We’ve all been here before. This isn’t your first John 3:1-17 rodeo. I know it’s not. If you tell it me it is, you are lying to be pedantic and difficult. As such, we’re going avoid scriptural foreplay and witty banter which usually leads to the John 3:16 climax I know you’re waiting on. That’s not how we’re going to do this. In the famous and unpublished words of Napoleon Bonaparte, “I’m going to invade Waterloo from Sweden”. What the hell does that mean? I don’t know. I think it means I’m going to try something different with this passage we think we all know so well.
Nicodemus wants to know, “How do these circular answers relate to the story of my birth let alone being born for a second time?” He’s looking for a clear, black and white answer. I don’t get the feeling Nicodemus was looking to invest much time, energy, and thought into this process. He’d come to Jesus under the cover of darkness. A deep philosophical and theological discussion about the nature of life and rebirth wasn’t fitting into his ever diminishing timetable. Nicodemus needed an answer, “what does any of this have to do with being born again?”
Nicodemus is actively listening. Contrary to countless sermons and dramatic presentations, he is not a dumb man. Nor is Nicodemus intellectually shallow. He is a Pharisee. This should count for something. He is seeking to understand God. Jesus tries to help him understand by using “birth” as a metaphor. Metaphors are important. Jesus uses them often. A woman creating, carrying, and giving life over a nine month period constitutes his primary image of the idea of “birth”. Being born “again”, as it has been presented, isn’t within his intellectual wheelhouse. How is this central to, relate back, and tie into seeing God’s kingdom? What is it about the act of birth; nurturing life for nine months and then at the right time delivering a human being into the world that reveals something he’s not getting about how God functions?
To really understand what’s happening, we need to be Nicodemus. We must put ourselves in his shoes. His limitations are ours. The pressures and constraints he experiences are those we feel: give me what I need to make me feel whole, happy, and healthy and give it to me now. Nicodemus doesn’t want to want to work too hard, too long, to reach what the Buddhists call Nirvana and Jesus is going to call eternal life.
There are layers of tension we don’t regularly talk about or acknowledge when we approach John 3:16. They’re self-evident, staring us in the face, but we ignore them at our own peril. We talk around them. You can’t miss obvious tension in that Nicodemus is a Pharisee and Jesus is Jesus. These two men are from two different sides of the social and economic tracks. The Pharisees, as a whole, are opposed to Jesus’ message. That’s why Nicodemus is visiting Jesus under the cover of darkness, seems a little shady, and is ready to ask his questions and get back to his side of town. He doesn’t want to be caught hanging around Jesus’ house. Economically and religiously they are as different as they come. The worlds they inhabit are polarized. As representatives of their distinct groups, they stand out. Jesus looks like the forgotten people and Nicodemus stands in for the religious and political bureaucracy who left them behind. My point is this: there is a huge gap, full of tension (on multiple levels) between Jesus and Nicodemus.
What does Jesus mean by being “born again”? Hasn’t it all be said? Probably, but let’s take one more try. Birth is a slow, deliberative, creative, and formative process. Notice I said creative. It is like creation. It is creating life, think about Genesis. Life is coming into world, one more time, just as it has for billions of years. Being born is a Genesis moment. Birth is not a big bang moment. Instead, it is deliberate life giving moment that follows. Jesus is talking about birth in these grand, Genesis like terms while also thinking about the beauty of birth which keeps the spark of creation alive. Nicodemus is not on that level. Jesus wants him to think a little larger.
Let’s go back to the original question. What does Jesus mean by “born again”? There’s one fundamental reality about birth; none of us had any choice in the matter. We have nothing to do with the circumstances of our own birth. Birth isn’t a choice.
Jesus seems to be indicating: to be born again means arriving at a place where we have no choice but to arrive. Being born again points to a certain level of inevitability. We will end up in some kind of positive relationship with God. Does this happen because we make it happen? No it doesn’t. Our efforts are guaranteed to fail. God presence is the only guarantee of life’s success. If birth works, whether the first time (or the “again” time), it’s because God is moving toward us faster than we can run away. God has everything to do with being born again. Since we’re all living testaments to the miracle of birth, being born again is both God’s call and God’s prerogative. We choose who we marry, live, and work. We don’t choose life. Life chose us, again.
Life, birth, whether new or “again” unifies us. If you’re a carpenter or a Pharisee, Republican or a Democrat, a NRA member or opposed to the Second Amendment, polarized or could care less; life brings people together when they appear to share no commonalities.
Look at Nicodemus’ question in verse 10. He asks, “How are these things possible?” How can this one story which seems to be common ground for all Christians work? How can life and life, again bring polarized people together (people like Nicodemus and Jesus)? I think it can. Stories like this, the ones we’ve heard thousands of times before, have resonance though we swear there’s nothing we can learn.
Let’s go back to his original question: how is it possible to be born, again? Given, there’s no choice in the matter, someone external to you (mother or God) does all the work, you’re totally dependent on food and safety from this external source, and you have no control over the timetable. Now, you’re starting to really feel Nicodemus’ confusion and you really do want to know, “how is this possible?”
Do you want the good news or the bad news? Jesus answers the question. However, he doesn’t give an answer Nicodemus likes or expects.
We are born, again because our lives our worth saving. Our birth makes us alive. Jesus is trying to explain to Nicodemus that being “born, again” makes us human. And God, for no better way to put it, is interested in saving and redeeming the worst parts of our humanity. Everyone’s life has an intrinsic worth, value, and meaning. As I said a moment ago, life is what we everyone holds in common. When we stop seeing value in the lives of others, our humanity as our common denominator, we stop seeing God. Dehumanization is the first step to genocide. Saving humanity is the first step toward salvation. The contrast couldn’t be any clearer.
God, in ways we will never imagine or understand, loved us enough give us Jesus. Through remembering Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in the Eucharist, we are given a means listening to world, forgiving others, and looking for God at work in the lives of those who surround us. The Eucharist levels the playing field so we can see each other not as animals or clumps of carbon or groups of atoms. When we come to the table, we see each other as those who are born, again, alive in Christ, and loved children of God.
Richard Lowell Bryant