John 3: 1-21 1-28-18 Rev. Tony Clark ACCUCC
You may have noticed that we are doing a series on the Gospel of John. John is perhaps the hardest gospel to read because he is the most literary of the gospel writers. He uses metaphorical and mystical words with multiple meanings, he plays with puns, and he has recurring themes and characters to pull you through the narrative. Jesus also sounds a bit like the Kung-Fu master teaching Grasshopper in Zen koans.
Here a few things that can help us understand John a bit more:
· John uses water to indicate something of this worldly realm, and water is the transition element to the Spirit world.
· The word for Spirit in Greek, which John wrote in, also meant Breath and Wind.
· John interchanges the ideas of light and darkness, day and night, sight and blindness, and mystical understanding and literal misunderstanding.
· the word for judgement in Greek is also the root of our word, “crisis”; Jesus does not judge, but there is a crisis of faith in being separated from the Light of God.
· And, in this passage, we are introduced to Nicodemus, who returns in Chapter 7 to defend Jesus before the other Pharisees, and again in chapter 19 to help Joseph of Arimathea bury him.
The story is simple: Nicodemus, who, as a Pharisee, was a leader of the faith, came to Jesus at night and asked him a theological question about being born again. Jesus replied that to enter the Kingdom of God, we must be born of water and the spirit. And then he went on, addressing all the Pharisees, in a preachy, lecture-y tone about knowing the truth, being raised into heaven, judgement, eternal life, and living in the light.
Jesus talks in riddles and rainbows, that, like rivers, ramble and run rampant. He talks of entering the Kingdom of God born of the water and the spirit, together, as if they are intimately linked, like in baptism--the spirit descended on Jesus when he was being baptized with water. Yet we also could hear Jesus say that being born of water is different than being born of the spirit. Water and spirit are two different things. Water is of this earthly world; we begin life in the watery world of the womb, and when we die, water is released. Jesus was born of the water of his mother’s womb and when Jesus died, a spear was stuck in his side, and from the wound flowed water and blood. (Jn 19: 34). Jesus turned water into wine (Jn 2: 1-11), met a woman at a well to tell her he is the living water (Jn 4: 1-42), he walked on water (Jn 6: 16-21; cf Jn 21: 1-14), and he washed his disciples’ feet with water (Jn 13: 1-20).
Water is worldly, and it is a transition element to the spirit. We can see water, and when you look at it, it seems like it might be a solid mass. After all things float on it—ducks, logs, even people—and Jesus walked on it!-- yet we cannot hold it in our hands. When you try to pick it up, it flows back to the ground. Like earth, water can be held in a cup. Like wind, though, water slips through our fingers. Like earth, water can be seen. Yet like wind, we can move through water, and, like wind, water has a power and a pull all its own, where earth mostly just sits there.
John tells us that where Jesus and water meet, the Spirit is there too. Water to wine, the woman at the well learning Jesus is the Living Water, and washing the disciples’ feet to prepare them for life in the Spirit. When Jesus taught at the Temple, right before Nicodemus appears for the second time to defend Jesus, Jesus stood up and said…, “whoever is thirsty should come to me and drink. As the scripture says, ‘Whoever believes in me, streams of life will pour out from his heart.’” And then John adds this commentary, Jesus said this about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were going to receive. (Jn 7: 37-38, GNV) Water, an earthly substance, transitions us to the Spirit.
The Spirit, like our breath, like wind, is felt but not seen; it has direction but no beginning or ending place; it has power but no substance that we easily perceive. It is the Spirit hovering over creation, calming the chaos of the waters; it is the breath of God blowing life into the mud-made Adam; and it is the breath of Jesus who breathed new life into the disciples who were hiding in a locked room after his death. Jesus came and stood among them… and said, “Peace be with you,” …and then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (Jn 20: 19-22, GNV).
The first time Nicodemus met Jesus, Jesus preached to him about first being born of water then being born of the Spirit, which is the way normal human beings are born again. “Born again” also mean “born anew”, as well as “born from above”. We mere mortal humans are born once of the womb in a watery whoosh, and then we can be born from above—born of the blowing, billowy breath of God. But Jesus did it the other way around. He was born first of the Spirit, before the world began; he was the Word, who was with God and who was God (Jn 1: 1). After that first spiritual birth, then much later he became human, born of the water of the womb. For God so loved the world… (Jn 3: 16).
Yet Jesus did not come to judge, but to save (Jn 3: 17). Salvation in John is not so much an erasing of immoral actions from people’s past. Salvation is so that we may live with, live in—abide, dwell—in the light that is God. Jesus does not judge, but if we live in a place of unbelief we have already been judged, not by Jesus, nor by God, but by ourselves. We have judged ourselves worthy of living only in the watery world which is as dark as a womb.
Salvation is being birthed from dwelling in the watery womb of darkness to life in the luminous, languid, luxuriant light. Life in our watery world includes the reality of Darkness—the darkness of doubt, the darkness of death, the dark that falls in the deepest night, and the darkness of depression and grief. Mystics will tell you that darkness has its own spiritual gifts. I can almost hear Jesus claiming that while darkness is a real place where people could dwell, darkness doesn’t have to be the final destiny. Jesus calls us to move through the desperate darkness of death toward the luminous light of life.
Jesus is the Word of God, the light of the world, who dances with darkness at dusk and calls us from night into daylight. Jesus lives in the liminal, liquid, languid land that lies at the edge where watery womb meets windy spirit. He breathes the breath of God, a blustery breeze, that is the beautiful, billowy Spirit. He is the one in whom water becomes spirt becomes light.
Nicodemus, who stands in for each of us, is to be born from the watery womb into the windy world and walk from there into the luminous, languid, light of life, where each of us sees the beautiful, bountiful truth that we are, all of us, children of God. May this be our new birthday. Amen.