The EPISCOPAL CHURCH of ST. JAMES the LESS
I have to begin by saying, this reading is a tough one, for me. It contains two of the most famous pieces of Scripture. John 3:16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life. That’s the first. The second is Jesus’ saying that, to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, you must be born again.
Both these, this verse and the saying, are touchstones today of the Evangelical Church. Coming from that tradition, I knew them well growing up. The one is a summary of the Gospel, we would have said. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son. I don’t think Episcopalians would disagree. In that verse, there’s God’s love for the world, and God’s manifestation of that love in Jesus. We might differ on what “believeth in him” means when we refer to faith in Jesus Christ. We might not be so into pasting this verse on billboards or bumper stickers or committing it to memory. But overall, I’d say the verse’s meaning is fairly consistent across traditions.
Not so much with the other saying. “Verily verily I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” That phrase born again, so well known, the meaning of which is usually taken to be a dramatic, life-changing encounter with God, comes from this story, this encounter that Jesus has with this Pharisee, this leader of the Jewish establishment.
Evangelicals don’t talk much about this context, or about all the ambiguity within it. John’s Gospel is not like the other three. There’s no Sermon on the Mount, no birth story, no parables. Instead, there are a lot of words, puns, word plays, double meanings, and ambiguity. It’s poetry, really.
The literary critic William Empson wrote a famous book in the 1930s called The Seven Types of Ambiguity. Poetry, he said, refuses to be pinned down to any one meaning. He defined ambiguity as “any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language.” I’m not sure if he ever wrote about the Gospel of John, but if he had, he would have found a lot here to support his point.
Just look at how the encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus begins. Nicodemus approaches Jesus “by night.” We could hear that as just the time of the day he pays his visit. But then it would probably say “at night,” rather than “by night.” Just that one preposition opens up multiple meanings. Yes, he’s coming to Jesus after sundown. But he’s also coming to Jesus by night, that is, under cover of darkness, in secret. He’s a leader of the Jewish establishment. Jesus has just caused a riot in the Temple by overturning the money changers’ tables, and for a religious leader to be seen with him could be dangerous. There’s still another reading of “by night.” Nicodemus is lost, confused, at a point in his life where he needs something and he doesn’t know what. So he approaches Jesus.
The encounter begins with a respectful greeting. “Rabbi,” starts Nicodemus “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” Jesus’ reply, as so often happens in the Gospel of John, is on a different plane. “Truly I say to you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born from above.” Born again, born from above, you can translate it both ways from the Greek. And this is John’s Gospel again using the word that will open up the most meanings. Or to use Empson’s definition, will “give room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language.”
Nicodemus takes the saying literally, as Jesus’ audience often does in the Gospel of John. And so Jesus puts it another way: “No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born by water and the spirit.”
I was surprised to learn some years ago that we Episcopalians interpret Jesus’ words here to be about baptism. You must be born again, by water and the spirit, means you must be baptized: in water, invoking the spirit. If we, the church, have added that layer of meaning to it, fine. But to reduce it to that drains some of the life out of it.To be born again.
To be born by the Spirit. Born from above. What does this mean?
It’s John’s Gospel, so we can be sure there’s more than one meaning. It may be baptism. It may be a dramatic conversion experience. It is certainly, also, an invitation to enter the realm of the spirit and not to discount it in our lives.
We live, many of us, like Nicodemus. We’ve accomplished a lot in our professional lives, we’ve become known and respected in our communities. We have a protective shell around us, an image to uphold. If we do any questioning of our position in life or life choices, like Nicodemus, it’s in the cover of night, in secret, not risking any change to our carefully constructed lives. Then Christ comes and says to us, let go of that control. Let the Spirit blow into your life and carry you where it will.
What would that look like?
Be more vulnerable with people, and see what happens. Follow that thought you had; don’t block it out so quickly. Stop forming opinions before you hear someone out. Be open to what they say even if it means you could change, or admit you were wrong.
When Jesus let the Spirit into his life, as we read in last Sunday’s reading, he fled into the wilderness, only to be tempted by Satan. Are we ready for the Spirit to take us to places we’d rather not go, but need to? That may be a dark place, a spiritual desert, a midlife crisis. Remember, the spirit blows where it chooses … and we don’t know where it will go, once we let it in.
What does it mean to let the Spirit into your life? To be born from above, born again? It’s Lent, and this is exactly the time to ask this question. Presented with that question, Nicodemus shrugged, and walked away. May we not respond like he did. Rather, stop, take heed, and let the Spirit work in you. Amen.