3Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
What I Am Learning:
Yes, these verses have a tarnished reputation. Authoritarian Christians have used these verses to tell people they had to have a conversion experience in order to prove they are followers of Jesus. The primary message underlying their message: they are indispensable to God’s process of conversion and that they know what conversion looks like. These authoritarian Christians apply social pressure to people when they are vulnerable and think that the conversion they impose is from God. The more people they convert the better Christians they are, they think. A notch on their Bible for every convert….
Jesus says otherwise.
“Nicodemus” was not a proper Jewish name, in fact it wasn’t a name at all. It comes from two Greek words. One is the word for “victory”. It is the same word that the sportswear Nike comes from. The second word is from “demos”, which means “people.” Nicodemus means “victory of the people”.
Nicodemus was not a person, but is a stand-in for a whole group of people in Jesus’ day and in our own. There are many ideas about who Nicodemus stands for. My favorite is that he stands in for those who want the People of Israel to come out victorious over Rome. But their desire for victory had been shaped by Rome’s spirituality of power over others. The word “flesh” in this passage does not mean our body but is a reference the domination culture that formed the spirituality of the Roman Empire. This spirituality of bullying had infected Nicodemus and all of the people he represents.
Make no mistake: Jesus was talking about the need for conversion:
Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Jesus told Nicodemus and all who want God to enable their victory over others that what they want is not from God. But to see another kind of victory, victory with others and even with our enemies, we must be born from above.
Birth in the first century determined your status, your allegiance and your worldview. To be born from above, that is from the Creator of the universe, implies a changed status, changed allegiance and worldview.
To be born from above means that our whole way of being in the world changes.
But this is not something that can be imposed on others, or bottled up in a scripted sermon or way of converting other people. This conversion comes like the wind, a primal power of the world. The wind blows where it will and cannot be controlled. The Spirit of life moves around, uncontained and wild.
Nicodemus had read the Torah and followed the law and was a faithful religious person but had not been totally reoriented to God’s way of mutuality. When Jesus engaged Nicodemus and the people he represents he was not being judgmental, he was being hopeful. He hoped that Nicodemus might move his gaze from apre-programmed and formulaic spirituality to hear the wind blowing.
Lutherans and Episcopalians believe that this reorientation is not a once-for-all thing, but an ongoing life-long and daily process begun in Baptism:
In baptism God radically affirms our life and invites us to daily death and resurrection, dying to domination and submission culture and rising to God’s way of mutuality. In this death and resurrection we continually move through a cycle of
We are invited to die to the worldview of our natal culture, and be reborn to a whole new worldview.
Who does Nicodemus represent?
I have grown up in a culture that prized winning, and the individuals who win. My culture, in part, is an individualist-competitive culture. Only one can win, the others who competed don’t matter that much, they are forgotten. This winning and losing is a zero-sum game. It’s victory or bust.
This individualist-competitive culture is in me. Maybe it even is me. I want victory over others – at least a part of me does. My natal culture has taught me well, set a spirituality in me that I was only too willing to accept.
But the wind is blowing.
A year and a half ago a big storm blew through Anacortes. I did my best to prepare for it but found I was not prepared enough. The wind moved stuff around, rearranged and randomized a many things in my yard. It was frightening and exhilarating and disorienting and fun.
Nicodemus is us, and not just a few of us.
What Jesus is offering is a life of constant change, death and rebirth. Jesus offers a daily reorientation that is frightening, exhilarating, disorienting and fun.
At the end of these verses we see John 3:16: For God so loved the world….
The word “world” here is the Greek word cosmos. It has the same range of meanings it does for us today: the universe and all that is in it and how we look at or understand this world. Jesus did not come to destroy our ways of seeing the world, he did not come to destroy our culture, but to save it from itself.
Domination cultures always destroy themselves. Our competitive ways can dehumanize us and those we compete with. Much of Christianity, including our authoritarian sisters and brothers, have turned Christianity into yet another expression of Rome’s spirituality: striving for status in a dog-eat-dog world.
How many notches are on your Bible?
Our continual conversion from domination culture to God’s way of mutuality comes from above, a primal move of love by the Creator of all things.
Are you disturbed? Are you feeling stuck between two ways of seeing the world? Are you disoriented?
If so, that’s good.
And when you are feeling that way, look up at Jesus on the cross, vulnerable, suffering and dying and realize that God does not seek victory over you, but seeks to free you and I from the need for power over others. We are so loved by God as a gift that we need no other status, no other allegiance, no other worldview.
At the end of John, Nicodemus came and helped to bury Jesus.
There is hope for all of us Nicodemus’ yet. The wind blows where it will….