27 May 2018
Year B (RCL)
If I were Nicodemus, my first question to Jesus would have been, “Wait, who said anything about the kingdom of God?” Nicodemus says by way of introduction, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher come from God for no one could do the signs you do unless God were with him.” And Jesus comes back with, “Truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again/from above.” Talk about non sequitur.
And to make the puzzle deeper, John very rarely uses the expression “Kingdom of God.” The word “kingdom” appears five times in John’s Gospel: twice in this passage, and three times in the passage of the trial before Pilate, when Pilate asks Jesus if he is a king, and he replies that his kingdom is not of this world. The word kingdom occurs 56 times in Matthew’s Gospel (yes, I’ve counted), 18 times in Mark’s Gospel and 45 times in Luke’s Gospel. Clearly, John is reordering the concept of kingdom as it is found in the other Gospels. For John, the (perhaps) similar concept is “the life of the age,” usually translated “eternal life.”
We are told that Nicodemus is a ruler of the people (indeed his name is a compound of ‘victory’ and ‘people’ perhaps something like, “the people’s victor”). He is also a Pharisee, so believes in the resurrection of the just and the restoration of the kingdom at the resurrection. The only sign Jesus has done to this point in the Gospel (at least that the reader is told about) is the changing of water to wine, and then the cleansing of the Temple. In that episode, when asked for a sign, Jesus says, “Tear down this temple and I will rebuild it in three days.” Perhaps, John’s Jesus is tweaking Nicodemus’ (and the Pharisee’s) concern with the restoration of the kingdom, by saying that one can’t even see it (recognize it) without a new identity.
In the discourse that follows the interchange with Nicodemus (in verse 11 the pronouns shift to plural — we speak of what we know; you all do not believe us), Jesus speaks of the lifting up of the Son of Man. He uses that expression again in Chapter 12, after Philip and Andrew approach him to say that there are some Greeks at the festival who want to see him. There, he says, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone, but if it does, it bears much fruit. Now is the hour for the Son of Man to be lifted up.” The Greeks then disappear from the story, leaving the reader to wonder, did they ever get to see Jesus (and the answer of course is “Yes, we are them.”). Seeing and entering the kingdom depend on a new relationship with God brought about by being born from above, not on Jewishness (or any other [as Paul would say] ‘fleshly’ identity marker).
Situated as it is near the beginning of the Gospel, and with its allusion to Baptism, this passage invites the reader to ponder his or her own baptism, and entering into the relationship between Jesus and God and the community that will be on display in the rest of the Gospel (I am in the Father and the Father is in me; we are in you and all the other boundary blurring language to come). For John, the question is not about what the kingdom of God looks like, but what it means to participate in the divine life.
That makes this a perfect passage for Trinity Sunday. By virtue of baptism, we come to share in the divine life. We become heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. This is the only identity marker that matters any more. And in John’s telling of it, the divine life is a life of self-gift: For God so loved the world that God gave the only begotten Son (as a gift) that whoever should put their trust in him should not perish but have the life of the ages (the divine life). Alas, under the aspect of the fall, this self gift can look like the crucifixion, but that is not the final word. Jesus returns to the presence of the Father, and takes our nature with him. By that return, we are restored to the life of self-gift and delight.