Nicodemus was an important person: he was a big deal. As a Pharisee, he was part of the elite – better educated than most, a member of the Sanhedrin (or ruling council at the Jerusalem Temple), he was an insider and would have been accorded respect and privilege.
Pharisees were the most progressive of the Jewish sects that existed in Jesus’ time. Despite their rigidity in relation to applying the Law of Moses - which led to their conflicts with Jesus over his sabbath practices, for example - they believed that interpretation of the Torah, of scripture, was a matter of ongoing revelation. They were open to an evolving understanding of God’s intent for humankind, which may be what prompted Nicodemus to seek Jesus out to learn more about the new rabbi’s teachings.
It would certainly have been unusual for such an important person (and a member of the religious establishment) to seek out Jesus, and so it’s not surprising that he did so under cover of night. Nicodemus would not have wanted to advertise any association with this radical religious teacher. It seems that he couldn’t resist the impulse to learn more, however: he couldn’t dismiss his sense that “something is going on here….”
We never actually find out, in John’s narrative, what Nicodemus wanted from Jesus, because immediately after his initial statement acknowledging Jesus as a “teacher who has come from God,” Jesus effectively hijacks the conversation to launch into a line of instruction, with Nicodemus practically scrambling to keep up.
Jesus’ instruction addresses what one needs in order to to enter the kingdom of God. It includes a Greek term – anothen -that is difficult to translate, and that has caused consternation and controversy within Christian communities:
Jesus tells Nicodemus EITHER:
No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above OR
No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.
Nicodemus understands this statement literally, he gets stuck on and bewildered by the notion of a person having to physically re-enter the womb and experience literal rebirth.
Jesus, of course, is talking about something else, about spiritual rebirth, about making a fresh start. He tells Nicodemus that rebirth is not a matter of the physical self, but of the spiritual self, and is the work of the Spirit, leading one to new life.
This verse has been understood by some Christian groups as a specific requirement. Some believe and preach the necessity of being “born again” in a particular kind of experience, using particular language, in order to be “saved”. Connected to this is the belief that those who are not “born again” according to a particular formula are not truly redeemed. This understanding reflects an exclusive rather than inclusive perspective, and is not the understanding of the Episcopal Church.
But back to our gospel passage.
After the exchange about rebirth, Jesus’ meeting with Nicodemus transitions into a sermon.
You’re probably aware of the ways in which John’s gospel differs from the synoptics, Matthew, Mark and Luke. It was written anywhere from twenty to forty years after the synoptics and includes passages of discourse – some of them quite lengthy – that are attributed to Jesus, and that represent what the young church had come to believe about the purpose of Jesus’ life. John’s community told stories – some of which we find in John’s gospel, that have Jesus explaining the meaning of his life and ministry.
The brief sermon that we hear Jesus offering to Nicodemus is one of these. It includes what may be most quoted verse in the Bible, which Marin Luther described as “whole gospel in a single verse”, John 3:15:
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.
This verse, like the one about rebirth, has sometimes been interpreted from an exclusive rather than inclusive perspective. Rather than emphasizing God’s love for the world – let’s notice, the world, not God’s love for the church, let alone any particular segment of the church – rather than emphasizing God’s love for the world, and God’s act to lead the world into abundant and eternal life, some focus on belief in Jesus as an absolute prerequisite for salvation, as if the text said “God gave his Son so that ONLY those who believe in him may have eternal life.” There is an important difference. Again, many do NOT read the passage this way.
Final verse of the text further reiterates and reinforces the theme of God’s expansive and inclusive love:
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.
So what might Jesus’ words mean for us today? Is spiritual rebirth what we should be looking for? Is it something that takes place as an event, or is it a process?
Jesus tells Nicodemus that in order to see or enter the kingdom of God, a person must be born of the Spirit. Our ancestors in faith often taught that in speaking of the kingdom of God, Jesus was speaking of a realm that exists outside of the world we live in, one that we can hope to enter after our physical life ends.
Today we no longer understand God’s reign to be separate from the life we live here and now. Today we understand Jesus to have been preaching about what Presiding Bishop Curry refers to as “God’s dream”, the community of love, justice, and peace that God intends for God’s creation. This reign of God is a time of living in right relationship with ourselves, with one another and with God; it is a reality we can build in the present, and it extends into the “eternal life” that Jesus speaks to Nicodemus about.
To be “born of the Spirit”, I suspect, simply means living a life that grows out of our relationship with God.
I can best understand the idea of spiritual rebirth as being found in the gradual path of spiritual growth that we all work at over the course of our lifetimes. We work at spiritual growth through prayer and reflection, through study, through participation in worship, and through the experience of life in community, especially through our work together in service to others and to God’s world. Lent is the perfect time to focus on spiritual growth.
I also think that we can also experience instances of dramatic change of our spiritual awareness, times when the circumstances or events of our lives produce in us real moments of transformation, of opening and expansion, of new self-knowledge and deepening in our relationship with God. Some of these times of change grow out of the joyful moments in life – I think of the birth of children and how profoundly that experience alters our view of what is important – but many times our spiritual development is painful, and grows out of times of loss and failure that bring us up short, requiring us to look at the truth of our lives in new ways.
Jesus’ words to Nicodemus about spiritual rebirth suggest relationship and experience rather than doctrine and dogma. They describe a kind of spiritual growth that depends on courage and trust, but that leads to new possibilities of life marked by freedom, joy, peace, and love.
John’s gospel never tells us what impact the conversation with Jesus had on the man, Nicodemus, but the whole of John’s gospel provides quiet suggestions.
Nicodemus appears two more times in John.
As a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court, John tells us that Nicodemus spoke up in defense of offering Jesus a fair trial, at the time of his arrest.
And finally, Nicodemus is the one who brings myrrh and aloes, along with Joseph of Arimathea, to prepare Jesus’ body for burial after his crucifixion.
Did Nicodemus turn toward rebirth, toward a life of faith in Jesus? It certainly seems to be John’s implication. Nicodemus’ story promises us that rebirth is possible, that change can happen. And if it can happen to Nicodemus, it can happen to us.
May we, in this season of Lent, like Nicodemus, dare to bring our questions and our uncertainties forward before God.
May we keep our eyes on Jesus.
May we find in ourselves the will and the trust to invest in our own spiritual growth.
May we, through God’s grace, travel toward new life in community with our sisters and brothers and live into an openness of heart, so that we may be reborn of the Spirit.
We are blessed to have a diversity of preaching voices in our parish. Our guild of preachers is a mixture of lay and clergy. We hope you enjoy the varied voices.
Meet our Preachers