Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ 3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ 4Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ 5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 8The 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.’ 9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 ‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 ‘For 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. 17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. This is the Word of God. Thanks be to God.
Before we dive into this reading today, I want to name a new area of learning for me: the reality that texts like the Gospel of John have been used by Christians for centuries to set up false opposition between Jesus and the Jews. I myself have preached lots of sermons using texts like this one to show that Jesus was unique and superior to all his Jewish colleagues in the time he was alive. Those kinds of interpretations, I have learned, were invented by Christians in power throughout history to support the idea that Christians are superior to Jews, and therefore have the right to oppress them and make them the scapegoats for all of society’s ills. I wrote about this in my pastor’s corner in the March newsletter, and linked some really helpful resources for all of us to engage together. My hope is that we can commit to resisting anti-Jewish rhetoric in our very own Christian tradition as a practice for this Lenten season and beyond. When we know better, we do better – that’s the whole point of repentance, turning around to walk in a new direction. I hope you’ll join me on that journey.
I’m thankful to Rev. Anne Dunlap, who pointed out to me that we cannot understand the gospel of John – and passages like this one – without John chapter 11, verse 48, spoken by some of Jesus’ Jewish colleagues after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead: “If we let him [Jesus] go on like this,” that verse says, “everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”
This verse helps us understand that the Jews were not Jesus’ enemies, no matter how many Christian power players have tried to spread that lie to scapegoat the Jewish people for Jesus’ death. The oppressor of both Jesus and his Jewish colleagues was Rome. As Rev. Anne puts it, “Even though some of these leaders [who are scared after Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead] are technically Roman-appointed collaborators, we still must take their concern about the threat of Roman violence seriously – if for no other reason than the fact that by the time the author of John’s gospel is crafting this narrative, Rome has done exactly this: destroyed the holy place and the nation. This is our starting place,” Rev. Anne says, “as we begin to re-interpret these texts with our focus on shifting the power analysis back where it belongs: on Rome.” (Rev. Anne Dunlap, SURJ-Faith Coordinator, “Rome Will Destroy Us: Resisting Anti-Judaism in John”, 2.24.20 Webinar for Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), Content Transcript , pg. 8.)
Now, for this conversation between Jesus and his peer, Nicodemus. In the context of Rome’s violence, let’s imagine this as an earnest conversation between two Jewish folx who are wondering together, “What does it look like to faithfully be God’s people, resisting the empire’s ways of violence and greed, when we know that the lives of our beloveds are at stake?” Maybe Nicodemus is wondering how much he can go along with Rome’s rules while still following in the ways of this teacher Jesus to undermine Rome’s oppressive power. I imagine many of us ask honest questions like these as we seek liberation for our own communities. To what extent should we play America’s game by America’s rules, even though we know this country was founded on violence, resting on the stolen land of our Indigenous neighbors and the stolen labor of our African-descended siblings? Is simply voting according to our values enough? Or are we called beyond this, to challenge every system that values some people over others, that relies on violence to keep what the wealthiest consider to be “peace”? How do we faithfully resist, and what are we risking by joining that resistance?
As we linger in these questions, in this night time encounter between two Jewish leaders, I invite you to join me in some imagining that Rev. Anne has suggested for this passage. Listen to her words. “Let’s imagine,” Rev. Anne says, “that being “born from above, born anew” could mean realizing we are formed into an oppressive system (aka born of the flesh), and we are “born anew” or in the Spirit when we wake up and commit ourselves to liberation. Let’s imagine that insisting that God loves the world is a way of saying that Rome does not. And that “believing” in “the Son” means not giving allegiance to Caesar but to the One God and one’s community. And that what we need to be saved from is not some generalized personalized “sin” but Rome itself. Let’s imagine,” Rev. Anne says, “that “not perishing” means that God’s power to generate life is far beyond what any empire can muster, and we are always held by that Divine power. Life generating life, eternally. Let’s imagine,” Rev. Anne says, “that the question is not one of belief in doctrine, but “are you recognizing what is happening in this empire? Are you recognizing who Jesus is, who God is (and who Rome is not?)” (Rev. Anne Dunlap, ibid., pg. 11)
We don’t know exactly what Nicodemus thought or felt about this invitation to be born from above from Jesus. But John, the gospel writer, does give us a couple peeks into Nicodemus’ actions later in the story that give us space to wonder how he might have been changed by this nighttime conversation. We find Nicodemus twice more in John’s Gospel – once a few chapters later when he sticks up for Jesus’ legal rights when people are trying to get him arrested, and then one final time after that, when Jesus has finally been executed by the state. It’s Nicodemus who brings an extravagant amount of myrrh and aloe to help Joseph of Arimathea gently tend to Jesus’ tortured body, to wrap it in linen, and place it in a new tomb in a garden.
So, the Gospel writer doesn’t answer our question about what Nicodemus finally believed about Jesus. And maybe that’s because what Nicodemus believed did not matter as much as what Nicodmeus did with Jesus’ invitation to be born from above. In his actions, I see a man who had his life turned upside down as he went all in with folx most targeted by the violence of the state, advocating alongside them and finally joining them in the grief of what Rome’s violence truly costs. I wonder if the Gospel writer is putting that same question to us today: Will we have the courage to be born from above? Will we release our grip on the systems of oppression we know in order to embrace bold practices that liberate others, even if those new ways of being feel as wild and new to us as the wind of the Spirit? Rome would control the whole world, but God so loved the world. May we believe this not just with our hearts, but with our bodies, our wealth, our choices, and the entirety of our lives. Amen.