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The Crucial Encounter: Nicodemus

 

John 3:1-21

 

I: — They are, without doubt, fighting words. I’m speaking of the two little words “born again” or “born anew” that Jesus used in his encounter with Nicodemus. As soon as these words are repeated today people choose sides; people are polarized, and from their position (which position they will defend ardently) they contend with one another.

In one corner are those for whom the words “born again” are a badge of identification to be worn unashamedly. If others don’t use the expression, or don’t use it as frequently as they salt and pepper their food; if others are thereby thought not to support instantaneous conversion arising from a crisis, then they are deemed not to be Christians at all. In the other corner are those who minimize the element of crisis while maximizing the need for nurture. They insist that people become Christians through a steady process of nurture. Often they maintain that their approach is the only sensible one. If others disagree, they smile condescendingly and suggest that all who disagree lack social sophistication and intellectual profundity. One group suggests that if we don’t use the words “born again” we lack spiritual authenticity. The other group suggests that if we do use the words we lack intellectual substance.
When the fighting words “born again” bring out religious nastiness (as they often do, regrettably), the “nurturists” point to a few “born againers” who are manifestly emotionally unstable. The truth is, all of us are acquainted with someone who wields the expression “born again” like a hammer even as his psychological balance is precarious. On the other hand the “born againers” remind the nurturists that what often passes for Christian nurture is so very dilute, anaemic, that it wouldn’t nurture a chickadee. And besides, they add, what can nurture do for stillbirths?

These latter people do have a point. On my first pastoral charge the Sunday School lacked teachers. But this was thought to be no problem: teachers were simply recruited – usually cajoled or otherwise embarrassed into “volunteering” – from anyone who stepped through the church door, had no acquaintance with the truth and reality of the gospel, was willing to help out the village folk, to be sure, yet who seemed not to know Jesus from a gerbil. The “born againers” say to me, “Do you have any confidence in the capacity of those people to provide Christian nurture for your child?”

It’s regrettable whenever the conversation between these two groups spirals down into nastiness, for at this point neither party hears what the other is saying.

It’s also regrettable when “born again” becomes a tool to secure political advantage. When Ronald Reagan was pursuing the presidency of the USA he advertised himself as “born again” for purely political reasons (it would help him garner votes) even though he didn’t so much as go to church or exhibit any interest in the faith.

Let’s go back to the two polarized parties. We are going to move beyond the polarization only as we recognize there to be as many ways of encountering Jesus Christ as there are ways of falling in love. To be sure, some people are overwhelmed so as to be swept off their feet: “love at first sight” we call it. Despite the popularity of the notion of “love at first sight, the fact of it isn’t common at all. Relatively few people fall in love “at first sight.” Far more people find their relationship with someone they will eventually admit they love developing steadily, bit by bit, in a positive direction. Still others find that their coming to know someone else intimately is a much more drawn-out, up-and-down matter. Turbulent at times, it has to contend with dark moments and doubt, misunderstanding and confusion. But at the end of this up and down, hot and cold, more intense and less intense undertaking there finally is resolution. And two people step ahead in a relationship that they will thereafter neither regret nor renounce.

Plainly it’s false to maintain there’s only one way of forging a most significant human relationship. Because false, it would also be silly to insist on “one way only.” We don’t question the authenticity of someone else’s relationship because of the manner in which she arrived at it. We never say, “You can be in love now only if you came to be in love by the route I prescribe.”

Then surely the polarization that arises within the church is overcome as we recognize that how someone comes to faith, by what route, isn’t important at all; how someone comes to faith doesn’t impugn the authenticity and integrity of her standing in Christ.

This is the first thing I want to say in our look at our Lord’s encounter with Nicodemus: whatever the expression “born again” might mean, it doesn’t mean that there is only one way of entering into and abiding in the company of Jesus Christ.

 

II: — In the second place we must recognize that the reality, the life-filling, life-transforming reality to which the expression points is something that everyone longs for. At least thoughtful people long for it, and so do wistful people, and more than a few desperate people.

The word in the text translated “again” or “anew” (anothen) has three meanings. It can mean “again” in the sense of “one more time;” that is, “again” in the sense of chronologically repeated. Or it can mean “from above;” that is, from the realm of the transcendent, from God. Or it can mean “from the beginning, a re-creation, with a new, different nature.” Plainly Nicodemus fastens on the first meaning only, “one more time.” “It’s absurd,” he says in effect, “to suggest that a grown-up like me can enter his mother’s womb one more time and repeat his physical birth.” He’s right: it is absurd. But this first meaning of anothen is precisely what Jesus doesn’t have in mind. Our Lord is thinking only of the latter two meanings: everyone may, and everyone should, be born from above, from God, and thereby be reborn with a new nature. Jesus maintains that life can begin anew; there can be a fresh beginning for everyone; we can begin again with a new nature, a different nature – and all of this a gift of grace from God’s hand.

A minute ago I mentioned that everyone, deep down, longs for this, even if many of those who long for it despise the church, snicker at the gospel, and use the name of Jesus only to curse. Still, the endless religious pursuits that people pursue tell us over and over everyone wants a fresh start that is more than a repetition of the “same old;” everyone wants a new beginning that is qualitatively new.

Not so long ago I saw a television documentary on Marin County , the wealthiest area of California . Marin County leads the nation in the per capita purchase and use of hot tub baths, yoga, physical fitness zeal, transactional analysis, consumption of valium and self-help courses of a thousand different kinds. The TV documentary made several trenchant points. One of them was this: the levels of unsatisfaction and frustration never decrease. Oasis after oasis turns out to be mirage. Everything that’s supposed to advance people to the next level, a higher level, of “being” invariably fails to do so. None of the techniques, programmes or regimens, appears to work.

Marin County , of course, is at bottom an intensification and magnification of the omnipresent longing to find a new factor in life that won’t be merely one more factor but rather something that proves to be nothing less than a genuine transformation of life. They want something that’s going to make a significant difference. Thwarted, frustrated, irked, and now quietly desperate, people continue to grope. Many such people have told me they are jaded from trying new techniques and old panaceas, none of which delivers what it holds out. They are less certain of what they are looking for (if they knew precisely what they were looking for they’d also know where to look: the gospel) than they are certain of what they want to be rid of. “ Marin County ” happens to be everywhere.

At the same time that the earliest Christian community was adding daily those people who had come to know and enjoy what Jesus spoke of and delivered, Greek Mystery religions, next door to the church, were seeking converts. In one of the rites of these Greek Mystery Religions the devotee, the “convert,” stood in a pit that was covered with latticework. A bull was led onto the latticework. At the climax of the religious ceremony the bull’s throat was slashed. As blood poured down the devotee lifted her face and was bathed in blood. At this point the Mystery Religion priest pronounced her “reborn for eternity.” Greek Mystery religion knew what it was to feel after something crucial; knew what it was to long for transformation of human existence; but Greek Mystery religion couldn’t deliver the reality. What gave the earliest Christians their remarkable credibility was their ability to point with assurance to the One, Jesus Christ, who could deliver and did.

Years ago I saw the movie, Apocalypse Now. I’ve seen it six times altogether. Featuring the U.S. conflict in Viet Nam , the movie portrays the contradictions that are part of any war. The movie ends with primitive Indo-Chinese backwoodsmen ritually slaughtering bulls. The sword falls. The animal’s head is severed. Blood spews. It sounds grotesque to the point of being nauseating. Yet the movie-scene doesn’t appear to affect movie watchers in this way. Doesn’t this scene parallel the outlook of Greek Mystery religion 2000 years ago?—that is, that the shedding of blood somehow, inexplicably, unpollutes the past, restores the present to sanity and integrity, and points to a new future that is genuinely “future” just because the “new” is genuinely new? Still, regardless of what is pointed to or felt after, the reality isn’t delivered.

The apostle John, however, possesses conviction born of experience. For right in the midst of his account of our Lord’s conversation with Nicodemus, John interjects the lifting up of Jesus, the blood-shedding of that One. John knows that there is One whose blood is effectual, and there is One who does deliver what he holds out.

Regardless of how turned off people are by the glib use of “born again,” there is no little evidence that all around us are people who long precisely for what Jesus holds out. Nicodemus, a mature, middle-aged man, and a member of the Sanhedrin, the highest religious council, came to Jesus under cover of darkness. What would a sophisticated fellow like him hope to gain from a thirty-year old peasant with sawdust in his hair, who came from a one-horse town, and whose contacts with religious leaders were consistently negative? We know what Nicodemus hoped to gain.

 

III: — Even though he hopes to gain what he needs most, Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus’ assertion. “Born again?” he asks, “It’s physically impossible.” All the while, of course, our Lord is talking about something different. While Jesus isn’t speaking about physical birth, he’s certainly using an analogy of physical birth. Let’s think about the analogy for a minute.

Birth, everyday birth, is plainly a change of context. When a human being is born the context of that person’s life changes from amniotic fluid to air; from confinement to freedom; from darkness to light; from silence to exclamation.

The kind of birth, “new birth,” that Jesus speaks of in his conversation with Nicodemus is also a change of context: from spiritual inertia to spiritual vigour; from culpable ignorance of God to child-like wonder at God; from a human existence that prides itself on being self-sufficient to an existence that humbly thanks God for his condescension and grace. There’s nothing un-understandable or cryptic about this.  “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t understand this?” Jesus asks in genuine amazement. Surely Nicodemus ought to have understood this. After all, the presence and weight and force of the living God is the context in which Israel ’s life unfolds. God has made himself known to Israel in a way that he hasn’t elsewhere, with the result that Israel ’s knowledge of God differentiates it from the surrounding nations. Israel has been given to know the One who creates life, moulds it, informs and directs and fulfils it. The prophets of Israel speak tirelessly of what it is to have life rooted in, informed by, and conformed to the God who acts upon his people and speaks to them in such a way that they know who he is and what he has done and what he requires of them. The prophets know that when God speaks to his people he quickens in them the capacity to respond and the desire to respond. Thereafter what we call “life” is life-long dialogical intimacy with him who comes to us conclusively in Jesus Christ. Such dialogical intimacy means that we live henceforth in God, in a sphere, an atmosphere, whose reality is more vivid than the vividness of our five senses. It issues in new understanding, lively obedience, and profoundest contentment.

Surely there’s nothing bizarre or spooky about this. When people today hear the words “born again,” instantly they think of a highly unusual psychological development, an inner “trip” which they’ve never been on themselves and which they suspect in any case. Instead we should always remember that birth means primarily change of context. To have our lives unfold in the context or atmosphere of the living God is to live in an ongoing dialogue with God whose reality, simplicity, profundity is deeper than our language can describe

“Too vague,” someone objects, “All this change-of-context stuff; it’s too nebulous.” What’s vague about it? Those whom Jesus first called to himself didn’t find him vague at all. Isn’t the same Lord present to us now in his risen life? My entire ministry is built on the assurance that he is. The saints of every age have known this. There’s nothing vague here at all.

“Too presumptuous,” someone else adds. No. There’s nothing presumptuous about someone who knows he’s at the banquet by invitation only. The certainty that accompanies mercy-quickened faith has nothing to do with snobbish superiority. Those whom Jesus called didn’t they’d “arrived” in any sense. Still, they were certain that they were on the right road and didn’t need to look for any other.

“Too narrow,” someone insists, “It reeks of religious sentimentality, a nostalgia-trip unrelated to life.” No. It would be sentimental only if it promoted maudlin mush. It would be unrelated to life only if were a private trip that had nothing to do with everyday matters. But in fact it has everything to do with every aspect of life.

Birth always means change of context. To be born again, born anew, born from above is to become involved with God in a dialogue wherein we know our sin pardoned, our way in life made plain (I didn’t say easy; I said plain), our hearts encouraged and our minds informed and our wills fortified.

 

In light of the understanding we’ve gained today let’s move beyond a polarization that helps no one. Let’s acknowledge that how one comes to faith, or how long one takes to come to faith, is beside the point.

Let’s admit that there’s a persistent and profound spiritual hunger in people all around us. And in word and deed let us point to him who is that context in which all of life is transfigured, and therefore our lives as well.

                                                                                                   Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                

May 2004