(This week’s Monday Meditation is coming out on Tuesday. But I really did write it on Monday. No kidding.)
I love the story of Nicodemus (John 3:1-17), though it is very hard to read it with fresh eyes.
Two verses have their own enormous cultural gravity, pulling the rest of the story in like black holes.
- In verse three the call to be “born again” as the old KJV had it (that’s “born from above” in the NRSV) has been fully absorbed into American evangelical culture, along with rather dubious interpretations.
- And verse 16 (“For God so loved the world…”) has come to serve as the very definition of the gospel in American Christianity, quoted zealously and often, without context or elaboration to make it explicable to outsiders.
What do I find when I try to think and feel my way through the story?
Nicodemus starts by buttering Jesus up with praise. Jesus doesn’t buy it. He cuts instead to what he seems to think is Nicodemus’ deeper issue: being born, “from above”or “again.”
Judging by Nicodemus’ confusion, Jesus hit the mark. Being reborn in a literal, physical sense? That just ain’t gonna happen.
But Jesus is talking spirit stuff here, in metaphors. It is about the Kingdom of God, and you get in only by birth — rebirth, birth from above, by water and Spirit. And this reference to the Spirit, just before his reference to God sending the Son, has made the text our Trinity Sunday lectionary Gospel.
Born Again from Above
Birth by water is the Church’s rite of baptism.
Birth by Spirit is God’s present act of making us new.
Both, really, are “from above” — above the individual, done to us rather than by us. And that is so whether we come to baptism by our parents’ choice or by our own.
God’s action is always from above, out of our reach. Jesus emphasizes this, speaking of the Spirit’s freedom, the mystery of its action. It is not subject to our human willing or even our human knowing. Like the wind, we see the Spirit’s effects (and surely we should always look for them) but our eyes cannot see the thing itself.
Nicodemus is baffled just at this point. I think he doesn’t like the passivity of the Spirit’s work. He’s “a leader of the Jews,” a faithful keeper of the commandments.
He surely didn’t fit the Protestant caricature of trying to “earn” salvation by one’s works, but he did knew what God’s people had to do. Belonging to God was a matter of daily conscious choices, eventually habitual choices, living the obedient life.
But Jesus professes bafflement at Nicodemus’ lack of understanding here. He doesn’t mock him, or blame him. He wants him to know this life at God’s initiative, moved by the free and mysterious Spirit.
Jesus explains that he is speaking from first-hand personal knowledge. He knows because he has descended from heaven and will ascend (in the text it sounds as if he already has ascended) into heaven. He is the Son sent to save, and his ascent will save as did that of Moses.
- Moses lifted up the serpent, and all who looked were saved from death.
- Jesus will ascend to where he came from, and by his ascension all will look to him for life and rebirth.
It is a fresh and winsome thing to me that Jesus portrays his ascension, rather than his crucifixion, as the fulfillment foreshadowed by Moses’ brazen serpent in the wilderness.
So I am left meditating on the Ascension again, two and a half weeks later. Jesus was lifted, and now all are to look up to him, in heaven.
The upshot of the whole story is not a catchphrase (“Ye must be born again!”) nor a summary of the gospel (“For God so loved the world…”). Rather it is a call to contemplation.
Contemplation? Isn’t that a Catholic thing?
Actually contemplation is a Christian thing. Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. It is just a counter-cultural thing. We live in an activist society, a world where we measure success by doing.
But salvation (reconciliation between God and us, the new relationship growing out of forgiveness, the healing of the whole person you see in Jesus’ ministry) comes in a life of contemplation.
In the fourth century St. Athanasius’ portrayed the work of Christ this way. When we were broken and dead because of sin, Jesus came and restored us — and the purpose of this restoration was a life directed back toward God, toward the source of life, up to heaven rather than down toward death.
Contemplation is turning the eyes of our heart and mind toward God. In the image of this text, we turn toward Christ the Ascended One, and walk daily toward him.
All the good and holy activity, all that is genuinely loving and all that makes for justice and peace, flows from that contemplation.
Lord knows that’s what I need.
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