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The gospel text for the second Sunday of Lent is John 3.1-17, a text of gospel that often instead functions as the severest law.
“I’ve seen the signs you do,” Nicodemus says to Jesus. “Tell me, who are you?”
And oddly, Jesus answers with that verse which tightens the sphincter of every mainline liberal:
“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.”
Apparently, Nicodemus knows what he doesn’t know. Nicodemus must suspect his faith is somehow inadequate and lacking; otherwise, Nicodemus— a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin even— would not take the great risk of coming to Jesus under the cover of darkness. Sure, it’s only chapter three, but here in John’s Gospel, Jesus has just thrown his temple tantrum and already he’s made himself public enemy Number One.
To the Pharisee’s question, Jesus, in typical Jesus fashion, doesn’t do anything at all to mitigate whatever spiritual crisis has led Nicodemus to Jesus. Jesus doesn’t bother to comfort Nicodemus or reassure Nicodemus or do anything to relieve whatever existential tension has brought Nicodemus to Jesus.
Notice how Jesus tightens the screws.
Jesus doesn’t do what most pastors are trained to do. Jesus doesn’t let Nicodemus off the hook with some blessed assurance like, “It’s okay. Don’t worry, Nicodemus, be happy. God loves you.” Jesus doesn’t offer Nicodemus a non-anxious presence and say, “Your faith is fine just as it is, Nicodemus. We’re all on a journey. There are many paths to my Father.”
No, Jesus sticks his thumb in whatever ache Nicodemus is nursing and raises the stakes absolutely, “If you want to see the Kingdom of God, Nicodemus, you must be born again.” Oh, and FYI, he’s not just talking to Nicodemus. Jesus dials it up to DEFCON ETERNAL for all of us, because that “you” in “You must be born again,” is plural.
I know the last thing many Christians want is to be reckoned among those kind of Christians, the ones who wield this text like a tablet of stone, but, like it or not, we are swept up in that you.
“You all must be born anothen if you want to see the Kingdom of God.”
No exceptions. No loopholes for raking your neighbor’s yard or never missing a Sunday service.
That you— it’s all of us.
“You all must be born again.”
And Nicodemus, he’s a Pharisee.
He’s super religious, so he responds— like we religious types always respond— with what he’s supposed to do. “How do I do that, Jesus…?
And then Jesus says:
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You all must be born again.”
Pay attention to the verbs Jesus uses on Nicodemus.
The verbs are what makes this passage that’s normally bad news for Christians like us good news for everybody.
Unless you all are born again, Jesus says, you will never see the Kingdom and you will never enter the Kingdom of God.
Apart from our being born again, we can neither see nor can we enter God’s Kingdom.
That is, when it comes to God and God’s Kingdom, on our own, we’re powerless.
We are born— naturally— spiritually blind and spiritually paralyzed.
When it comes to God’s Kingdom, we are born dead.
Whatever Jesus means by you being born again, he’s not talking about something you do.
The dead don’t make decisions.
Let me make it plain—
Being born again is not “making a decision for Jesus Christ.”
We are born anothen. The Greek can also be translated from above.
It’s top down.
You don’t come to Jesus to get born again— corspes can’t get up and go anywhere— Jesus must come to us and deliver us.
We get so hung up on what Jesus says to Nicodemus in the dark of night that we close our eyes to what John in his Gospel tries to show us.
Just think about how John begins his Gospel, not with a nativity story but with an intentional echo of the Book of Genesis, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things came into being through Him and not one thing came into being without Him.” In other words, this Gospel of Jesus Christ, says John, is about the arrival of a New Creation. And next, right here, Jesus tells Nicodemus and you all, that in order to see the Kingdom of God you’re going to have to become a new creation, too.
By water and the spirit.
To Good Friday, the sixth day of the week, the day of that first week in Genesis when God declares, “Behold, mankind made in our image.” And what does John show you?Jesus, beaten and flogged and spat upon, wearing a crown of thorns twisted into his scalp and arrayed with a purple robe, next to Pontius Pilate. And what does Pilate say? “Behold, the man.” And later, on that sixth day, as Jesus dies on a cross, what does John show you? Jesus giving up his spirit, commending his Holy Spirit. And then, John shows you Jesus’ executioners, attempting to hasten his death they spear Jesus in his side, and what does John show you? Water rushing out of Jesus’ wounded side. Water pouring out onto those executioners and betraying bystanders, pouring out— in other words— onto sinful humanity. Water and the spirit, the sixth day. And then Saturday, the seventh day of the week, the day of that first week in Genesis when God rests in the Garden from his creative work- what does John show you? Jesus being laid to rest in a garden tomb.
Then Easter, the first day of the week. And having been raised from the grave, John shows you a tear-stained Mary mistaking Jesus, as naked and unashamed as Adam before the Fall, for the what?
For the gardener, what Adam was always intended to be.
Later that Easter day, John shows you the disciples hiding behind locked doors. This New Adam comes to them from the garden grave, and like a mighty, rushing wind, he breathes on them. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he says to them.
Water, Spirit, Wind blowing where the Spirit wills, the first day.
He breathes on them. Just as God in the first garden takes the adamah, the soil of the earth, breathes into it the breath of life and brings forth Adam, brings forth life, this New Adam takes the grime of these disciples’ fear and failure, their sin and sorrow, and he breathes upon them the Holy Spirit, the breath of life.
They’re made new again.
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