Saturday, March 19, 2011


The following is an excerpt from my sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent, on the gospel reading found in John 3:1-17. The full manuscript of the sermon will be posted at St. Francis Church.

I wonder about Jesus’ tone in today’s gospel reading, because tone is one of the things no gospel writer can convey. Is he trying to embarrass Nicodemus, who is after all, a teacher of Israel and doesn’t seem to be able to follow the theological conversation? Is Jesus dripping with sarcasm and saying something like “you idiot, Nicodemus, you haven’t got a clue!” Or is Jesus having a little fun with Nicodemus and teasing him a little? Something more like: “Nic, are you for real? I mean I know you’ve got that big fancy degree and all, and I’m just a hillbilly from the sticks, but this is the easy stuff, man!” It makes a difference and it’s hard to know for sure. But if I were directing a film of John’s Gospel I’d have the actor playing Jesus try to convey more humor than sarcasm and more engagement than disdain.

Notice that it’s nighttime when Nicodemus comes to Jesus. It’s quite likely that Nicodemus, who is a highly successful and important man, doesn’t want his respectable neighbors to know the company he’s keeping. So he chooses the cover of darkness. Maybe he’s a coward. But maybe he is sincere and curious. He wants to know more. But as a leader of the Jerusalem Council, he has a lot more at stake socially and politically than lepers and tax collectors by coming to this upstart Jewish outsider from the hills of Galilee. Perhaps he comes, not necessarily looking to convert or become a disciple, but even so as spiritually open and curious, aware that the signs that Jesus performs reveal God at work in his life. Maybe he comes as a genuine seeker.

He comes at night. Within the context of John’s Gospel, it’s interesting to notice how often John plays with imagery of light and darkness: it is he who refers often to children of light and children of darkness and to Jesus as the Light of the world. So here is good old Nicodemus, coming in the night, yet somehow drawn to the Light. Surprisingly, however, Jesus seems to respond rather sharply to Nicodemus: Amen, Amen (twice for extra dramatic effect!) —“truly, truly, I tell you that no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Notice that Jesus isn’t talking here about how you get saved or how you “get to heaven” when you die. He’s talking about how the Reign of God breaks into our lives, into this world, among us. He’s talking about those moments when we get glimpses of “thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.” All those parables about the Kingdom we find in the synoptic gospels—about lost sheep and lost sons, about mustard seeds and compassionate Samaritans—are about developing eyes to see and ears to hear that the Reign of God is already in our midst. Only too often, we remain too blind to see. The whole point of the Light, I think, is to help us to see. So Jesus seems to be telling Nicodemus that there isn’t a simple formula or proof he can offer him: Nicodemus will have to learn to see for himself, if only there is some light.

In order to see, Jesus tells Nicodemus, he must be born—well, how exactly? The Greek is ambiguous and has three perfectly valid interpretations. It’s anothen. So you can say (as the NRSV does): “you’ve got to be born from above.” But if you look that up in a NRSV Bible you’ll see a notation at the bottom of the page that says: “or, you must be born anew.” If you prefer the NIV Bible, there you will read, “you’ve got to be born again.” But there, too, you’ll find a little note from the editors that says, “or, you’ve got to be born from above.” So which is it: from above, anew, or again? 


Our friend Nic initially misses the point because he hears “anothen” in a literal way and connects it only to a physical return to the womb, which Jesus says is just plain silly. Jesus speaks in parables and riddles intended to invite further reflection, and this encounter is no exception to that rule. The disciples are constantly being tripped up by this, and so is Nicodemus. So then Jesus responds by saying that what he is really talking about is being “born by water and the spirit.”  

We Episcopalians don’t tend to talk about being “born again” very often but this more sacramental language is everywhere for us, especially in the Baptismal liturgy. One reason that we get this reading in the context of Lent is because Lent is all about Baptism. In the early church, Lent was the season of preparation, a time to prepare converts to the faith who were then baptized at the Easter Vigil. By water and the spirit we are born anothen: dying with Christ, we are raised with Christ to the new life of grace.

We have been born anothen by water and the spirit. Now we’ve got to live into that reality, of course. That’s what these forty days are for: for waking up and for changing old destructive patterns and for making new beginnings. We can’t simply be passive recipients of God’s gifts: we need to respond to what God has done, and is doing, in our lives. Even if we were baptized decades ago, Lent is the time to “wake up” to that claim that God has on our lives by responding to it and reaffirming it. As we do, we begin to see the world through a very different set of glasses: through the lens of the Baptismal Covenant.

A postscript: in the seventh chapter of John’s Gospel, when the temple police are reporting back to the chief priests and Pharisees they are asked why they didn’t just go ahead and arrest Jesus. An argument ensues and Nicodemus speaks up. “Our law,” he says, "does not judge people without first giving them a fair hearing.” (John 7:50) At which point someone snidely comments: “Where are you from, Nic…Galilee?”

And then on Good Friday, in John’s telling of that day’s events, Nicodemus comes with Joseph of Arimathea to claim the corpse of Jesus. The text says that Joseph, a member of the Council, “was a disciple of Jesus.” It doesn’t make that claim of Nicodemus. Even so, it does say that he came with Joseph, and that he brought “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds of weight.” (John 19:39)  Together Nicodemus and Joseph take Jesus’ body and bind it with linen cloths and with the spices, following the burial customs of the day.

They do it in broad daylight.

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