Nicodemus is an example of an educated and religious person who doesn’t quite GET what Jesus is about. The exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus is a typical passage from John’s Gospel, full of metaphors and symbolic language. Jesus is speaking in riddles, it seems, and Nicodemus is thoroughly confused. Understandably confused, I think.
First, of course, there is the mix-up over what Jesus is saying about being born. The Greek word used is “anothen,” and Nicodemus interprets it to mean “again.” He thinks that Jesus is requiring him to be born AGAIN in order to see the Kingdom of God. “How can a grown man ever be born a second time?” he asks. And Jesus tells him that he doesn’t need another physical, human birth. He needs to be born of the Spirit. You see, the other meaning of the word “anothen” is “from above.” Nicodemus, and all of us, need to be born “from above” by the Spirit in order to experience the Kingdom of God.
As Jesus goes on talking about this spiritual birth, there’s a line about the wind. “God’s Spirit is like the wind that blows wherever it wants to. You can hear the wind, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going.” Again, the Greek word is confusing. “Pneuma” means both Spirit and wind and breath. No wonder Nicodemus is confused by Jesus’ words!
What is this spiritual birth that he needs to experience? Jesus says that if he doesn’t understand these metaphors of water and wind, he’ll never understand the spiritual realities that Jesus is really talking about. Then again, the passage points out, the only one who really understands these spiritual realities, these heavenly things, is Jesus himself who has come to earth from heaven.
Jesus’ speech goes on to talk about how the Son of Man, Jesus, will be lifted up. In John’s Gospel, his being lifted up refers both to his crucifixion on a cross and to his ascension into heaven. Jesus’ being lifted up represents his being made visible to the world, his arms outstretched, drawing all people to God. Jesus says here, that when he is lifted up, when everyone sees him, everyone who has faith in him will have eternal life.
Can you imagine Nicodemus trying to understand what on earth Jesus is talking about? Nicodemus doesn’t know that Jesus is going to be killed. He doesn’t know that Jesus will be lifted up on a cross. And of course, he doesn’t know that Jesus will be raised again. There’s no way that Nicodemus could possibly understand Jesus’ speech.
But there are little hints in the conversation that Nicodemus is not really Nicodemus, and Jesus is not really Jesus. This conversation is not one that really happened between Jesus and a Pharisee. It’s more likely a conversation that happened much later on, after Jesus had been crucified, and died, and was risen. It was a conversation that took place at the end of the first century between two groups of people.
It’s the plural pronouns that are the clue. Both Nicodemus and Jesus use “we” instead of “I.” Jesus’ voice is the voice of the early Christian community from which John’s Gospel came. When Jesus says, “WE know what WE are talking about because WE have seen it ourselves. But none of you will accept what WE say,” that’s where we are hearing the voice of the Johannine Christians. The Johannine Christians are Jews who have become followers of Jesus and his way. They’ve been rejected by the other Jews. They’ve been kicked out of the synagogues. And you can hear the frustration and impatience they have with those who just don’t GET their faith in Jesus.
Nicodemus also uses a plural pronoun when he first speaks to Jesus. “WE know that God has sent you to teach us,” he says to Jesus, and it’s a hint that he represents a group of people as well. Nicodemus speaks for Jews in the late first century who showed some interest in Jesus, but had not yet joined the Christian community. Perhaps they were impressed by the stories of his miracles and signs. Perhaps they thought of him as an influential teacher. But the Johannine Christians are saying, “You still don’t get it! Jesus is so much more than that! Why don’t you understand? Why don’t you get it?”
The author of the Gospel answers his own question about why those other Jews don’t GET it. He says that it’s because of the work of the Spirit. The Spirit blows wherever it wants to, filling some and giving them a birth from above, and passing by others so they will not understand.
Though the Jewish Christians are trying to make sense of the fact that their friends have rejected Jesus and shut them out of the synagogues, these late first century Christians are convinced that Jesus’ arms are open for all to receive him, along with the life and hope and love that he brings. Understanding Jesus is not guaranteed by education or intelligence, they are sure, but comes as a gift of the Spirit. And God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn the world, but so that we might have life. God loves us so much that he gave his Son into our world to draw us all to God.
Nicodemus represents those people who are searching, who are trying to understand the meaning of Jesus’ life for theirs. And there is hope for them, the Gospel tells us. Jesus’ arms are open drawing us all towards God. And the Spirit is blowing too. Later in John’s Gospel Nicodemus appears again. This time he’s standing up for Jesus and helping Joseph of Arimathea prepare a proper burial for Jesus. Nicodemus has become a friend and a follower of the way.
There are many topics for reflection arising from this Gospel text. It includes that so very famous verse, John 3:16, that has summed up the faith of many Christians over the years. John 3:16 declares God’s amazing love for us in sending Jesus into our world so that we can begin to know God and live in God’s presence forever. It’s a verse that has provided a significant source of comfort and hope for many Christians.
The passage might also get us thinking about how we came to believe. How much of it was intellectual understanding? How much of it was the process of learning the laws of God and trying to follow them faithfully? How much of it was responding to the experience of God’s amazing love for us? Or is our belief, our faith, a truly mysterious gift from God? Can we only attribute it to the work of the Spirit within us?
Or perhaps, this passage might get us thinking about friends or family members who do not believe as we do. It reminds us that though we are called to share God’s love with all people, the question of whether they will one day “get it” is really in God’s hands. It is God’s Spirit that will give them a new birth into a life of faith and hope in God.
But today, as we continue our journey through the season of Lent, I would encourage you to hear in this passage the good news of God’s unending love for all of us, God’s children. God did not send Jesus into the world to judge and condemn us for our failures and mistakes. God sent him to save us, to turn our eyes, our hearts, and our minds towards God, to turn our lives towards God’s ways.
In our baptism, we have received God’s Spirit within us. When we confess our sins and receive God’s forgiveness, we don’t just get another try. We don’t just get a second chance to make the same mistakes. No, we get a new beginning. We get a fresh start with the Spirit of God in us, helping us, inspiring us to live as children of God and followers of the way. Thanks be to God for new beginnings. May God be with us as we continue our Lenten journey. Amen.