This reflection is based on the story of Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3:1-16 and uses the story of Nicodemus’ life to explore themes related to being born again. It also offers some alternative reflections on the question of what it might mean to be saved.
I’m going to begin by saying that the passage we heard today is one of my least favorites and one that over the years has caused me many hours of struggle and angst. It raises many questions for me. What does it mean to be born again? What does it mean to believe in Jesus? What happens if you don’t believe in Jesus? What does it mean to have eternal life? What does it mean that the world will be saved through Jesus?
There are lots of questions without easy answers. This passage is also one that has gotten Christians into trouble historically because it speaks to a theology of exclusiveness and condemnation. This theology at times has been defended with violence, destruction and disrespect as seen in the crusades, missionary work around the world and residential schools here in Canada. The people engaged in these activities were promoting their faith in God through Jesus, often with good intent, but in many cases the results were damaging to individuals and communities.
I remember the first time someone asked me if I was saved. She was a Baptist friend from school when I was in about grade 7. I didn’t understand the question. She finally had to rephrase the question to “Do you believe in God?” My response was “Of course. I go to church every week and I just got confirmed.” In hindsight that’s probably not what she really wanted to know. She wanted to know if I had accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior which is different from believing in God. But it speaks directly to this passage in the question of what it means to believe in Jesus. In their book, The Last Week, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan suggest that we need to ask two questions of ourselves in reflecting on our faith as Christians. The first is a common question, the one that my friend was trying to ask me: Do you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior? Many of us have been exposed to this question in some form at various points in our lives. It speaks to the personal relationship that we have with God through Jesus and our sense that God is alive and active in our personal lives. The other question that Borg and Crossan suggest is central to our faith is this: “Do you accept Jesus as your political Lord and Savior?”
In the story of Nicodemus we see these two questions coming together. In this passage Nicodemus wants to know who Jesus is. So far in this gospel we’ve heard the story of Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding and Jesus clearing the temple. Both stories would earn Jesus some notoriety but for different reasons. Nicodemus presumably heard about or observed one or both of these stories and so he seeks Jesus out. He comes at night, in the dark, perhaps so none of the other Pharisees will see him. Nicodemus has a sense that God is at work in Jesus. When Nicodemus articulates his belief that God is at work in Jesus, Jesus responds by saying that you cannot see the kingdom of God without being born from above, or born again, depending on the translation.
Nicodemus questions this assertion by asking how anyone can be born after getting old. How can you be born a second time? Jesus’ response this time is to connect the kingdom of God to both the physical and the spiritual. You cannot enter the kingdom of God without a physical birth represented by water and a spiritual birth represented by the Spirit. Jesus is a asserting that both the physical and the spiritual are necessary to experience God. We cannot focus on one or the other. When we open ourselves to the spiritual realm we do not know what will happen or where we will be led.
So if we think about the stories of turning water into wine and turning over the tables in the temple it is unlikely that Jesus planned either event. He found himself in the situation and opened himself to God and look what happened: water became wine. And then he saw an injustice he could no longer tolerate and so responded by turning over the tables in the temple—all because of the spirit. He could not have done these things without a physical body. He could not have done them without God’s spirit. When we open ourselves to God’s spirit we don’t know where it will take us. The wedding at Cana very much deals with a story of the physical. The story at the temple deals with a physical injustice but very clearly moves Jesus from the personal into making a political statement.
And this is where the connection between the personal and political occurs. Jesus is trying the help Nicodemus understand this for himself. Pharisees, like Nicodemus, were concerned with trying to remain spiritually pure through physical laws which were concentrated in personal behavior and household ritual. The story seems to suggest that the way to God’s kingdom is not through spiritual purity as contained in the law and ritual but through an openness to the spirit which might lead people away from some of the rules advocated by the Pharisees.
The most famous part of this passage: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life,” comes not from Jesus but from the author of John. This is the only place in the Gospels where this idea appears and the scholars involved with the Jesus seminar, assert that this reflects the author’s theology. Part of what makes our reading of this passage so challenging is that in ancient Greek there are no punctuation marks. Tradition in translation has assumed that all these words come from Jesus and so the last seven verses are often placed in quotations. Current scholars believe that only three of these verses were intended to be spoken by Jesus and the remainder are the author’s continuation of the thought.
So if we hear it the way scholars believe it is intended to be read it sounds like this: “Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”
And then the author adds their own thoughts: And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
It is these last four verses that come from the author of John which have gotten Christianity into trouble throughout history. Historical translation translates verse 16 as “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” There are three words in this verse that have multiple translations. The word translated as belief can also mean to trust. Perish can also be translated as lost or destroyed. Eternal can also be translated as long or as ages. So with this in mind the passage might sound something like this: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who trusts in him may not be lost or destroyed but may live a long life.” In this sense the passage becomes grounded again in this world and the realities that surround Jesus. When we place our trust in Jesus and his way we find our life becomes much fuller and as Jesus identified earlier in this passage, we don’t know where that will lead us.
Throughout Jesus’ ministry we see the gospels connecting the spiritual life with the physical life. How we live our physical lives has a direct impact on our spiritual lives and our attention to our spiritual lives has a direct connection to physical well-being. But how does that connect with the two questions I spoke about earlier? Do you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior? And do you accept Jesus as your political Lord and Savior? The two questions go hand in hand and are directly related to our response to the gospel. We need Jesus and the spirit to sustain us, to lead us, to help direct us to God. Our response to that God leads us into the political realm. I’m not talking about partisan politics here but about our relationship with the people and communities that surround us. Nicodemus shows us how this gets lived out.
The idea of being born again is sometimes portrayed for us a particular moment when our lives change and left at that. Kee Boem So reminds us that while a birth is a one-time event, after the birth there is growth and learning. Nicodemus came to Jesus looking for something that would help him in his personal life to keep the rules and laws of the Pharisees. That conversation with Jesus touched him and changed his life but he still had to grow into it. Further on in the John we see Nicodemus following in Jesus’ footsteps as he defends Jesus. John 7:45-52 The police are sent to arrest Jesus but they find no evidence and so don’t arrest him. The Pharisees question the police and ask why he wasn’t arrested. Nicodemus speaks up for Jesus and says there needs to be proof before he can be arrested. After Jesus’ death it is Nicodemus who brings the spices and oil for anointing the dead.
So putting all these pieces together, the story of Nicodemus reminds us that our personal relationship with Jesus is only helpful if it leads us into more faithful relationship with the people around us. It reminds us that we cannot separate our own personal spirituality from our engagement with others and that our faith is grounded in a physical reality. If it is only about a spiritual realm in a future life we have missed the point of the gospel message.
. Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan. The Last Week: the Day by Day Account of Jesus’ Final Week in Jerusalem (New York: HarpersCollins e-books, 2006), 215.
. Robert W. Funk at al., The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1883.