A Provocation: The Second Sunday in Lent: March 12, 2017: John 3:1-17

John 3:1-17
3:1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.
3:2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
3:3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
3:4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
3:5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.
3:6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.
3:7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’
3:8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
3:9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”
3:10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
3:11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.
3:12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?
3:13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.
3:14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
3:15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
3:16 “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.
3:17 “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.

A Question or Two:

  • What if you take Nicodemus’s questions seriously?
  • What happens if you recognize probing as a faithful act?
  • What is the real connection between spirituality and physicality?

Some Longer Reflections:

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  So says Nicodemus.

This simple statement carries enormous weight.  He calls Jesus “rabbi.”  That is not a title handed out casually.  Note that E.L. Doctorow has a character point out that the title means that “he has done the reading” (in City of God).  Jesus seems to be literate in John’s story, but even if he is not, he has studied the tradition deeply, and Nicodemus (who seems surely to be literate) recognizes that and honors it.

Do not condescend to him.

Do not join the ranks of Christian interpreters who call him “the best that Judaism had to offer” (as John Marsh does, unfortunately, I say).  Note also that the storyteller has Nicodemus mention that his recognition of Jesus’ credentials is not a private revelation that he alone has received.  “We know that you are a teacher sent from God” (and the Greek emphasizes the “from-Godness” of his status by the way it orders the words).

“We know,” he says, thus making Jesus’ status as rabbi official, since such titles only have value when the status is conferred publicly and by an official body.  No matter what degree I can buy on the internet, my Ph.D. had to be conveyed by an accredited school.  Period.  Jesus has done the reading, and “we” recognize this.

Noticing this is crucial, since John is conflicted on such points.

Sometimes John’s storyteller attacks all of Judaism in a spasm of Us-Them rejection.  And other times he has Jews with official standing (for instance, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus and the “we” that shares his assessment) look at Jesus and gladly approve of him.  It is not simply that “some did, and some didn’t.”  The storyteller issues blanket statements in both directions.

I can only read this as evidence of a fracture in the history of the telling of this story.  I think that there are at least two distinct storytellers:

  • One rejects Jews as “children of the devil.”
  • The other notes that official Judaism sees Jesus as a teacher sent from God.

I examine this at some length in my study of John, Provoking the Gospel of John: A Storyteller’s Commentary.  For now, let me just say that any storyteller that is committed to calling Jews the children of the devil is not a storyteller I will welcome into my canon of inspired scripture.  I am willing to wrestle with complexity within biblical texts.  I have spent a great deal of time wrestling with biblical texts, in fact.  And I have concluded that there are voices, even in the gospel of John (my mother’s favorite gospel), that are simply wrong.  It’s time we simply said that.

So I do.

But Nicodemus QUESTIONS Jesus!

It has always puzzled me that people see this as an sign of disrespect.  I am a teacher.  I walk into the classroom HOPING that students will ask probing questions of me.  I can’t imagine thinking much of a teacher who was threatened by students who ask challenging questions.  That is what allows teaching and learning to happen.  Reciprocally.

Do we know what to do with a Pharisee of whom the storyteller approves?

We have become so accustomed to reading them as hypocritical opponents and villains that we may simply lack the imagination to see them any other way.  Such failures of imagination are the surest paths to poor interpretation.  In this scene, Nicodemus must be read as a sympathetic character, a perceptive student, as someone who offers Jesus the best gift a student can offer a teacher: a clearly stated deep challenge.  The next time we meet Nicodemus in John’s story, he still supports Jesus (John 7).  And the last time we meet him (John 19), he is carrying a (far-too-large) bunch of spices to wrap with the body of Jesus in burial, in order to hide the stench of putrefaction.  There is no scene that shows him having a revelation, much less a conversion.  Nicodemus is always presented as a distinctly Jewish character who is purposefully a supporter of Jesus.  This matters.

It also matters that Nicodemus is shown to be aware of real bodily facts.

In John 3 he knows that bodies are born once.  In John 19 he knows that dead bodies decay.  Both bits of knowledge are important.  Nicodemus takes seriously the body that God created us to be, and he honors the realities of the world that God created for us to live in.

Too many religious people, to quote an 80 year old man I met when I worked in a nursing home some decades ago, “are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.”

Nicodemus is NOT one of those people.  

Nicodemus is not a drifty religious dreamer.  He is not ready to leap into the spiritual aether whenever the occasion presents itself.  And he is not ready to believe any idea that comes with the label “spiritual” taped to it.

At the same time, he is a man of spiritual insight.  He demonstrates this insight when he recognizes the deeds of Jesus as “signs.”

The ability to recognize acts as signs (and not just circus tricks) is held up throughout John’s story as evidence of real participation in God’s dominion.  Jesus says as much when he responds to Nicodemus’s opening statement.  “Very truly, I tell you,” says Jesus, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Interpreters too often read this as a challenge to Nicodemus, even as a diagnosis that reveals the flaws of the Pharisee Nicodemus and the virtues of the Christian interpreter.

It’s time we stopped reading that way.

In the terms handed us by John’s storyteller, Nicodemus’s ability to recognize and name a sign when he sees one is evidence of his ability to “see the dominion of God,” and therefore evidence that he has been born from above.

This appreciative comment does not weaken his critical engagement in the work of the teacher he has come to study with (at night, the time that people were free to come and study).  “Physical bodies are real, and the biological processes that govern them are likewise unyielding,” says Nicodemus, and he is correct.  My scientist father would agree.

And he is not a MERELY correct; what he says is not trivially true.  Either the Creation is real as it really exists, or we are going to have trouble keeping religious fools from trying to rent space on clouds for their spiritual homes.

Nicodemus is also insisting that his insight came from slow, careful study, not from the kind of “revelation” that religious fakers are only too glad to claim.  I have seen too many religious charlatans, too many spiritual manipulators, too many “seekers” who are too impatient to seek, who want enlightenment all at once or not at all.  They have worn out their welcome with me.

Nicodemus knows that the study of Torah is the work of a lifetime and more.  We study in the company of all those back through history who have studied before us, and we study to prepare the way for those who will study after us.  There is no other path to insight and revelation, no other way to develop the durable comprehension that will allow us (and our communities) to survive the wreckage of history and still show up at the tomb with spices for burial, ready still to do what needs doing.

When Jesus begins to talk about being “born of spirit,” stop in the middle of the sentence and lose the word “spirit.”

Change it to the word “breath.”  That is a much better translation of the Greek.  The word is πνεῦμα, and it means breath, and then wind, and then (only if it is forced) spirit.  But that last forced translation has picked up too much baggage over the centuries, and the baggage weighs the story down.  It means breath and we should translate it that way until we are chased away from it.

The breath Jesus is talking about is blown first in Genesis 2, when God bends over the lovely, but inert, Mudguy lying on the ground newly formed but not alive.  God blows into his nose and gives the gift of life with the first breath, and with the second, and with the third, and with every single breath blown into the nose of every single human being (including you, including now).  Jesus is arguing for a twist in the understanding Nicodemus just asserted: real life really matters.  Jesus is saying: every single breath is a spiritual gift that makes possible the discoveries of a lifetime of studying Torah.  Every breath is a miracle.  In the long slog of life, every instant is shot through with Spirit (now is the time to use that word!).

And this is, I think, what the business about “God-so-loving-the-world” is about.  Hyper religious people want this to be about God really loving the sect that devotes itself best to Jesus.  Even the (later) angry storyteller in John thinks something like that.  But the world that God so loves is the κόσμος (cosmos), which refers to the whole, beautiful thing, not some ideologically pure subset of the world.

And that, I think, is the story being told by the oldest, most original, and most life-giving storyteller in John’s story.

 

 

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