Now I ask you to pray for me as I venture to speak in the name of God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Several years ago there was a flamboyant character in Florida whose name was John 3:16. He wore flashy-colored clothes, had a diamond pin embossed with ‘John 3:16′ in his lapel, and many of us saw him on televised football games holding a giant sign that read ‘John 3:16′. He was a former convict who converted to Christianity and then worked with addicts and other ex-convicts. I’m told his name at birth was John Cook but that he changed his name to John 3:16 because, he said, that it is the motto for his ministry and everybody knows what that verse means. John 3:16 is also the final verse in today’s gospel – the conclusion of the story about Nicodemus coming to Jesus after dark and asking how one can be born twice, of both water and the Spirit. When I was younger and more certain of my opinions, I questioned the authenticity of this story because it appears only in John’s gospel. Here was a Pharisee of impeccable reputation who comes to Jesus under cover of darkness to get answers to his deepest questions, and he is told he must do something that contradicts basic natural laws as well as everything he has ever been taught about who he is and how he came to be.
Nicodemus actually has two encounters with Jesus. In this first one, I thought that coming to Jesus under the cover of darkness – ‘on the sly’ so to speak – displayed a weakness of character. And I wished that Nicodemus had stood up ram-rod straight at high noon – something like our cultural icons of masculinity, John Wayne or Clint Eastwood – looked Jesus right in the eye and asked him a simple, direct question. But he doesn’t fit that mold. So some interpreters have taken a cynical view of Nicodemus. When he acknowledges that Jesus is a teacher he uses the plural ‘we’, suggesting that he may or may not be among the people who respect Jesus as rabbi. And when Jesus tells him that no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born again, Nicodemus uses a familiar delaying tactic by noting the literal absurdity of being physically ‘born again’. ‘Surely,’ he says, ‘you must know that we cannot enter our mothers’ wombs a second time’. But in his second encounter, in John 7, Nicodemus has a different word about Jesus after the temple guards fail to obey the Pharisees’ order to arrest Jesus. ‘Why did they not arrest him,” the Pharisees asked – “have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him?” And Nicodemus’ rhetorical response to them was, “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?” Later, when Pilate had given Joseph of Arimathea permission to claim Jesus’ body, Nicodemus offers to help provide a worthy burial.
As I’ve grown older and hopefully wiser, I think Nicodemus may have had good reasons to take care that no one would see him visiting Jesus – and I think a more empathic view of Nico-demus is credible. So to correct my youthful misgivings, I’d say now that he appears to have had good reasons for exercising caution in arranging to meet Jesus. He was after all, as John puts it, a ‘ruler of the Jews’ – which means that he was almost certainly a member of the Sanhedrin – the 70 men responsible for the religious life of Israel – the group that had already been trying to decide what they could do to restrain Jesus. He was also a Pharisee – the Jewish sect noted for several attempts to embarrass Jesus, and their plottings to see him killed.
When he and Jesus meet at night, Nicodemus breaks ranks with his Pharisaic and Sanhe-drin associates right off the bat with this stunning comment: ‘We all know that God has sent you to teach us – your miracles are proof of that’. But then, instead of a thank-you for this vote of confidence, Jesus’ response perplexes Nicodemus when he says that a radical change has to occur in those who would be his disciples. ‘Unless you are born again, you can never get into the Kingdom of God’. And Nicodemus doesn’t have a clue, so he protests: ‘Are you serious, Jesus – you can’t do that. One can’t re-enter a mother’s womb and be born again. How one can have a re-birth? It doesn’t make sense – we’re already born. We can’t repeat that – it’s done – we can’t replicate our nativity. And if you’re suggesting a spiritual re-birth of some kind, I have a serious problem with that as well, because it just doesn’t follow that those of us who are God’s chosen people need something more than strict adherence to Torah in order to find favor in God’s sight.’
If Jesus’ response sounds cryptic to Nicodemus, I think this is why. Some of you know that I was a teacher for several decades, so I want to interject a side-bar here and say that there are two different meanings of the Greek verb for ‘to be born’. When birth is considered from the father’s side of the equation, the verb means ‘to beget’. When birth is considered from the mother’s side, the verb means ‘to bear’. In John’s account, the word is gennaó (γεννω) which is masculine for ‘to beget’. So it appears that Jesus is saying we need to be sired a second time – this time by his heavenly Father. And he makes this clear in the verse that follows when he says we need to be born in two ways. “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of Heaven.”
Now, if I may, here is one more grammatical reminder. All of us know that in English grammar the word ‘and’ is a conjunction that connects two words or phrases that are comple-mentary or alike. In Holy Baptism water is the medium of the Spirit and these two are alike enough to signify one mysterious reality. So in Jesus’ saying to Nicodemus, ‘water’ and ‘Spirit’ are related but not identical. He says simply that we need both a physical and a spiritual birth and he explains what he is means with an analogy to the rupture of the amniotic sac. To be born of water is to break out of the womb and come to biological birth, leaving the darkness and con-finement of a uterus and bursting forth into a strange, new environment – into a different world, as it were. And that is also what is at stake here! Exactly like biological birth, to be born spiritually by water is also a thorough-going transformation. Unless you experience bioogical birth you will not have physical life – but unless you experience spiritual birth, you will be confined to that physical environment – be blind to God, and unable to see him at work within you and around you.
Holy Baptism is the principal but not the only sacramental act by which we signify that we have been gifted with new birth and been born again . Every one of the 7 sacraments offers us the gift of new birth. Holy Eucharist, Holy Matrimony, Confirmation, Reconciliation, Minis-tration at the time of death, Holy Orders, Holy Baptism. Each one of these signifies a new begin-ning – the grace of a new birth – a new life in relation to Christ.
If you have seen Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man” you may remember that the princi-pal roles were a confidence man named Harold Hill and a librarian named Marian Paroo. A love song describes what happens when they fall in love and new life comes to them. These are the lyrics and if you sing them to Jesus, this love song becomes a hymn.
- There were bells on the hill 2. There were birds in the sky
But I never heard them ringing But I never saw them winging
No, I never heard them at all No, I never saw them at all
Till there was you. Till there was you.
- And there was music, 4. There was love all around
And there were wonderful roses But I never heard it singing
They tell me, in sweet fragrant No, I never heard it at all
meadows of dawn and dew. Till there was you.
That kind of awareness – those feelings of an awakened spirit – can be translated to the story of Nicodemus if we understand that ‘being born again’ literally means being transformed – metamorphosed – profoundly changed – having ears opened to music you’ve never heard before – eyes opened to sights you’ve never seen before – a heart filled with love you have never imagined before. Being born again spiritually is to experience God in 3-D living color and surround sound. While we can reproduce human life, only God’s Holy Spirit can give us heavenly life.
So back to our story. Nicodemus appears three times in John’s gospel – (1) when he visits Jesus one night to discuss his teachings with him (3:1–21), (2) when he states the law con-cerning the arrest of Jesus during the Feast of Unleavened Bread (7:45–51), and (3) when he assists Joseph of Arimathea after the Crucifixion in preparing Jesus’ corpse for burial (19:39–42). In the end, John tells us that Nicodemus followed Jesus and was faithful even in the midst of real adversity. For him, as a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin, to follow Jesus meant swimming against a strong tide. His colleagues were bright, respected men who were convinced that Jesus was an imposter and not the long-awaited Messiah. But even after his Pharisee party had succeeded in killing Jesus, Nicodemus brought burial spices to anoint the Lord’s body. When Jesus was dead and gone, Nicodemus was right there with him to the bitter end.
Of course, it wasn’t the bitter end. To be sure, there was Good Friday and the ignominy of the cross – but Easter Sunday validated Jesus’ promise – and it confirmed Nicodemus’ faith. In the one bold stroke of Jesus’ resurrection, God set the earth back on its proper axis and healed Nico-demus’ broken heart. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save it.”
So I want to invite you to remember this verse the next time you are frustrated and at the end of your tether. We can learn from Nicodemus to keep walking in faith even when all our reasons to believe have been dashed. In one bold stroke, God set things right. Marvel that God can make that happen again and again. Thanks be to God, there is love, mercy, and grace all around, but we will never hear it singing – we will never hear it at all – until we have embraced God’s love for us in our lives – and been transformed – reborn by his Spirit.
Of course, this is at the center of Holy Communion we are about to celebrate – the Holy Mystery in which we are filled with the grace and heavenly benediction of our Lord Jesus and made one body with him so that he may dwell in us and we in him. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.
Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University
Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.