There’s a lot going on in this gospel reading before us today. But I want to call your attention to just three details about this encounter between Nicodemus—a leader of the Jerusalem Council—and Jesus of Nazareth, an upstart Jewish rabbi from the northern hills of Galilee.
First: notice that it’s nighttime when he comes to Jesus. It’s quite possible that Nicodemus doesn’t want his respectable neighbors to know the company he’s keeping, so he avoids coming to Jesus during the daytime when he is likely to be seen. He chooses the cover of darkness for this meeting. He comes nevertheless, apparently because he wants to know more about this rabbi. He’s drawn to Jesus because he sees that the signs Jesus does are clearly of God. But he is tentative.
Jesus responds to Nicodemus somewhat sharply: Amen, Amen (twice for extra dramatic effect!) —“truly, truly, I tell you that no one can see the
without being born from above.” Kingdom of God
Now that sounds perhaps at first like something of a non-sequitor. But what Jesus is really saying is that if you see in me only a miracle worker you don’t see me it all. If you see in me merely a magician you are not seeing what this is about. To truly encounter Jesus, with our eyes wide-open, is to meet One who is heading toward the Cross, and who calls us to take up our crosses. It is to be invited to be servants for the sake of the gospel.
Second: Jesus tells Nicodemus that if you want to grasp all of this you 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 that we heard today does): “you’ve got to be born from above.” But if you look that up in a NRSV Bible you’ll see a little notation, and at the bottom of the page a secondary translation that says: “you must be born anew.” If you are an NIV Bible-type, then you’ll read, “you’ve got to be born again.” But there, too, you’ll find a little note from the editors that says, in tiny little letters, “you’ve got to be born from above.”
So which is it: born from above, born anew, or born again? “Yes!” That’s what is so hard about all translation work, because sometimes a word in one language means three things and there is no equivalent word to convey all three in other language. I suppose you could have Jesus saying: “you must be born anew/from above/again” but it’s a bit clumsy to say the least!
Now I point this out because perhaps some of you have been approached on a street corner or maybe even at Thanksgiving Dinner, by someone who asks you if you have been “born again?” And sometimes when that question is asked it feels like there is a specific way we are supposed to respond. It means you are supposed to have a datable moment in time when you became a Christian. It can sometimes seem as if the answer, “I was raised in the Church and have always known Jesus and I have had many moments of little conversions along the way rather than one big one” is not the right answer. But if you listen to this text I think you will see that that aspect of a particular kind of Christian ideology has very little to do with this encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus.
When Nick initially misses the point—he hears “anothen” in a literal way and connects it only to a literal return to the womb, as being literally born again. Which Jesus says is silly. Jesus then responds by saying that what he is really talking about is being “born by water and the spirit.” Now you all know that language, right? That is Baptismal language, which is one reason that the lectionary puts this reading into the context of Lent. Because Lent is all about Baptism.
In the early church Baptisms only happened at the Easter Vigil—after a long period of preparation. Lent was that season for final preparation before being buried with Christ, in order to be raised with him into a new resurrected life. So this is liturgical/sacramental language—and I think it’s way past time that Episcopalians re-claim it as such. We don’t need to pick a fight or insist we have the whole truth, only that there is indeed sacramental language here, in the text. And that Jesus seems to be saying that if you are baptized by water and the spirit then you are born anothen—regardless of what some may tell you about that. By water and the spirit we are born anothen—dying with him in order to be raised again to the new life of grace.
You’ve got to then begin to live into that reality, of course. You’ve got to respond to what God has done in your life. You can’t simply be a passive recipient. So even if it happened decades ago you can “wake up” to that claim God has on your life, and respond to it and re-affirm it. And sometimes that does happen dramatically and sometimes it happens in fits and starts but however that new birth takes hold in us, we are invited to see the world through a very different set of glasses: through the lens of the Baptismal Covenant. I think that is what Lent is for by the way, to keep getting born anew, from above, again and again and again.
Think of it this way. The world says you are born, then you die, and then you become food for worms. So each and every day you are one day closer to that end. It can make you fearful and anxious—and therefore of course in search of any healer who will promise eternal youth, whether in the form of some elixir, or new diet, or a facelift, or whatever.
But we Christians say: no, that is backwards. We have already died, in baptism. We’ve been buried with Christ, and then raised to new life. We know we are dust and to dust we shall return. So all that is left is for us to get busy living by moving deeper into that new Easter life. As we open our eyes to that reality we begin to see that God so loved the world—God so loved the world—and God so loves us—that by water and the Spirit we have been claimed, and marked, and sealed as Christ’s own forever. We have been born anothen.
Third, I want to remind you that this isn’t the last that we see of Nicodemus. On Good Friday, in John’s telling of that day’s events, he comes with Joseph of Arimathea to claim to 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, only that he came with Joseph and that he brings “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. In broad daylight. That suggests to me that Nicodemus was listening and that he was changed by this nighttime encounter.
So what might this all mean for us on this second Sunday of Lent? It suggests to me that there are many ways to come to Jesus—even if in our uncertainty or fear we come initially at night. Not everyone leaves their father in a boat and jumps right away into discipleship like Peter and Andrew and the Zebedee boys. Sometimes it takes conversations like this as perhaps the first step toward faith—the planting of a seed that over time begins to grow. I think that’s in fact rather comforting. I also think it’s just plain true.
I pray that however or wherever we may encounter Jesus again in this Lenten journey, by day or by night, that we will be ready to be challenged as Nicodemus was. Sometimes Jesus is comforting and there are times when we need that. But just as often—and maybe even more often—we need to be challenged and pushed as Nicodemus was, to open our eyes and to see things in new ways. Sometimes that will require us to let go of old patterns or paradigms or certainties.
In so doing, I pray that we will touch again in this Lenten journey the meaning of our Baptism in new ways—that is that we will become more fully aware that we are already born anothen, and that the hard part is to begin to live into that reality.
So that on Good Friday we, like Nicodemus, will not be ashamed to be there—and to ponder anew just how much God has loved the world.