3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
I like the fact that Jesus answers Nicodemus before he asks a question. I know the Greek doesn’t necessarily require the sense of “answer”; it could be acceptably translated, “responding, Jesus said…” But there is something delicious in the way Jesus cuts to the heart of the matter before Nicodemus can say anything but a greeting.
This is, after all, why Nicodemus has come. He has seen this strange band of followers and the solidarity that binds them together. He has heard of this community that washes feet, that shares bread, that regard themselves as sons and daughters of the Most High, participants already in the life of the age to come. He has seen the works: blind eyes opened, the lame walking, the strange transcending of ancient animosities: Judean and Samaritan together. It is a compelling mystery, an unexpected reality in their midst. What lies at the heart of this? So he comes to Jesus in the darkness, secretly, searching – not quite sure how to begin.
Nicodemus starts with a generous complement. Such complements normally require the recipient to abjure, and turn the complements back on the speaker, but Jesus plays no polite games here. He sees the seeker. He answers the question Nicodemus hasn’t yet formed: “I give you my word of honor, it is not possible to see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Nicodemus sees but the shadows on the wall. The healings, the deeds, the words, the actions are but signs pointing to the light. The truth is not found in these; the truth is found in the light. And to see, he must be born of the light.
But Nicodemus is in darkness. He hears the word ‘from above’ in its alternate meaning, ‘again’. And he hears in the language of birth only the physical birth of the body. How is it possible to enter the womb a second time? The words of Jesus make no sense to him.
He is not alone. If we listen carefully to Jesus, listen for what he says and not just what we assume he says, what we’ve learned to think he says, we will struggle, too. He speaks in parables and riddles. Sometimes it seems like he is trying to be obtuse. But there is no other way to lead people through a paradigm shift. No other way to help people through a conversion – not a moral reform, but a transformation of their thinking and experience of God and self and the world.
How can Jesus be bread of life? We’ve heard it so often before it doesn’t puzzle us. If he had said, “I am pizza,” we might get some better sense of the confusion he engenders. That’s why the leaders said he was crazy. “I am flour and yeast and salt.” Huh?
Or maybe not yeast, because Jesus will start to talk about manna. I am the true manna from heaven. Poor Nicodemus.
You have to be born anew. You must be born of the wind. You must be born from above. You must be born of the Spirit to see and understand and grasp the true reality of God.
Nicodemus struggles – and we struggle, too – to see past the daily realities of life into the ultimate truth of the world. We are not masters and slaves, but children of God. We are not sweat and tears and labor and sorrow but partakers in the light and love that are the true fabric of the universe. We are not our possessions, our jobs, our honors, our roles; we are branches in the vine that is Christ.
Jesus gives Nicodemus no simple formula for his transformational ‘birth’. Only the promise that ” 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 – a sentence we should probably hear something like this: “God shows his allegiance to the world in this way: he gave his only son that everyone who abides in him may not perish but share in the life that is the source and goal of all things.”