Grace to you and peace from our loving God, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In a corner of a small jazz club in New Orleans sat an old dilapidated piano. All of the jazz artists complained about the antiquated instrument; they dreaded playing on it. The vocalists dreaded singing with it. And all of the combos that played the club wished that they could bring in their own piano—just like they could a saxophone or a trumpet.
Finally, after years of listening to these jazz musicians complain about his piano, the owner of the club decided to do something about it. He had the piano painted!
Somehow I don't think he got the message.
Something more fundamental was required.
This, I believe, is the message that Jesus wishes to communicate to Nicodemus and to us today. Some are satisfied with a superficial and exterior show of change. But faith is about more than a coat of paint.
Nicodemus was a respected Jewish leader of his day, both a high ranking Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council or court for the Jewish people. He knew all about the law, and no doubt tried to live his life within the letter of that law. He was likely from a wealthy family. He seems to have been a good man—a solid citizen any community would be proud to call its own.
Still, there was something about Jesus that intrigued Nicodemus. Despite his devotion to the law, he felt there was something missing in his life. Maybe this Jesus could help. And even though Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, afraid of being seen with him, Jesus offers him the truth:
Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above...no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.
In the community of John, who wrote this gospel, the phrase "born of water and Spirit" would certainly have called to mind their baptisms, their new birth in water and the Spirit. For them, baptism was a familiar thing, but these words could scarcely have had the same connotation for Nicodemus. As a Jew, a Pharisee, there is no reason to assume that Nicodemus would understand Jesus' words as a call to baptism.
Recent scholarship has suggested that perhaps we should think as literally as Nicodemus at this point in interpreting Jesus' words. If Jesus is making a distinction between flesh and spirit in the following verse (6), why shouldn.t he be doing the same in verse 5? And so, it's entirely possible that Jesus' reference to being "born of water" alludes to the "amniotic waters" that break before childbirth. Jesus' point then is that while we all experience a physical birth, which is a birth through water, faith requires that a distinct spiritual birth, a birth from "above" or "anew" also take place.
Nicodemus already knew about the physical birth that involves water. What he needed, Jesus knew, was a spiritual birth. Whether Jesus' words had their desired effect is not at all clear. Very little is said of Nicodemus beyond this story. It suffices for us to listen well to Jesus and rise to his call to be born from above, to live a new life in the Spirit. That, of course, is not a simple matter.
Henri Nouwen, reflecting on the story of Nicodemus, writes, "I love Jesus but want to hold on to my own friends even when they do not lead me closer to Jesus. I love Jesus but want to hold on to my own independence even when that independence brings me no real freedom. I love Jesus but do not want to lose the respect of my professional colleagues, even though I know that their respect does not make me grow spiritually. I love Jesus but do not want to give up my writing plans, travel plans, and speaking plans, even when these plans are often more to my glory that to the glory of God."
Upon reflection Nouwen realizes that he isn't all that different from Nicodemus. He writes, "So I am like Nicodemus, who came by night, and said safe things about Jesus to his colleagues." (The Road to Daybreak, Doubleday, 1988. p. 147-148). Every Christian is tempted only to give the old piano a new coat of paint, when what is called for is much more significant.
There's an element of Nicodemus in all of us. It's always easier to play it safe and keep Jesus off in the distance than to know him as the Lord of our life. It's easier to think that we are clothed in Christ by virtue of our baptism—and that's all there is to it. That's all that's called for. But the new clothing, Jesus seems clearly to say here, is not all it's about. Having been clothed in Christ, we are called towards a total change of heart, mind, soul, and way of behaving. We are beckoned into a new sort of growth in personhood initiated by a rebirth of the spirit.
The conversation continued between Jesus and Nicodemus. Certainly a great Jewish leader would understand a comparison with Moses, knowing the scriptures so well as he did. Jesus told Nicodemus,
Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
Nicodemus recalled the time in the desert when Moses lifted up a serpent on a pole for all the people to see. When the people saw the serpent high on the pole their thoughts turned to God, and by the power of God they were healed. In the same way, Jesus was telling Nicodemus that he, the Christ, would soon be lifted up. By faith in him could all who seek find hope, healing, and a new kind of life.
I would like to suggest that Jesus is saying something very powerful here. In alluding to Moses, he connects himself to the roots of Jewish faith even as he suggests another kind of rootedness. He speaks to a Pharisee about an ancient prophet who served to define faith. Now Jesus would define it again—with a similar and yet deeper commitment of himself. He would live a life imbued by the power of the divine. He would be the one born of water and spirit, showing Nicodemus and us the way. He speaks forthrightly about the commitment of body, soul, strength, and mind that is integral to the faith he holds. Even if it leads to giving up ones very life.
Faith, Jesus is saying, is not a simple thing. It is not a superficial thing. It is not simply something one did long ago as an infant, brought to the font by faithful parents—or submitted to in the waters of the Jordan. This is serious and delightful and determined stuff, this faith. It is a water that seeps into every pore and grows to define every act. The coat of paint comes first, but the remaking of the workings inside is the intention.
And Jesus gives us the full story in those well-loved final verses:
For God so loved the world that he have his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 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.
The purpose of God's love for us is both a life that is imbued with the eternal and a life that contributes to God's purposes.saving the world. This is not an abstract saving. It is concrete. All of scripture helps us to understand that we are integral to this saving work, that we are friends and partners with God in doing this work. This is the work called for as our inner workings get put back in order. This is the restored melody, harmony, tune, and music we were created to make and foreshadowed by the new bright paint of baptism.
One of the Iona books I've been reading quotes Gandhi as saying, "To refuse to struggle against the evil of the world is to surrender your humanity, to struggle against the evil of the world with the weapons of the evil-doer is to enter into your humanity, to struggle against the evil of the world with the weapons of God is to enter into your divinity." (Lent & Easter Readings from Iona, Neil Paynter, ed., p. 66)
Gandhi got it. He knew what Jesus meant when he said these seemingly odd words to Nicodemus. We enter into our divinity.we are reborn of the spirit—when we act for the sake of God in the world—for peace and justice, for goodness and truth, for forgiveness and reconciliation, for kindness and mercy.
I close with a prayer from the Iona Prayer Book (pp. 27f.) which captures the essence of Jesus. hopes revealed to Nicodemus for change in heart:
Almighty God, Creator of the universe,
at the close of another day I feel helpless
in the face of our world's suffering;
yet tonight, once more, I offer
back to you the only thing I can—
my ordinary, everyday life.
I ask you to take it into your hands
that it may be used to bring even a flicker
of justice into your world:
a candle for peace.
And not just tonight, Lord,
but through the coming days
as I move in your Spirit of love.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord unto eternal life. Amen.