now 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.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus 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?” 5 Jesus 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.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus 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. 12 If 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, 15 that 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.”
Much is made of the fact that Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the dark. Many writers seize on this detail to suggest Nicodemus was uncertain about or even a bit ashamed of his seeking Jesus. Nicodemus comes to represent a class of timid Christians—those not quite willing to stand up for their faith. And that might be true. But I think that is rather judgmental and self-righteous. Nicodemus was an educated man and a leader. Jesus was an itinerant rabbi who spent his time with the riff raff. In the social conventions of the time, it would be unseemly for Nicodemus to seek Jesus. And in the charged political climate of the time, it was probably disloyal for a Jewish leader to be seen seeking Jesus. The implication that somehow these concerns should be set aside does not take into account that seeking Jesus is a process. It dichotomizes the faith journey into ‘good’ and ‘less good’ (if not ‘bad’). That is dangerously close to the ‘original sin’ of humans arbitrating what is good and evil.
Most of us are not all that different from Nicodemus. Most of us have had questions we were hesitant to ask. Most of us do not want to be seen in our uncertainties and downright ignorance. It is just as likely that we will sit silent and hope someone else asks. In our day, becoming politically visible—especially in the face of opposing views rarely leads to dialogue. Far more likely, it leads to polarization.
Seekers and believers come in many ways. It is not in our province to proclaim any seeker better or worse. Questions like ‘are you saved?’, ‘have you been born again?’, etc. invite, if not require, public declarations. But public declarations can be statements of faith and they can be self-aggrandizing ‘proofs’ of piety. That is for God to decide. I prefer to emphasize that Nicodemus was seeking rather than suggesting he should be doing a better job of it.
Nicodemus asks questions that flow naturally from last week’s temptation stories. He knows that somehow Jesus must be special—”for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” —but he wants more information. Jesus famously tells him that to understand, he must be born again—or more accurately born from above. On the face of it, Jesus does not make any sense—birth is birth. You don’t get a second try— and Nicodemus asks the obvious, how can that be?
How many times have we sat silent during a scripture reading wondering in our secret heart—”How can this be?” But who wants to expose their lack of understanding and faith—especially in church. Thank God for Nicodemus and anyone like him who is willing to ask.
Last week we spoke of temptations and choices. Implied in those passages is a choice between following our inclinations to protect ourselves and a willingness to place our safety in God’s hands. Last week’s creation story described the human predicament surrounding our vulnerability. The moment humankind realized their vulnerability, they judged it bad and they hid. That is the way of the flesh—protect self.
It just doesn’t work. It is our normal and ordinary reaction but it doesn’t work. It necessarily ends in death and isolation. Nothing humans do to give ourselves safety, importance or meaning can last. If we live long enough, we will lose everything we own and everything we love—and we will be forgotten. And not only that, in our daily living we will cut ourselves off from love. Loving always requires vulnerability but all humans, born of the flesh, fear that vulnerability. We crave love and need attachment but we are very afraid of the vulnerability that goes with it. How can meaning and love depend upon such risks? It is a nasty conundrum and it is counter intuitive. No wonder Nicodemus had trouble grasping it.
But it is how Jesus saves. He was willing to be vulnerable unto death—even death on a cross. And our faith claim is that a willingness to rely upon God leads to eternal life. That is the life of the spirit and it runs directly contrary to every human instinct to protect ourselves. We must see the world in an entirely new way. We must discover a new reality—we must be born again. Born of the spirit means that instead of spending our lives proving we matter and protecting ourselves, we entrust ourselves to God. We are freed from the impossible task of self preservation and freed to view every other human being as a child of God.
But that requires that we face what we fear. Jesus uses a text from Numbers (21:4-9) to illustrate what is required. Fiery snakes were killing the Israelites and God tells them to make a bronze snake with the promise that all who looked upon it would be healed. Psychologically, healing starts with naming and facing what we fear. When the ‘Son of Man is lifted up’, we look directly at the risks of human vulnerability—false accusations, pain and death. Every ordinary definition of the ‘good life’ is turned upside down. Jesus shows us that life has meaning that transcends our deaths. To die with him and to rise with him is to choose an entirely different way to live our lives. We are called to embrace a new life that calls us to face our greatest fears—but one that shows us the pathway to the eternal.
Being ‘born again’ is an event and it is a process. It marks the awareness that there is a way beyond our desire to protect ourselves and changes how we make the daily choices of our lives. In FIRL we tried to make this new way practical. We spent time trying to contrast the choices we make to see just how it is that we are tempted and what it means to be ‘born again.” I used one of my counseling sessions to illustrate.
One client wholly and without apology choses his self interest in life. He stated, “Every penny I steal is a penny I earn.” He does not pay street parking. He will pay the ticket—if he gets one—but figures the odds are in his favor and he will save money. Likewise, in his marriage. His wife always does the laundry because he is confident he can out wait her. He states, “If her tolerance is laundry piled three feet high, mine will be four feet.” His way of life works for him but it requires stealing from others (including his wife) to enhance himself. His way works for him but it hardly leads to collaboration and love. All I can tell him is that I have different values. Everyone operates out of self-interest but if we are born again—if we view life and choices from a spiritual frame, we cannot only choose on that basis. Because we are children of God, we must be mindful that all people are children of God. It is not ok to advance ourselves at their expense.
It is difficult road to Jerusalem. It leads to the death of what we mortals hold most dear. Even Jesus did not particularly like the idea but made his choices from a spiritual plane—no matter how tempting it was to make them on an earthly plane. We need Jesus to show us it was possible —not to doom us to suffering but to show us suffering and death is not the end. As the scripture puts it : “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Nicodemus must have finally figured that out—for the man who sought Jesus in the night is the man who helped bury Jesus and provided him with spices and ointments fit for a king.
No matter how you seek, know and believe there is a ‘more excellent’ way. It is counter intuitive and requires giving up what we ‘know’. It requires us to see the world in an entirely different way. It requires us to follow Jesus to Jerusalem. Let it be so.
PS—Now that I’ve written this it occurs to me that the very going to Jesus marked a willingness to be vulnerable. Nicodemus could not have known it, but he was beginning his second birth.