February 20, 2005
3 • 1 Among the Pharisees there was a ruler of the Jews named Nicodemus. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said, "Rabbi, we know that you have come from God to teach us, for no one can perform miraculous signs like yours unless God is with him."
3 Jesus replied, "Truly, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again from above."
4 Nicodemus said, "How can there be rebirth for a grown man? Who could go back to his mother's womb and be born again?" 5 Jesus replied, "Truly, I say to you: No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Because of this, don't be surprised when I say: 'You must be born again from above.'
8 The wind blows where it pleases and you hear its sound, but you don't know where it comes from or where it is going. It is like that with everyone who is born of the Spirit."
9 Nicodemus asked again, "How can this be?" 10 And Jesus answered, "You are a teacher in Israel, and you don't know these things!
• 11 Truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and we witness to the things we have seen, but you don't accept our testimony. 12 If you don't believe when I speak of earthly things, what then, when I speak to you of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone up to heaven except the one who came from heaven, the Son of Man.
14 As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 Yes, God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him may not be lost, but may have eternal life. 17 God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world; instead, through him the world is to be saved.
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• 3.1 A NEW BIRTH
Nicodemus was a religious person, concerned about knowing God and his ways, and he went to Jesus as to a teacher of religion. What he needed was not so much to receive instruction, however, as to undergo a change within himself. That, too, is what we need. We must recognize our powerlessness -- by ourselves, unaided -- to pass through the barriers which block us from an authentic life. Like Nicodemus, despite all our accumulated experience and knowledge (or because of them), we are old people.
Jesus says we must be born again and born from above: John's gospel uses a word that can be interpreted in both senses (v. 3). Nobody gives birth to himself, and just as we received our life in the flesh from others so, too, we receive the life of the Son of God from the Spirit.
All claim that they live: something moves in them, thoughts come to them, and they make decisions … Yet this could possibly be nothing more than the life of the flesh, or the life of an unawakened person.
The other life, that of the Spirit, is more mysterious because it takes place in the innermost depths of our being. We see the external appearance; we notice a person's face and behavior, but we do not see God's working in her. The awakened believer, however, who is habitually led by the Spirit gradually discovers changes in what motivates her actions and her ambitions. She feels at ease with God and without fear, experiencing that it is not so much she who orients her life, as another who lives in her. Yet she could not, in fact, be able to say exactly what happens within her.
Hence Jesus compares the action of the Spirit with the passing of the wind that we feel, although we do not see or hold it. Let us also take note that in Jesus' language the same word means spirit as much as "wind."
We have to be reborn of water and of the Spirit: this points to baptism. Let us not think that merely by receiving the waters of baptism, one is fully established in the life of the Spirit; rather, let us realize that normally one is baptized in order to begin the life of the Spirit: the words of the Gospel refer to adults converted to the Christian faith. The case of infant baptism is different. Baptism works within them. Yet they should receive instruction in the faith to lead them to personal conversion.
Like many in Israel, Nicodemus was a religious person and a believer. Why did he come by night? Possibly he did not want to risk his position and reputation, or mix with the common people around Jesus. This would not be the attitude of those who have been born again: these have been liberated from many things that paralyze others.
JESUS REVEALS THE PLAN OF GOD
• 11. John's Gospel is different from the other three. Often, after relating some words of Jesus, John adds an explanation of the faith, which he supports with declarations that Jesus made on other occasions. That is what happens in this case.
How can this be? Nicodemus asked. To enter into the life of the Spirit, we need to know God's plan for us. Yet no one can speak properly of such things except the Son of God. He has seen heavenly things, that is, the intimate life of God; he also speaks of earthly things, that is, of the Kingdom that God brings to us. Many of Jesus' listeners will not accept what he says about the Reign of God; much less will they pay attention to what he reveals about the mystery of God. Jesus reveals to us that which, by ourselves, we are unable to know. Thus a Christian is not one who merely "believes in God"; we are Christians because we believe the testimony of Jesus (v. 11) regarding God and his plan of salvation.
In this plan, there was something very difficult to accept: that the Son of Man would have to die on the cross and to rise from the dead (be lifted on high means the same). Jesus reminds them of the serpent in the desert. This episode in the Bible (Num 21) prefigured what would happen to Jesus. Of course, the Jews did not grasp the meaning of this message; in fact, they passed over all the predictions of the sufferings of their savior without understanding them.
They had to revise their ideas about other matters, also. The Jews had been praying for God to come and expected him to condemn the world and to punish the bad. He, on the other hand, sent his own Son to the cross so that the world will be saved (v. 17).
Other verses of the New Testament say that we should not love the world; which seems to contradict what we have just read: God so loved the world. The reason for this contradiction is that the word world has several meanings.
First, the world means all of creation, which is good since it is God's work. The center of this divine work is humankind, which has come under the influence of Satan (8:34 & 44). Everything that sinful humanity creates -- riches, culture, social life -- is influenced, disfigured and used for evil. Hence, God sent His Son so that the world will be saved.
Yet, even though Christ's resurrection initiated his invincible power over history, a strong current of evil continues, dragging along all who refuse to acknowledge the truth. This evil current is sometimes called the world. It would be more appropriate to say: the people who surrender themselves to the Master of the world. The Scripture points to them in saying: Do not love the world, or You are not of the world (1 Jn 2:15; 4:6).
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1. An issue of rebirth is crucial for human beings as we go through our developmental processes. There is a sense of continuity with the past, being born of womb water, as well as anticipation of the future, being born of windy-breathed Spirit. Our starting point in all of this is the start of any preaching, the current situation of earthly things between past and future. That starting place broadens and deepens as we catch a vision from above a time-line of our life. We begin to get a perspective on where we have come from and a dream of a new line. It is this vision from above, joining water and spirit, where we find wholeness, salvation. And so this conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus reflects the internal dialogue we have regarding our readiness to affirm the blessings we have received and to humbly ask for more -- As Dag Hammarskjold said, "For all that has been, thanks. For all that will be, yes."
2. The issue of growth is given importance by John as we catch snippets of Nicodemus throughout his gospel. In Chapter 7, Nicodemus he has moved from his own personal experience of giving Jesus a hearing and now, in the midst of a contentious scene, encourages a broader hearing for Jesus among the religious leaders. In Chapter 19, Nicodemus has moved from the dark of night to the dimness of debate to the fading light of day to honor Jesus' body with their presence and gifts. (As at birth, so at death - gifts from unexpected places. Gifts from beyond the borders and gifts from deep within the establishment.) If one were to read beyond Chapter 21, would we find Nicodemus being the body and blood of Jesus ministering in the noon-day sun? And how has your journey gone? And where is your journey leading you?
3. One image of growth is that of a seed. As it proceeds from its formation to await the opportunity to sprout there are barriers to pass through. Moisture enough needs to soak in. Energy is expended to get a root out (water/tradition/nutrient seeking) and then the sprout (spirit/new shoot/nutrient making). There are barriers all along the way - not enough soil for the roots, too exposed too soon - a tasty morsel, too much soil or weeds overhead, etc. We have similar barriers to our own growth, our own internal changes. It is all too easy to stay a kid forever, to be locked into an adolescent thinking pattern, to fear an uncertain future by over-accumulating, etc. To be born again is scary business, but rewarding. May your being born again find you being borne further along and not just repeating yourself.
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