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A neighbor of the church I serve as pastor has this bumper sticker on their car. It’s not the first time I’ve seen it. The message is quite a strong rejection of the born-again culture, or the Christian evangelical push for people to find Jesus and to then find peace. I too am a bit bristled by such language and comments. But my reaction is usually based more upon the context and the who is asking then just around the words.
The text proposed for this second Sunday of Lent relates the encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus. It’s in their discussion that Jesus talks of being born again, or born from on high. The words he uses mean both expression simultaneously. They are a word play or a double entendre. Confused, Nicodemus reacts to them literally while Jesus pushes and invites him to go deeper and farther. It’s not unlike this cute cartoon that has made the rounds of social media forums, and is again circulating around Facebook.
Nicodemus. This is one of two times we see him in the gospel of John. The other is in John 19:38-42 when we learn that he, with Joseph of Arimathea, bury Jesus after his crucifixion. A member of the Pharisees, he is of the religious group that interpreted faith in the Eternal as a precise zeal for living out the complexities and details of the Torah and the 613 laws it purports. Why does he come to find Jesus at night? Is it in hope that the darkness will conceal his action that could be interpreted as fraternizing with the enemy? Is the dark as symbol of the time of evil, ignorance and untruth? Is he ashamed of his interest in Jesus as a teacher? It’s what his earnest questioning of Jesus and patient listening point to. What does he understand, or hear Jesus say? What is Jesus telling him – and by extension through the text: us?
This passage contains the most often cited and reiterated Bible passage. John 3:16. Do you know it by heart? And do you get what verses 13-15 are talking about? They point back to the story of the Bronze Snake in Numbers 21:4-9. The people who looked on the snake were saved, delivered and healed. How does that relate to the Son of Man being lifted up? This is why the Rod of Ascelpius, often mistaken with the Caduceus symbol of 2 intertwined snakes, is associated with pharmacies and medical help.
Jesus explains the mystery of God’s presence by talking about the wind, pneuma in Greek. Did you know that word also means spirit, as in the Holy Spirit, and breath, as in the breath God gives at creation (Genesis 2:7). What is he saying? Is it what we usually hear when we quote John 3:16?
This text is also pointing backwards to the prologue of the Gospel of John, the introductory statements made before launching into the retelling of the life and event of Jesus of Nazareth.
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
It’s surely about more than just one verse that’s easy to paint on your checks or on a poster board to hold up in an end zone. In our desire for simplicity, we quite possibly reduce the scripture making it say something it doesn’t, rather than letting the truth for which it’s a vehicle enlighten us.
Questions for Reflection:
*What word, phrase or image strikes you in the passages?
* How do you experience light and darkness, faith in public and faith in private?
*What does it mean to you to be born again, or from on high?
*How does the story of Nicodemus’ spiritual pilgrimage intersect with your life story and faith journey?
*How have you found Jesus? Or did he find you? Is it a once in a lifetime existential journey, or a daily practice? Why?
If you’re interested in seeing this text acted out – pretty much verbatim of the scriptural passage here’s a clip from the movie “The Gospel of John”