Lent 2 16th March 2014 Year A
Familiarity can breed if not contempt at least indifference. A passage like this can become so well known that its profundity can slip pass us all too easily.
Two men meet, representing two very different ways of thinking and being. Jesus is seen in John’s Gospel to represent something radically new. Thus this gospel has John the Baptist as the high point of the old order before stepping aside with the words, ‘I’m not worthy to untie his sandals.’ Jesus then commences his ministry in this gospel at the wedding in Cana of Galilee where the symbolism of water being changed to wine represents that all is made new and the old is past. Jesus, symbolised by wine, is not of the same order as the old water. He next cleanses the temple. This episode is surely placed here by John as distinct from the other gospel writers who more naturally, and I am sure historically correctly, place it as the beginning of the last week of his ministry. John moves the episode to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to emphasise the point again that in clearing or even symbolically destroying the Temple Jesus is meant to be seen as something radically new which can’t be fitted into the old system. John is pointing out that Jesus’ sacrifice will replace those sacrifices of the old temple. Now this encounter comes between Jesus and Nicodemus in order again to make the same point.
The conversation of the two is initiated by Nicodemus. Rabbi or teacher you are one sent by God. Perhaps Nicodemus is simply buttering up his conversation partner here or perhaps his words reflect genuine respect. In chapter 7 of this gospel he is presented as one who does have genuine respect for Jesus, while tradition has him with Jesus’ followers after Jesus’ death. Perhaps Nicodemus is wishing to enter perhaps into some nice theological discourse with Jesus in the manner in which Pharisees were so want to do. Jesus has none of this. Jesus makes clear there will be no allowance for containing and restraining the conversation in terms of the old, keeping Jesus contained within those old categories. Jesus thus immediately moves the conversation to a completely new domain. ‘No one,’ he says, ‘can see the Kingdom of God unless they are born from above’. Jesus has moved the conversation from the theoretical and purely rational to the deeply experiential. Nicodemus wishes to remain with the purely rational and so retorts, ‘How can a grown person be born again. Can they enter again the womb?’ Nicodemus has in his opening words referred to some of the great miracles Jesus has done but is unable to grasp the radicalism of that to which they point. One needs, says Jesus, to be born spiritually to go alongside our physical birth. This birth links to Jesus birth in such manner as seen in Jesus’ own baptism where the heavens open and the Spirit descends (John 1), We, along with Nicodemus, are being called to be reborn again in the Spirit. By such birth we are then incorporated into Jesus born in such manner.
Next Jesus speaks of the wind and how it blows. Here there is a play on words. In either the Aramaic or Hebrew original tongue of Jesus and also in the Greek of John’s writing, the term used has a double meaning of wind and spirit. Nicodemus quite incredibly seems to be stuck with the literal. ‘How can this be?’ he replies. Jesus dismisses his simplistic understanding with, ‘you are a great teacher in Israel and you don’t know this?’ Jesus then replies of how ‘we speak of what we know and report of what we have seen’ before adding and yet you will not accept our message.
John’s Gospel like all the gospels is not an historical biography of Jesus but rather is a construct of the church, a theological reflection on what Jesus meant to the church some 70-80 years in the case of this gospel, after his life. The use of the plural ‘we’ here would seem to indicate that it is the church rather than Jesus himself who is saying these words. As such these words are a reflection of the confusion and pain that the church felt in that many, especially of their own people, the Jews, would not respond to their good news of Jesus. Then the text again turns to the singular ‘I’. Jesus then replies to Nicodemus in terms of, ‘you don’t know the simple observational things of this world, how then can you know the deeper things of heaven?’ Then we return again to what would seem to be a later church addition about the son of man gone up to heaven having first come down. Obviously the earthly Jesus had not yet done that so these words are a later addition.
Next we move to Jesus speaking of the episode in the desert when Moses lifted up the bronze snake.. The reference comes from the exodus journey when many were being fatally bitten by poisonous serpents. On the thus lifting up of the bronzed serpent those who had been bitten were healed. The symbol is still that of the healing profession today. Jesus then goes on to say that like the snake being lifted up in order to heal and save, and those two words are interchangeable in the original Greek, so will he, the son of man, be lifted up to heal and save. In John’s Gospel as distinct from the other gospels, where the cross is the prelude to resurrection glory, in John’s gospel the being lifted up itself on the cross is itself a part of Jesus being lifted up to glory which continues in the resurrection and ascension. The cross itself is full of glory because it celebrates love, another central theme of this gospel. Then follows that verse probably most famous of all, seen everywhere from placards at the Olympic Games to churches all over the world. What that verse centrally affirms is that God is the God of love. That has been just spoken of when we heard that the son of man must be lifted up. Rather than the narrow God of harsh judgment we learn the central truth that God’s love knows no bounds but rather extends to the whole world. This ironically is somewhat contrary to the narrow restrictive theologies of so many who use this verse. Our final verse affirms again the early church reflection on that truth, when it affirms, by that time acknowledging that Jesus is the Son of God, that God did not send his son into the world to judge but rather to save.
What do we take from such a reading as that of today? First Jesus cannot be contained within the old categories. Jesus is so radically different he blows them apart. To share in that way with Jesus is so radical that the best metaphor to be used is that you need to be reborn. Only such a radical metaphor can pick up the radicality of the change that is brought about by our following Jesus. Those reborn in such manner are reborn in the Spirit, and the Spirit like the wind knows no restraints. It can’t be boxed in. As followers of Jesus we have a wonderful freedom. That freedom however, is a freedom to love, for that is the second great theme of our gospel today. It is that love of God as seen in Christ which brings life. It is that love we are called to bear to bring life. Love lies at the heart of our faith. That love, not Law, not religious prescriptions or whatever which is celebrated by Paul in his letter to the Romans where he gives Abraham as the great example. He journeys the journey of faith and love. Let us do likewise.