2 Lent Year A 3-12-17
©Holly Lyman Antolini
Lections: Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17
I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. AMEN.
How evocative it is, this story of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, opening Chapter 3 of John’s Gospel. This furtive story of the Jewish leader – he’s a member of the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish religious, legal and political authority under the Roman occupation – sneaking out to see Jesus under cover of darkness becomes even more evocative when you remember that at the end of Chapter 2, right before this, Jesus has rampaged into the Temple – God’s own house, sacrosanct to the Jewish people – and laid waste to the tables of the moneychangers and the sellers of sacrificial animals, literally whipping them and their animals out of the courtyard where they were conducting the temple commerce essential to carrying out the rites of sacrifice at the center of the Jewish peoples’ relationship with God. When the Jewish authorities remonstrated and demanded he explain himself, Jesus compounded his offense, saying “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” [John 2:19] Preposterous claim!
So now picture Nicodemus, screwing up his courage to speak to this radical, this disrupter, this dis-respecter of authority and order. No wonder he came in the dark of night. To approach Jesus in the light of day would be to court disaster to one’s own reputation, if not the national order!
But something is astir in Nicodemus. Something is disturbing his peace. Something is birthing questions in him. He doesn’t understand it himself. It violates all his institutional instincts. This guy Jesus is trouble. But as Nicodemus himself says in his opening words to the Rabbi, “no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” So he sneaks out surreptitiously and finds Jesus and opens with these words of affirmation.
The conversation is joined. But Jesus’ response seems like a complete disconnect. He bypasses all the politeness. “Very truly,” he begins, or perhaps more accurately, “Amen, amen,” words that always signal in John’s Gospel that Jesus is about to make a crucial and very serious proclamation of God’s truth, “Amen, amen, I tell you, no one can see the reign of God without being born from above.” Or, to give the other meaning of the Greek word anothen, without being “born again.”
This completely confuses poor Nicodemus. He takes it literally. Born again? Who can enter a second time into their mother’s womb and be born? To which Jesus answers with yet more confusion, using the Greek word, pneuma, which can mean wind or breath, and which later in John’s Gospel, Jesus will clearly use to mean, Spirit, as in, God’s Spirit: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless one is born of water and wind, one cannot enter the reign of God. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of wind is wind. Don’t be surprised that I’ve told you, ‘You all have to be born again [or from above].’ The wind blows where it likes, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it’s coming from or where it’s going. That’s how it is with everyone that’s born of wind.” What IS Jesus discerning in Nicodemus? What IS he trying to call out in him, with all this talk of a new birth? [Translation from The Mystical Way of the Fourth Gospel: Crossing Over Into God by L. William Countryman, Fortress Press 1987]
You notice my translation is a little different from the one in your bulletin. That’s because it was done directly from the Greek by New Testament scholar Bill Countryman. I use Countryman’s translation because I love the way he reads the entire Gospel of John. John’s Gospel, he says, is not the collection of stories you see in so-called “synoptic” Gospels of Matthew, Mark & Luke, powerful as they are. Where those Gospels are more like an iterative Bach Suite, with one dance movement beginning and ending, followed by another, John’s Gospel is what in music we’d call “through-composed,” all the melodic ideas unfolding from each other in Wagnerian fashion, an “endless melody” in a long, sustained, completely interconnected composition aimed at one thing for its readers: our “progress toward mystical union in the person of Jesus Christ.” [Ibid.]
“Mystical,” as in, “an experience of things or persons outside myself as direct and unmediated as my experience of myself.” Mystical enlightenment: “experiencing the order of the cosmos and my place in it.” And mystical union: “an experience of full knowledge of another specific being… a complete opening of two realities into each other.” [Ibid.] John’s goal for me, the reader of his Gospel, is a complete opening of my reality into the reality of God’s very specific and particular love for me and me for God, and my complete opening into the reality of being held in an utterly love-saturated world. For John, the “world,” or “the cosmos,” as Countryman translates it, is tragically estranged from God its Creator. And to be deprived of God is to be deprived of one’s own existence, deprived of life & light. Jesus – who is life and light himself, as John has already said in Chapter 1 – is here to join the world back to right relationship with God. Jesus is the “opening humanity has upon the absolute reality of God.” “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.” Eternal life – that phrase makes its very first appearance in this very story of Nicodemus here in Chapter 3 – means to be utterly enfolded in God’s reign of shalom, God’s reign of peace and reconciliation. So John’s hope for me, for you, for anyone reading his Gospel, is that by the end of its 20 chapters, we will have moved from our state of alienation and separation into an utter state of belonging to God, “one body with Christ,” I in Christ and Christ in me.
Our estrangement is real. And “it is not to be overcome by divine fiat. The sending of the son does not force salvation on anyone.” But it IS possible, this mystical union with Jesus to which we are called, if we, in the mysterious way that we do, choose to become “doers of the truth.” “Nicodemus has come to Jesus, who proffers light; but he has come 'at night.' The ambiguity of his situation is not unique to him, but describes the human situation as such.” We are drawn to the light, but we are still prone to remain in darkness and untruth.
Jesus, with his strange words to Nicodemus in John’s Gospel, is inviting him – inviting us all – on a mystical path, inviting him – and us – from the first dark urges toward conversion, on into baptism, into “being born again” into Jesus. And the invitation is only beginning. And as the Gospel unfolds, baptism is only an early stage. John’s Jesus will invite us ever deeper, into Eucharist, into enlightenment and new life, and deeper and deeper into union with Christ. This “mystical path… is the point of the Gospel’s presentation of Jesus.” [Ibid.]
An aside for all of us 21st century empiricists: “believing,” in John’s Gospel, does NOT mean “intellectual assent” or worse, “an intellectually satisfying theological superstructure with the force of a proven scientific equation!” How COULD it mean that when Jesus is so often responding to people’s reasonable questions with seemingly unreasonable, disjointed and confusing Zen koans like the one he poses poor struggling Nicodemus, ““Amen, amen, I say to you, unless one is born of water and wind, one cannot enter the reign of God… Don’t be surprised that I’ve told you, ‘You all have to be born again [or from above].’ The wind blows where it likes, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it’s coming from or where it’s going. That’s how it is with everyone that’s born of wind.” Of course poor Nicodemus is surprised, not to say utterly confounded! That’s because Jesus in John’s Gospel doesn’t mean to CONVINCE him! He means to BAPTIZE HIM. He means to help Nicodemus break out of his presuppositions, which are holding him apart from God and God’s love, imprisoning him in terrible isolation and antagonism. Jesus, like any good Zen master, aims to help Nicodemus – and all of us – “to break with ordinary straight-line reasoning and struggle for a new world-view in which question and answer DO match. The achievement of such a breakthrough is an instance of enlightenment – not an increase of knowledge but a radical re-shifting and re-envisioning of what is already known.” It’s not an intellectual exercise. It’s a NEW BIRTH. [Ibid.]
We know what this re-shifting can look like. We experience it in miniature every time we read a good poem, which breaks open and re-orients our perspective on the most ordinary reality. We experienced it massively as a whole culture back in the 16th century, when Nicholas Copernicus and Johannes Kepler destabilized the universe, displacing the earth into a mere planet and moving the sun into its center. Hilary Mantel describes the impact of this new understanding of the moral order on her protagonist Thomas Cromwell in her novel, Wolf Hall, “After [the diners] get up from [Cromwell’s] table, his guests eat ginger comfits and candied fruits, and Kratzer makes some drawings. He draws the sun and the planets moving in their orbits according to the plan he has heard of from Father Copernicus. He shows how the world is turning on its axis, and nobody in the room denies it. Under your feet you can feel the tug and heft of it, the rocks groaning to tear away from their beds, the oceans tilting and slapping at their shores, the giddy lurch of Alpine passes, the forests of Germany ripping at their roots to be free. The world is not what it was when [Cromwell] and Vaughan were young, it is not what it was even in the cardinal Wolsey’s] day.” [https://gerryco23.wordpress.com/2009/12/29/wolf-hall/]
And now, in this 21st century, we too have been having our sense of reality re-shifted and re-oriented, and it’s about time! We elected – twice – as President of the United States, an African-American – no, actually, a multi-racial person whose experience in multiracial and multicultural Hawaii, in the continental US, in Indonesia and in Kenya only compounded his sense of belonging to a much wider sphere than “mere American” can indicate. As grievous as is the wound inflicted by our history of slavery and racism, our society has nevertheless been re-shifting and re-orienting toward a majority of people of color, just as it has always been shifting and re-orienting, incorporated “the other,” not without paroxysms and reactions, not without horrific exploitations – the Gospel of John documents how horrific those resistances can be, a Way of the Cross – but moving inexorably even if confusedly and reactively to embrace its many cultural origins into its resilient and creative mix. In the same way, our academic and indeed our business life has become inextricably and inventively intertwined with the academic and commercial lives of those all around our globe. We may be in the middle of yet another massive moment of “reaction” against this disorientation in electing our current government. But we cannot stop the increasing interconnection of our society or the world. We are being invited to be born again into that larger, more inclusive, more innovative and limber reality – the reality of the reign of God who loved the WHOLE world – not just our portion of it – enough to offer the ultimate sacrifice. We are invited to be born again and again. And again. And again.
Where, in your life, are you disoriented? Where are you finding yourself in the darkness of the birth canal, like Nicodemus, waiting to be born again? Or alternatively, what is coming to birth in you? How is it “of the Spirit,” of the free-blowing breath of God which created all things in the beginning and continues to create them now? What is the enlightenment it offers? What is the union?