Born again?

12 March 2017
Second Sunday in Lent
Lent 2A (RCL)
Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

The Gospel reading for this Sunday contains one of the most oft cited verses in the Bible. Who has not seen someone holding a poster with the words “John 3:16” at some sporting event? This verse contains the promise of eternal life for all who believe, and is taken as a kind of summary of the Christian Gospel. But the whole passage that comes before this verse serves precisely to problematize our understanding of eternal life. For John, it means something different from an everlasting life in the Kingdom of God.

I always feel sorry for Nicodemus in this story. He comes to Jesus (granted at night) with some show of respect for Jesus. Rabbi, we know you are a teacher come from God for no one could do the signs you do unless God were with him. Nicodemus, representing the synagogue has come for a dialogue with Jesus. Jesus responds with a lightning bolt out of left field: “Unless a person is born again/from above that one will not be able to see the kingdom of God.” I would almost expect Nicodemus’ response to be, “Huh? Who said anything about the kingdom?” Interestingly, this is the only place in John’s Gospel where we find the phrase “Kingdom of God.” The caricature of the Pharisees we receive in the New Testament is that they were waiting for the restoration of God’s kingdom, and saw the practice of personal righteousness as the prerequisite both for God to restore the kingdom and for a person to be raised into it. Clearly, John is using Nicodemus as a foil for this position.

Jesus shifts the grounds of the debate. One will not enter unless one has been born again/from above. The Greek word anothen means both again and from above. The pun is lost in English. Nicodemus clearly understands one meaning — again — because he asks how it is possible for a person to enter a second time in the mother’s womb. Nicodemus’ expectation of the Kingdom is temporal: the kingdom will come in time, in the future. Jesus replies that a person must be born of water and spirit. I think this is an allusion to both a natural birth and baptism. And then comes the resolution of the passage, the key that unlocks it. Jesus says, “Do not be astonished that I said to you, that you people must be born again.” The second “you” in the sentence is plural, and refers to those of whom Nicodemus is the representatives, the Pharisees.

To enter the Kingdom, which is something of interest to the synagogue community from which John’s community comes, but not of interest to John’s community, the synagogue community must be born again. They were born the first time when they crossed the Red Sea (water) and when they wandered in the wilderness. In the wilderness God’s spirit (wind) would rest on the tabernacle (an image introduced in the prologue of John) and then lift up and blow where it would. The people would follow. The synagogue community must return to the wilderness to enter the Kingdom.

But the kingdom is not what they expect. If Jesus has told them of earthly things, and they have not believe, how will they believe if he tells them of heavenly things. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, when the people were plagued by serpents, and all who looked on the serpent lived, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that all who look on him will live. The eternal life on offer in verse 3:16 is something other than an everlasting life in a restored Jerusalem, attractive as that may be. It is instead somehow a life in the wilderness, dependent upon God.

Verse 17 goes on to say that the Son did not come to judge the earth (condemn is a bad translate — the word means to make distinctions or discriminations), but to save the world. In vv. 18 and 19 (which we don’t read), Jesus goes on to say that the world judges itself by its refusal to come into the light. Eternal life is something to be lived now, if we are willing to come into the light. This passage may be John’s only use of the phrase Kingdom of God, but it is his first of many uses of the phrase eternal life. Reading the Gospel further will slowly unfold for us what John means by that phrase, which is not yet apparent.

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