16 March 2014
The Second Sunday in Lent
Lent 2A (RCL)
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
One has to feel a little sorry for Nicodemus. He comes to Jesus (at night), presumably to discuss Jesus’ teaching. He starts out by acknowledging that the Jews recognize Jesus is a teacher come from God. Of course, all the commentators point out that Nicodemus bases his assessment on Jesus’ signs, which leads to an incorrect understanding of Jesus. But, to be fair, Jesus’ response would have confused anyone. “No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born again/from above.” Nicodemus focuses immediately on the phrase born again/from above (the Greek word anothen has both meanings). Nicodemus hears “again” and not the other meaning.
Equally startling, however, is the mention of the Kingdom of God. The Greek word basileia occurs 18 times in Mark’s Gospel, 45 times in Luke’s Gospel and 56 times in Matthew’s Gospel. It occurs five times in John’s Gospel, in two conversations. It occurs twice in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus and three times in Jesus’ conversation with Pilate in chapter 18. Jesus never teaches his own disciples about the kingdom in John’s Gospel, never utters a parable about the kingdom, or looks forward to the kingdom. Jesus’ only uses of the term occur with a leader of the Jews (Nicodemus) and a Roman official (Pilate), and only as a device of misdirection; both interlocutors misapprehend the importance of the kingdom.
John is perhaps suggesting that both Jews and Romans misunderstand kingdom, and that it is not the guiding metaphor of the Christian’s life. The Jews were looking for a kingdom in time, a time when God would restore the kingdom; the Romans were building a kingdom in space (geography) and extent here and now. But no one will enter the kingdom without a rebirth both in time (again) and in space (from above). And it is the rebirth that matters, not the kingdom.
Jesus goes on to talk about the nature of those born of both flesh and spirit. The wind blows where it will, and we know neither where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with those born of spirit. The kingdom cannot be localized in time or space. The Johannine community understands itself as the reborn people on the desert way, on its way to Jesus’ God and our God, Jesus’ Father and our Father. We cannot hold on to Jesus now, but only follow him as the way. Looking back to the period of the Kingdom and forward to the restoration of the Kingdom is to fail to see where God is now. For John, the concept of “eternal life” replaces the the concept of the kingdom, and whoever has faith in the Son, has that life now.
The passage in Genesis is a perfect match for the Gospel. God calls Abram to leave his kindred and country and follow God into new places, without any assurance of ever arriving. Abram is to be a wanderer, looking for the wind where it blows.