Nicodemus comes to Jesus “by night.” When Nicodemus later appears at Jesus’ tomb John makes it a point to remind us of this: “Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came” (John 19:39). Is Nicodemus afraid of the ramifications of being seen with Jesus? Perhaps. Or perhaps the Gospel is providing us with a portrait of what takes place when an insider, a church member, a pastor comes face to face with Jesus, “the light of all people” (John 1:4). When read through this lens the story of Nicodemus’ darkened encounter with Jesus can open the reading community to an as yet unimagined future.
One of the gifts, and burdens, of this text is its familiarity. For many the words “born again” have become a slogan, a badge of honour, a tool to distinguish insider from outsider and saved from lost. It means that the pastoral challenge in faithfully hosting this text is, at least, twofold. On the one hand, those who are confident in their understanding of the passage because they claim a born again experience will benefit from an invitation to have eyes opened all over again. On the other hand, those who have closed their ears to the text after too many “Have you been born again?” inquisitory questions may be surprised by what they discover upon being invited into a close reading of the narrative.
Nicodemus, the religious leader, assumes that he is enlightened: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God” (John 3:2). But Jesus points to his blindness: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:3). Nicodemus is in the dark. The transformative voltage that flows through this text puts at risk the status quo of any reader, or reading community, who comes to it assuming sight. Seeing the kingdom of God and, therefore, seeing how one’s citizenship is to be lived in the new world of God’s rule will - says Jesus - require a re-birth, a radical break, a new identity.
This is, of course, easier said than done. Those who are prepared to take the risk of a new birth are, most often, those who admit that they are in the dark, in trouble, lost. This is the reason that Twelve Step groups begin with an admission of powerlessness and a turning over of life to a higher power. Sobriety will require something other than simply trying harder. It will require a radical re-orientation of life “from above.” Perhaps such insight into our own blindness is the first sign of rebirth.
But Nicomedus doesn’t get it. He is a literal reader. Metaphors are beyond him. He wants to know how it is biologically possible to re-enter the womb of his mother. The text assumes that Jesus is not easy to understand. His way of seeing and of speaking confronts our assumptions and expectations. It is not easy for a religious leader like Nicodemus to understand Jesus. This is oddly re-assuring. As church leaders we, too, often struggle to understand the gospel. Sometimes we simply continue to trumpet our mis-understandings rather than prepare ourselves for the new life Jesus intends. We assume that our re-birth to newness has already taken place when we are, even now, standing alongside Nicodemus in the dark.
Jesus moves the conversation from the question of seeing to that of entering the kingdom of God: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5). It is one thing to see what is needed. It is another thing to do it. How often this is true for the church. We see the way of Jesus. We hear his command to forgive. We are drawn to his walk with the poor, the outcast, the marginalized. But we find old habits, family patterns, and cultural norms beyond our power to break and change. We see, but cannot dare to enter, the new world that is the kingdom of God.
Entry into the kingdom of God requires, says Jesus, birth of water and Spirit. A Gospel that has begun with Genesis–“In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1)–now reminds its readers of how God begins again. It begins with the wind/spirit/breath of God sweeping over the face of the waters (Gen. 1:2). The waters are storm waters of trouble. They are like the waters of the Red Sea that God holds back so that the people can pass through. They are like the storm waters of Galilee that Jesus’ calms in the face of the disciples’ fear. They are like the baptismal waters in which, says Paul, we drown to our old way of life and rise to walk with Christ in “newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). Rebirth –be it personal or congregational, cultural or political–requires a break, an ending, a risky journey to new life.
No wonder, says Jesus, that this birth must come from above. This is not the kind of transformation that can be programmed or taught. Its source and activity is mysterious–as unpredictable as the wind. Nicodemus is not told what to do in order to be reborn because rebirth is beyond his control. It is the inexplicable, incredible gift of God.
In this regard, rebirth is no different from birth itself. It is beyond our control. It comes through the waters of the darkened womb. It is reliant upon the divine gift of breath/spirit. The eyes to see, and the power to enter, the world we are born into are given to the newborn freely, as gifts. Could it be that the personal rebirth we long for, the rebirth of the dying church we know and of the troubled world we inhabit, is the great gift of God in Jesus Christ for those with eyes to see?
- Edwin Searcy (from "Feasting on the Gospels - John, Volume 1")