At the beginning of the fourth Gospel, the Evangelist sings the song of light and life, sings of the incarnation of the Word of God in Jesus Christ, sings of the light that the darkness did not overcome, sings of rejection and welcome.
“… to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”[i]
The Gospel and the Epistle for this Sunday, read side by side, appear to be engaged in a little competition over who can be bolder in spelling out the consequences of our new relationship with God, our new life in God. John unfolds in a dialogue between Nicodemus and Jesus what he already touched on in the opening song: we are given a new identity as children of God, “born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of human will, but of God.”[ii] And Paul writes of the spirit of adoption bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God and joint heirs with Christ.[iii] One speaks of birth, the other of adoption; one chooses his metaphors boldly as a poet, the other sounds a bit more like he’s been to law school, but both proclaim our identity as children of God. I like imagining the two on a walk together after reading each other’s writings, and what a fascinating conversation that would be. John says, “We have beheld his glory and from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace,” and Paul nods and smiles.[iv] Paul says, “We are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh,” and John responds, “Amen.”[v]
We are children of God, and it is not our doing, it is the gift of God; it is the offer to live lives in which all brokenness is healed by grace. It is a gift, an offer, nothing about it is coercive. But why is that new life not being received universally? Both Paul and John wrestle with the difficult reality of the gift being rejected. There are people, friends and neighbors who do not recognize Jesus for who he is and do not receive him. And our own embrace of this new life is not nearly as whole-hearted and complete as we ourselves would like it to be. Is it because we are afraid of radical newness? Is is because we have a hard time letting go of the things and thoughts that have shaped us?
Early in the gospel narrative, Nicodemus comes to Jesus. He is a Pharisee, a good and pious man, a leader in the Jewish community who speaks not only for himself when he says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” But he comes by night. This conversation is private. Perhaps he doesn’t want to put his good name on the line. Yet he comes; there’s something about Jesus that draws him to have a more personal conversation.
“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.”
He has seen the signs. There was a wedding feast, and Jesus was there. When the wine gave out, he told the servants to fill six large stone water jars with water; and when the chief steward tasted it, it was the best wine.
Jesus came to Jerusalem and went to the temple. He drove out sheep and cattle, poured out the coins of the money changers, overturned their tables, and said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
Jesus’ actions raised some eye brows, but many believed in his name because they saw the signs that we was doing. That’s where Nicodemus is coming from. He has seen the signs, but he can’t see all that’s there to see because his knowledge limits his perception.
Jesus responds with a teaching, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” The presence of God’s reign is there to see, but who can see it? Our English Bibles render this phrase either “born from above” or “born again,” but the Greek word means both, and Jesus is having a great time playing with the double meaning: the new life he offers can’t just be put into words or contained by simple categories. This new life messes with the capacity of our language and therefore our knowledge.
Nicodemus hears only one dimension of the word’s meaning, “born again,” and he reacts with disbelief, “How can it be?” He talks about what he knows. It is impossible to reenter one’s mother’s womb and be born a second time. But that is not what Jesus’ words mean. Jesus speaks of a newness so radical that of all the words in the human vocabulary only “birth” can describe how life as a child of God begins. Jesus’ invitation to see and enter the kingdom is an invitation to embrace a grace-dependent and grace-shaped identity that will not be determined by blood or the will of the flesh or human will, but solely by God.
Nicodemus talks about what he knows, and Jesus’ offer of new life does not fit inside the house of knowledge he has built. He cannot see what is happening outside and he cannot hear Jesus’ presence as an invitation to come outside. He clings tenaciously to his categories of the possible. He knows it is impossible to reenter one’s mother’s womb and be born a second time.
But grace is pretty tenacious as well. Nicodemus thinks of birth in very concrete and physical terms, and Jesus meets him there. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” We are quite literally born out of water, but to speak of our identity as children of God we need language that doesn’t limit God to what we already know. Water is life-giving. Water is familiar. But God invites us to live life that is born of water and Spirit, of the familiar and the radically new.
Little children ask, “How come the clouds sail across the sky? How come the field sometimes rolls like the ocean? How come the trees stand still and sometimes they dance?”
“It’s the wind, honey. You hear the sound of it, you watch it play, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes, and neither do I.”
Nicodemus talks about what he knows, and Jesus says to him, “The wind blows where it chooses. The Spirit blows where it wills.” Nicodemus talks about what he knows, and Jesus speaks of two of the most uncontrollable, uncontainable of human experiences, birth and wind. Jesus’ offer of new life is beyond what we can know and control; our language and imagination simply do not stretch enough to include that offer. The new life is about living it in order to know. Jesus doesn’t say, “Come let me explain.” Instead he continues to invite us, saying, “Follow me. Come and see.”
Nicodemus is startled by this talk of wind and spirit, water and birth; all he can say is, “How can these things be?” I am reminded of the story of Abraham and Sarah who were childless and old, and one day they were given a promise of new life: In due season, Sarah, old Sarah, would give birth to a baby boy.But Sarah, like Nicodemus and the rest of us when we try to contain the horizon of God’s possibilities within our own horizons of knowledge and experience, Sarah chuckled. She knew her husband’s age. She knew her own age. She knew about menopause and the life cycle. And God asked, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”[vi] The answer was a baby boy, born in due season.
We have our own experiences of barrenness, of hope drying up and future disappearing from view. We think about employment numbers, student loans, government debts, church budgets, political deadlock, and environmental decline. We work so hard (and so well) building systems of knowledge and control that we forget how to trust the possibilities of God. We maneuver ourselves into dead ends where the only options left are denial or despair. But the truth is that the houses of knowledge we have built will always be too small to contain the possibilities of God. We will never only be what we have become because of the circumstances of our birth, or what we have made of ourselves or of each other. Jesus offers us new life in his company; he invites us to discover what life is like for those who receive its fullness from him, grace upon grace. Jesus invites us to discover our identity as children of God and as members of a community defined by mutual love.
Nicodemus is offered new life, but to embrace it he must let go of the contentions that tell him such newness is impossible; he must learn to trust the holy possibilities of God. His incredulous question, “How can these things be?” is not the last word of the conversation. Jesus tells him and us, that the Son of Man must be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. He points to the cross that we might see his own life in communion with the Father and the Spirit as the source of new life for all, life defined solely by the possibilities of God.
I imagine John and Paul walking along a river, and John says, “Jesus invites us to live and serve in a grace-shaped community as children of the cross,” and Paul responds, “Amen.”
[i] John 1:12
[ii] John 1:13
[iii] Romans 8:15f.
[iv] John 1:14,16
[v] Romans 8:12
[vi] Genesis 18:14