“Born Again” Reconsidered

Night. An upstairs room with a small table containing a bottle of wine and two glasses. Nicodemus enters. Jesus, already seated, invites Nicodemus to join him at the table.

NICODEMUS

Teacher, we are almost convinced you come from the very presence of God. The things you make — an abundance of food to feed the hungry, wine to celebrate a new family, new sight for the blind — these things can’t be made by someone separated from the creator of the universe.

JESUS

(Pours each of them a glass of wine, makes a small ‘cheers’ gesture and takes a generous drink.)

You, the leaders of God’s people, won’t be able to see and understand the presence of God among you until you let yourselves die and be re-born, born into the air of God’s realm.

NICODEMUS

(Stops himself right before sipping wine.)

What? Are we each to re-enter our mother’s wombs?

JESUS

Let’s try again.

(Shifts in chair.)

You won’t be able to see, hear, and participate in God’s presence among you without being born of water and wind. As I entered death at my baptism the wind of God brought new life. I entered into the world anew. Everything changed.That’s what I’m inviting you into.

(Nicodemus struggles not to look as uncomfortable as he feels. Throughout the conversation Nicodemus handles his glass, swirling the contents, watching the motion of the wine. He is considering drinking.)

Don’t look so shocked. Of course you must be re-born from the wind, the air, the very atmosphere of God. You cannot, however, tame this wind. It may blow from a place you’d rather it not. You may get carried away to a place you’d rather not go. You see and hear this happening already. Let yourself be blown by it.

NICODEMUS

(Realizing he can’t hide his confusion)

I’m trying to understand but failing.

JESUS

(Trying to remain patient.)

And you claim to be a teacher of God’s people.

We have experienced God’s work among us, spoken of it, and even demonstrated its power. Yet you leaders ignore our words and actions and deny our experiences. Why would we then expect you to see and hear the full revealing of God among you? Only one of us has come from the very air of God. He will be lifted back up into it as a sign of God’s love and deliverance. Watch for this. This kind of faithfulness is the way toward full life.

God loves the whole vast network of people in such a deep and abiding way that God came out of the temple to be among you in the flesh, as God’s own offspring and heir in your midst. Anyone willing to share in God’s kind of faithfulness can stop living as though dead but can live a full, rich, beautiful, world-healing, and enduring kind of life. Accusing, convicting, punishing, these are not why God is among you. God is with you so that the whole world can be rescued into new life.

(Nicodemus almost takes a drink from his glass, then puts it down again.)

Anyone who resists this kind of faithfulness in his own life has already chosen judgment for himself. He has desired, chosen, and sought after a life that looks like death. He has seen God’s demonstration of faithfulness and walked away from it, seeing the way of light and walking towards darkness. His unfaithful actions, abandoning neighbors in need and seeking his own interests over and against those of others, are in pursuit of darkness.

The way of light exposes this evil. It makes the shadows visible.

Yet those who practice truth, who seek God’s presence through dying, who actively do the work of the faithful enduring love of God for each and every person, even at great cost to themselves, brighten the world with a new kind of life. If you hold on tight to your current way, your comfort, the honor your receive from others, always getting what you want, you’ll reach the death this leads to. I’m proposing a different way. Continue to watch me, see how it looks in practice, and if you’re willing then follow me. Together we’ll bring about the re-birth of the whole world.

NICODEMUS

I’m intrigued by your words but puzzled by how to live the way you describe. I’ll keep watching, though from a distance.

If this way leads to your actual death I will help with your burial. And I’ll watch to see what this new life might be like, “blown by the wind of God.”

(Nicodemus, leaving the glass on the table unsampled, exits awkwardly. Jesus watches him go.)

 


 

The Gospel of John has long been both fascinating and puzzling to me.

The imagery is rich and varied. An abundant and enduring life as a light in the darkness, the Holy Spirit as the wind and breath of God, drinking from a cup as accepting one’s own sacrifice, the good shepherd laying down his life for his sheep, living connected to Jesus as to a branch on a vine.

Much of the story is told through dialogues or monologues. It includes neither the sermon on the mount nor a description of the bread and wine at the last supper. It does, however, include the footwashing at the last supper, the new commandment that Jesus’ followers should love one another, the reinstatement of Peter after his denials (“Do you love me? . . . Feed my sheep.”), and this amazing conversation with Nicodemus from which we get the concept of born again, a discussion of the Holy Spirit, and the legendary John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world . . .”).

Yet in every translation I’ve come across the language in John’s Gospel feels broken, scattered, disjunct. Jesus responds to people’s questions in ways that feel like he’s ignored their question and said something entirely unrelated. Or he’ll describe cause and effect in a way that feels like the cause has nothing to do with the effect. Consider this from John 16:7-11 (NRSV):

It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

We can begin to interpret this to try to explain why people’s not believing proves anything about sin and judgement or why the disciples’ not seeing Jesus any longer proves anything about righteousness. But in a cursory reading these seem to not just not prove anything, they seem to be unrelated. At least the third “because” holds judgment and condemnation together, which at least seem like connected concepts.

This story of good news, this gospel, was written in John’s old age remembering back to his time decades ago when he walked around with God in flesh as his teacher and even his dear friend. He’s writing this to teach and encourage the communities he leads to live this way too. I get the sense, though, that he has lived so long in God’s presence that finding the language to communicate to those that are new to it is a struggle. He piles images on top of other images. He uses the words available to him, words built from a different culture, to explain concepts which they don’t quite fit.

And here we are, trying to understand it in yet another language and another culture. Things can get messy.

The dialog above is my wrestling with John 3:1-21. It’s not a translation or even a paraphrase. It’s a struggle to connect the ideas expressed through this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus with ideas from throughout the whole book. The opening prologue about the word becoming flesh and living among us, the baptisms before and after this passage, and Jesus’ prediction of his crucifixion and the call that has on his disciples’ lives all make an appearance.

And then there’s the mysterious pisteuon eis auton, typically translated as “believes in him”. As in “. . . whoever believes in him (God’s son) shall not perish but shall have everlasting life” (John 3:16b). John uses the verb form of the noun Paul frequently uses for faith. So maybe it’s “enfaithens in him” or maybe “shares in his faithfulness”:

Trust completely and follow him, living in his presence and doing what he says.

Live out the same kind of faithfulness, laying down your life for your friends.

Whatever “believing in him” means, it’s a big and challenging version of belief. And it leads to light and a life for the ages.

 

What are your thoughts?

Do you find John as interesting and confusing as I do?

Have we gotten “born again” or “believe in Jesus” wrong?

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