Sunday 12 March 2017
The Second Sunday in Lent
There is a lot of wordplay in the passage from the Gospel of John this morning. Some of it makes sense easily in English. For example, Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, but Jesus, we already know, is the light of the world. So Nicodemus comes to Jesus for enlightenment. That’s pretty easy to understand.
But there are other bits of wordplay in this passage that only make sense in Greek. For example, the passage I just quoted, verse 8. In the New Revised Standard Version, it reads “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” I know what it means to say that the wind blows where it chooses and that despite being able to hear it’s sound, it’s hard to tell where it’s going or where it’s coming from. That makes sense. But what does it have to do with being born of the Spirit? There isn’t anything else about the wind in this entire passage. It just seems random.
The Common English Bible translates it differently. “God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” What happened to the wind? Now God’s Spirit is blowing? What does that even mean? How can God’s Spirit blow? How can we hear the sound of God’s Spirit?
The problem is that John is relying on wordplay that simply doesn’t make sense in English. The Greek word is πνευμα. It gives us the English words pneumatic and pneumonia. But what does walking pneumonia have to do with a pneumatic drill? Very little in English, but quite a lot in Greek. Πνευμα has several different English definitions. It can mean air, like the air that is used to power a pneumatic drill. It can mean wind, like the wind that blows wherever it wishes; you can hear it, but you can’t tell where it comes from. It can mean breath, the part of you that is sick when you have pneumonia. It can also mean spirit, like the Spirit of God, or an evil spirit, or a spiritual experience.
And it can mean all these things simultaneously. For us, spirit, breath and wind seem like rather different concepts. But in both Greek and Hebrew, they are the same. There is very little difference in meaning between the breath of life and the Spirit of God, very little difference in meaning between an evil spirit and a violent wind. So saying that God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes and saying that the wind blows wherever it wishes is really the same.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus, the light of the world, at night. He is a Pharisee and a leader among the Judean people, so we might expect that he will be an opponent of Jesus. But the first thing he says is that everyone can tell that Jesus comes from God, because no one would have the power to do the miraculous signs that Jesus does if they weren’t from God.
It’s Jesus who initiates the conflict in this story. As soon as Nicodemus is finished praising him, Jesus tells him “No one can see the Kingdom of God unless they are born from above.” There are too pieces of wordplay going on here. The first has to do with knowing and seeing. These are related words in Greek, too. Nicodemus says that he knows Jesus is from God, literally that he has seen that Jesus is from God. But Jesus retorts that no one can see God’s kingdom unless they are born anew. Jesus is either saying that Nicodemus is incapably of knowing anything about Jesus because he hasn’t been born again, or he is saying that if Nicodemus knows anything about Jesus, its because he has been born from above. But the first option, the insult toward Nicodemus, is more likely.
You may have already noticed the other bit of wordplay. Again we have one Greek word that means more than one thing in English. Ἄνωθεν can mean either again or from above. Some people think that the confusion in this story is that Jesus is talking about being born from above while Nicodemus misunderstands and thinks that he’s talking about being born again. Most likely, though Jesus means both being born again and being born from above.
This is when Jesus starts talking about flesh and spirit. This line of thinking has led to a lot of bad theology over the years. We usually think that flesh is basically synonymous with the body. And so if the flesh is bad or unimportant, that must mean that everything having to do with the body is bad or unimportant. But that’s really a misunderstanding of the terms. Σαρξ, flesh, just means meat. It’s dead. A body contains flesh, but it is not the same as flesh. Even more important, the body isn’t made only of flesh, it is also made of spirit. Without both flesh and spirit, without both flesh and breath, a body is dead. Jesus isn’t denying the body here, but he is talking about two different parts of the body: the flesh and the spirit.
Jesus makes the argument that only flesh can give birth to flesh and only spirit can give birth to spirit. In order to understand spiritual things, one must have spirit, and in order to have spirit, one must be born from spirit, that is, one must be born from above, born again.
This verse has gotten quite a lot of attention over the years. Entire doctrines have sprung up over what it means to be born again. Certain American Christians identify themselves as born again Christians. I remember in the first Presidential election I was old enough to vote in, both major candidates made a point of saying that they were born again Christians. I remember because I was a Christian, I had been a Christian all my life, but I wasn’t very familiar with that language. It wasn’t the sort of thing that Christians I knew often said. They didn’t talk about being born again.
What most people mean today when they talk about being born again is a particular type of religious experience. It’s usually imagined as something that happens only once but has a continuing effect. People don’t say “I was born again,” they say, “I am born again.” People remember the story of when they were born again, the date of when they were born again. It is usually described as a drastic, life-changing event that completely changes a person.
No doubt many people have dramatic, life-changing religious experiences. But sometimes the language of being born again gets used not to build up the Christian community, but to exclude people from it. If I have a had a dramatic religious experience, then I can look down my nose at Christians who haven’t had such a dramatic experience. I can marginalize them. I can even say that they aren’t real Christians. That’s how the language of being born again has often been used: to exclude people. It becomes yet another hurdle that Christians have to cross in order to be accepted as legitimate Christians. Being baptized isn’t enough, you have to accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior using a very specific set of words. Accepting Jesus as your savior isn’t enough, you have to be born again. It’s just another way of saying, “I’m a real Christian, but you’re not a real Christian.”
And Nicodemus becomes the model of all of those who are not real believers. He may have come to Jesus, but he couldn’t accept Jesus as the light; he stayed in darkness. Jesus was offering the spirit, but Nicodemus, as a man of the flesh, could not understand or accept it. Jesus is powerful to those who are born again, but Nicodemus could never take the leap of faith to believe and be born again.
There is often a heavy dose of anti-semitism mixed in with this interpretation. Nicodemus can’t understand or accept Jesus because he is a Jew. And he represents all Jews, who are confronted with Jesus but are too dense, too fleshy to understand Jesus’s spiritual message.
I don’t think that’s what’s going on in this passage, though. Nicodemus comes to Jesus as a true seeker. He recognizes that Jesus is from God. That’s the first thing he says to Jesus. He knows that God’s spirit is with Jesus, because no one would be able to do the sorts of things Jesus does without the power of God’s spirit.
And Jesus continues to push Nicodemus further. He makes Nicodemus think more deeply about his faith. And perhaps Nicodemus doesn’t figure all of it out the first time. Perhaps he struggles to understand. But at least he keeps asking questions. He keeps on engaging with Jesus. He comes in darkness, not able to fully understand. But he keeps moving forward. Four chapters later, when the religious authorities are upset with Jesus and claim that no one with education would ever follow Jesus, Nicodemus stands up for him. He identifies himself as a follower, demands that Jesus get a fair hearing before he is condemned, and is derided by the other religious elites for doing so. And at the end of the story, after Jesus is crucified, it is Nicodemus who shows up with Joseph of Arimathea to take care of Jesus’s body.
Nicodemus is not hopelessly ignorant, as many interpreters have claimed. He is a disciple. He seems to understand Jesus’s strange ways as well as anyone else does. After all, even Jesus’s closest disciples always seem to be misunderstanding him. He may come to Jesus in the ignorance of night, but he leaves Jesus with a spark of light. He stays devoted to Jesus, even though he may not always understand. He keeps on coming back, keeps on asking his questions, keeps on struggling with the mystery of faith.
And that is not unlike many of us. Some of us have had those flashy religious experiences, those dramatic conversion moments, but not all of us. Many of us have experienced a much more gradual journey of faith. Some of us have an unwavering sense of confidence, but not all of us. Many of us continue to have questions about matters of faith. Many of us continue to wrestle with the mysteries of who God is and how God works in the world.
As Jesus says, for those who have been born from above, it is like the wind, that blows wherever it will. Perhaps we can hear it, but we can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going.
And that is certainly true. Even for the most faithful Christians, even for the most enlightened among us, much of the time we don’t understand completely what God is doing in the world. No, we are constantly surprised by the ways God chooses to work among us. We cannot predict it ahead of time. We can’t always explain it even after it has happened. God’s ways are mysterious. God does things we don’t expect. God leads us on paths that we wouldn’t have predicted. God uses people that we would never have imagined. God shows up in places we never would have bargained for. God is mysterious. God’s spirit blows wherever it wishes, and we can’t always tell where it is headed or where it came from.
But when we are in the spirit, sometimes we can at least hear it in the moment. Sometimes when God acts in the world, we can recognize it for what it is. Sometimes we are just perceptive enough to notice that what we are experiencing is a God thing.
And often, that is enough. Often our incomplete understanding is enough to allow us to follow. Often our blurred vision is enough to help us see the spirit’s movement when it happens. Often our flawed perceptions are enough to help us do our part for God when the moment comes.
It was enough for Nicodemus. When the religious authorities dismissed the idea that anyone of understanding would follow Jesus, Nicodemus raised his hand in protest. After Jesus died, Nicodemus was there to do his part. He was perhaps an imperfect believer. But that is what we all are: imperfect believers who sometimes stumble around in the darkness, imperfect believers who have incomplete understandings of how God moves among us, imperfect believers who don’t always get it the first time, but who keep coming back, keep asking our questions, keep struggling with the mysteries of faith.
We don’t have to be perfect in order to follow Jesus. We don’t have to be perfect, because God is perfect, and sometimes God’s perfection lives in and through us. Even when we are imperfect believers, we can have the assurance that God continues to move, God continues to surprise us, God continues to work in us in spite of ourselves. God can work in people like Nicodemus. God can work in people like you and like me. Thanks be to God.