The need to be “born again” or in the contextually better translation “to be renewed from above” is at the heart of this story about the midnight encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus. But, as most of you know, the meaning and therefore the application of this famous passage is often misunderstood and thusly, it’s either used as a litmus test for who’s in or who’ out of heaven or it’s completely ignored. Today, I submit that neither extreme, neither solution to Nicodemus’ question is sufficient.
Let’s begin with a real-life illustration about misunderstanding the meaning of being renewed from above and then we’ll take a look at the text itself in more detail.
Back when I was a student-pastor of a small suburban church in Iowa, I was called upon to officiate the celebration of life service for a young man with no church affiliation who was killed in a motorcycle accident while trying to evade the police. Not an easy task for any pastor let alone a rookie. But there we were. So, on the day of the service, our little church which held maybe 150 people was packed with over 300 friends and family of the young man. He was a 20somehting and the vast majority of the gathered crowd were 20somethings. He, as I said before, was unchurched. And when we began to attempt to sing the first hymn, notice I said attempt, most of those young people didn’t know to open the hymnal to find the words of the hymn. We were probably on the final verse of Amazing Grace before even a smattering of the group figured it out. This told me that they too were unchurched.
Well, long story short, the hospital chaplain that co-officiated with me gave a beautiful, grace-filled time of remembrance. I preached a message of forgiveness and grace and of God’s acceptance of all people. The young man’s father and a good number of his friends spoke words of loss and they remembered the good and joyous times they had spent together. His AA sponsor spoke of his struggles and his courage in the face of addiction. It was a moving and I dare say and holy experience.
Now, fast-forward to the funeral lunch following the service. I had a man approach me. He turned out to the young man’s uncle. And even though his wife was visibly trying to dissuade him, he felt the need to express his disappointment and disgust with me over the content of the service. After what seemed like an eternity of being brow-beat, he closed with “you missed an opportunity here today. The Bible has been fulfilled, the end is near, and all of these young people won’t be saved! You have the chance to save all of these people and you failed!” he then stormed off, got in this car a drove away.
Now, as you might imagine, I was kind of upset by his comments. I didn’t agree with him, but was he right on some level? Did I miss an opportunity to bring salvation to many that day? So, I shared my worry with the very seasoned chaplain who had co-officiated the service with me. And in his wisdom, he used this encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus to open my eyes to the deeper message of Jesus. Now, I don’t remember exactly what he said to me, but the following summary captures the essence of his wisdom.
In verse 9, the Pharisee says to Jesus, “How are these things possible?” Isn’t that the sixty-four thousand question for us as well? How are these things possible? How are the miracles we see around us every day possible? How is community possible? How is the unconditional love of God, possible?
Of course, in the story, Nicodemus was asking a different kind of question. He was questioning how he might go back into his mother’s womb in order to be born again. Which, as he rightly points out here is non-sense. And its non-sense because he was being too literal. “Like most texts in John’s Gospel, [this story] is rich with symbolism, missed connections and double meanings.”[i] And to discover and investigate this richness is important.
So, what are these symbols, missed connections, and double meanings? Well, first consider the images of darkness and light. These symbols are present throughout all of John’s account. He says that Jesus is the Light shinning in the darkness, the Light of the World, the true light that enlightens every person, and Jesus is the one who gives sight to the blind. And even though Nicodemus has come to the light, he has yet really seen the light.[ii]
So, it’s important for us to understand that Nicodemus came to see Jesus at night. Nicodemus was in the dark, he was confused, and he was seeking something, but he didn’t know what that something was. But even after laying-out, in pretty stark detail, the symbolism of light and darkness, the double-meaning of wind and Spirit, (The word in Greek pneumatos is the same for both wind and spirit as well as breath) So, Jesus said the wind blows where it chooses which has both a double meaning and is symbolic of the Spirit freely moving within creation. Even after all that explanation, Nicodemus missed the connection; he still didn’t quite follow.
And Jesus gets-on him a little bit here, doesn’t he? Jesus says in essence, “You’re a teacher of religion and yet you still don’t understand?” Why. Because again, Nicodemus was listening to the teaching on a surface, literal level while Jesus was speaking on a much deeper spiritual level.
And this is the mistake many still make today. They try to reduce the symbolism and the missed connections and the double-meanings in this text to a literal litmus test for salvation. But here’s the thing. When we as the faithful do that, when we are reductive regarding Scripture, we miss the real message that Jesus has to offer here.
What exactly do I mean? Well, “the Greek word from which “save” (so-zo) comes is also the root of words meaning to heal, to preserve, to do well, and to be made whole.”[iii] In our context, we’ve reduced this word, along with being renewed from above, to a “one time, static achievement. “I’m saved that that’s-that” But the first disciples, those who followed Jesus in the earliest days of the church, called themselves “The Way.” The very name itself suggests that quite the opposite was true. They followed Jesus and preached a message of salvation that was dynamic, communal, and always, always in progress. They were always on “their way” toward salvation.[iv]
And if we can open ourselves to this broader definition of what salvation can mean, if we can open our hearts and commit our lives to a deeper understanding of what healing, and preservation, and doing well, and being made whole might look like, it’s then that we are truly living in the process of being “renewed from above.”
My friends, there’s no litmus test you can pass, no creed you can recite, no altar call you can answer, that will “save you.” It’s like we’re fond of saying in the United Church of Christ, we believe in “testimonies of faith rather than tests of faith.” My siblings in Christ, God loves you and God calls you to indwell that love by actively seeking transformation, renewal, and restoration deep within yourself; and God is leading you to share that love within and beyond this community by seeking peace, and practicing justice, and by reaching out by loving those others have deemed unlovable; and God is challenging us to BE that love to all people, to be kind, and to be gracious, and to be truthful, and to be ethical, and to be faithful in all of our interactions with others, even those with whom we disagree. That’s the essence of salvation. We can love because God first loved us. That should be our creed. That should be our testimony of faith.
Which leads us back to that celebration of life service that I spoke of previously. All of those unchurched young people shared their testimony of faith that day. You see, by their presence and through their willingness to gather in community for prayer and restoration, in their attempt to try and find some meaning in the death of their friend, and I would add, even through their meager attempt to sing Amazing Grace, these young people began a process of renewal, a process of moving toward wholeness, of being “saved” as defined by John’s Gospel and in terms of feeling the healing presence of God in that community and in that moment. A healing that no amount of bad theology or propagation of end-of-days fear could have produced.
And perhaps some seeds were even sown that day, seeds of grace or compassion or faith, and maybe, just maybe, some of those seeds sprouted later on, with a viriditas, a greening from the inside/out like a twig in the spring time transforms from a life-less gray into the living-green shoots of “wholeness”. Who knows? The Wind blows and the Spirit works wherever she chooses.
So, here’s my hope and my Bold Blessing for all of you. May that same healing, that same viriditas, that same understanding of salvation, that we’ve discovered in John’s words today, lead you though this season and all the seasons of life that lay beyond this one. May find your place in this story and may you find your “renewal from above” in whatever form that renewal may take. And may you find healing, genuine healing, the God-gifted healing that starts on the inside.
May it be so. Amen & Amen
[i] Marcus Borg. The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith (New York: Harper One, 2004) pg. 105
[ii] Ibid. Borg. Pg. 105
[iii] David M. Felton and Jeff Procter-Murphy. Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity (New York: Harper One, 2012) pg. 215
[iv] Ibid Felton Pg. 215