John 3:1-17 (18-21)
Poor old Nicodemus. He was a supporter of those who followed the Way of Jesus. Though Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin religious council, instead of piling on with the rest of the Hebrew religious establishment in their efforts to shut Jesus up, he used his influence to help ensure that Jesus’ message got a fair hearing (e.g., John 7:50). And it was Nicodemus who, along with another Pharisee named Joseph of Arimathea, anointed and buried Jesus’ body after his crucifixion. So, Nicodemus was more than just a smart, well-connected supporter of the Jesus movement, he was a friend. And yet, in our Gospel passage today, Jesus schools him as if he was a dunce sitting at the back of the class… finally asking him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Is that any sort of way to treat a friend?
And it’s not as if Jesus had been speaking all that plainly: “You must be born from above,” he said… and “the wind blows where it chooses.” That’s pretty esoteric stuff, even for those of us with “20/20 hindsight,” and two-thousand years of Biblical commentary at our disposal. But Jesus was always hardest on those he was closest to, wasn’t he? Just ask Simon Peter. Nicodemus had come to Jesus by night—so he wouldn’t be seen by his friends and colleagues—so that he could pick Jesus’ brain in private about all of the “supernatural” stuff he was able to do. Nicodemus was a supporter and a friend, but he wasn’t yet a follower… and his un-spoken question was whether or not Jesus was the Messiah. I’m thinking that a simple “yes” or “no” would have suited Nicodemus just fine, but that wasn’t Jesus’ style. Jesus knew that folks are always looking for easy answers—but he also knew that it was better for people to first see and understand what was happening right in front of them… so they could come to a conclusion on their own. It’s a little like the time John the Baptizer sent messengers to Jesus asking, “was he the one?” or should he and his followers be waiting for someone else? To which Jesus responded, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Reading between the lines, Jesus was telling John, “So I’m not precisely the sort of Messiah you expected? Keep thinking on it… it’ll come to you” (Luke 7:20 and Matthew 11:3).
So, Nicodemus essentially came asking Jesus if he was the Messiah… and Jesus redirected him, telling him that he needed to be born again. What!? And like the good Pharisee that he was, Nicodemus began to parse words with Jesus, “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” John doesn’t mention it in our passage today, but I suspect Jesus fixed Nicodemus with a steely gaze, and paused a minute before saying, “That’s not what I’m talking about, Nicodemus, and you know it. Or, at least, you should know it. You Children of Abraham get so wrapped up in the day-to-day drama of temporal, “fleshly” living,that you forget that you were made for so much more than that. You forget that you were meant to be born of the Spirit… and to live your lives in. that. same. Spirit. You forget that your purpose on Earth is to learn how to rise above mundane things… to be born anew to life in the Father. That’s the way to eternal life! You’re a teacher! You should know these things! Don’t get wrapped around the axle worrying about whether or not I’m the Messiah… you’ll figure that out soon enough. What you should be focused on is the fact that your time on earth is finite. The past is prologue. Just as our ancestors got lost in the day-to-day exigencies of their forty-year wilderness sojourn and needed a reminder of God’s Providence to see them through, so too will God give the people of this age what they need to attain salvation… even if it is the life of his only Son.”
And then, reading on past the end of our Gospel passage today, after the beautiful and comforting words of John 3:16 that folks like to put on bumper stickers and fridge magnets, you know the ones: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son… not to condemn but to save…” Jesus provides a hard caveat in verses 18-21: “Those who believe… are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the Son of God. And this is the judgment: that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light… and do not come to the light… so that their deeds may not be exposed. But 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.” Isn’t it funny how we often like to focus on the warm, fuzzy stuff Jesus said and keep the difficult, more challenging stuff at arm’s length?
But here’s the thing: belief and action are intertwined. James, the brother of Jesus tells us that, “Faith without works is dead!” (James 2:17). Talk is cheap, he’s saying. We’ve got to walk the talk! We can’t say one thing and do another—or do nothing. That’s not the way of Jesus Messiah. Evil resides in things done… and left undone. Believing in Jesus means following the Way he has set before us. Believing = doing. And it’s a lot of work! But just as the three persons of the Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—are all inextricably linked to one another… a piece of a piece, one might say, so are grace and mission. We are saved for a purpose. And we find salvation when we give into God’s movement and purpose in our lives. Paying “lip service” won’t suffice. And, watch out! Because when we do give in, boom! Off we are sent to work in God’s vineyard. And Lord knows, there’s work to be done.
Bishop Rob Wright once noted, “You can talk about God, Jesus says, without actually seeing God’s movement. That’s sad. The word ‘movement’ is the best translation of the word ‘kingdom’ in Scripture. Movement…like the way Jesus described Spirit. A wind blowing. A wind growing – and causing growth. The temptation here is to think that by thinking a new thought, we’ll get a new life. WRONG. New thoughts… are the consequence…of new living. Jesus’ friend [Nicodemus] struggled to get this. The rut of his life… [was becoming his] grave. Born again is what Jesus prescribed. Born again can happen if we are willing to endure the labor pains.” Wise words.
My brothers and sisters, God is in your corner… through the Spirit, God’s grace will lead you home to eternal life, but you must first believe…and then act. That’s what it means to be a “doer of the Word” (James 1:22). Give into the Jesus movement… which is God’s movement and purpose in the world… and in your life. Give into the coming Kingdom… and receive the Holy Spirit… and you will be born again.