We live in two worlds, according to the New Testament. One is the world of ordinary life, with concerns and values of which the New Testament sometimes takes a dim view. The other is God’s world, which includes the ordinary world but sets it in a context of spiritual meaning usually missing from ordinary life. Jesus sometimes likened the ordinary world to a kind of half-sleep from which we should be awakened to see that God’s world is at hand. We access the ordinary world through the customs of thinking and acting. We access God’s world through faith expressed in insider Christian symbols. That is the difference faith makes, gaining some limited access to God’s version of our world.
Our gospel reading today is an example of appealing to special insider knowledge, for which John the Evangelist is famous. His early readers who were thoroughly familiar with the Bible would hear a variety of symbolic references in this passage. For instance, they would have known what to make of the reference to Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness. The twenty first chapter of Numbers tells how the Israelites on the exodus were moping along through the wilderness complaining, as usual, about God’s deficient food and beverage service. So God, not to be messed with, sends poisonous snakes among them, biting the people and killing many. The leaders complain to Moses and God tells him to make a bronze image of a serpent and lift it up on a pole. An Israelite who has been bitten by a poisonous snake can look at the serpent on the pole, God says, and be saved from death. That was actually a bit of Egyptian magic. The snake on a pole has come down to us as a symbol of the medical profession, and you frequently see the sign of one or two snakes crawling to the top of a pole on the side of an ambulance. John uses that symbol as an emblem of Jesus lifted up on a cross: as the Israelites could be saved from the bite of the serpent by looking up at the snake on the pole, so we can be saved by looking up to the crucified Christ.
Our text from John’s gospel is especially rich in biblical symbolism that you get if you are a biblical insider. But John has a double layer of insider knowledge in the text, in this passage and throughout the gospel. He writes of Jesus talking with his contemporary, Nicodemus, and yet John has Jesus make references that only John’s own audience would understand sixty or seventy years after the events. The reference to Jesus being lifted up on the cross is a case in point; only those who knew about Jesus’ crucifixion, subsequent to his conversation with Nicodemus, would understand the reference to Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness. John was writing for his own community who knew the story of Jesus and also John’s interpretation of it.
Consider poor Nicodemus. He was a Pharisee, and John uses that as an identification of respect for the piety of Pharisees. Nicodemus was also a “leader of the Jews,” which means he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the body of ruling Jews responsible to the Roman occupation forces. Nicodemus, you remember, was one of those along with Joseph of Arimathea who later took care of Jesus’ body after the crucifixion. In the story in our text, Nicodemus sneaks to Jesus by night to say that Jesus must really come from God if he is able to do the signs he does. Jesus answers, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Then silly Nicodemus asks “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” At this point John’s readers must be rolling in the pews in laughter because of this literal mindedness. Of course they knew about spiritual rebirth, a function of existing self-consciously in God’s world . Being reborn is only a metaphor for that, though a very powerful one. They knew about new life in Christ, and could laugh at Nicodemus’ ignorance.
This kind of speech with double meaning, one meaning for the ordinary people to whom the speech was given, another for those in the community of the Gospel, runs throughout John’s Gospel. Think of the passage from chapter six where Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” John writes, “The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’,” literalists like Nicodemus. Jesus goes on, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life…” John’s readers recognize a reference to the Eucharist, but Jesus’ hearers thought he was outrageously advocating cannibalism with himself as dinner.
John’s literary device of double meaning, one for the people in the event, another for his readers who understand, is not mere literary device. By its very form it signifies that we are born into a world in which spiritual things do not make much sense, such as climbing into a mother’s womb to be born again, or eating the quadriceps of your teacher. But then when you have the higher knowledge, as John’s own readership community supposedly did, the spiritual matters all make sense. John’s point is that the community with the spiritual knowledge is the community of salvation, and it is the community of faith. More exactly, John wanted his readers to know that there is a level of spiritual understanding to which they could aspire if they did not have it. We are John’s readers with precisely that challenge.
How do we get into that community, or become it, so that the matters of the spirit make sense to us? Like Abram, we are called to go from the country of our birth on a pilgrimage into a foreign land, the spiritual land. John’s image for this call, of course, is not a journey but a rebirth. “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” The word for Spirit also means wind and breath. What does it mean to be born of the Spirit? How can we be moved by the wind of God, which blows where it chooses? How can our breath become the breath of God? Obviously it is not an obstetrical event, as poor Nicodemus thought.
Nor is the rebirth to be identified with certain signs of the Spirit such as powerful emotional experiences, speaking in tongues, or the like, although these signs have been taken from biblical times down to our own as indications that one is being wrenched from one birth to another, from one country to the Promised Land. Rather, the rebirth means that we have to be remade in our fundamental families and personalities. We have to become new people, said Jesus in John’s Gospel, in order to understand about heavenly things.
How do we become new people? The temptation is to think that the transformation is made by our moral commitments and achievements. Morality is certainly central to both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Yet morality in the rich biblical sense of righteousness before God is not the means but the result of being in the new country, the result of rebirth, the result of belonging to the community that grasps spiritual matters. Paul’s point in the epistle for today is that Abram was accounted truly righteous by God before he had done anything of significant moral righteousness. Rather, Abram was approved because of his faith in God’s call to risk everything for the
promise of the new country.
Faith is what makes the difference between the old country and the new, the old life and the new. In our texts, faith is like looking up to the saving serpent on the pole, like looking to the Son of Man lifted up, “so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Faith is believing that “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 here does not mean immortality or an afterlife, although John (and Jesus) did believe in that too. Eternal life means rather a contemporary participation in the divine life that does not perish. Although our personal bodies perish in time, God’s life in which we participate through the Holy Spirit does not perish. Our participation in the divine life consists in living in the Holy Spirit.
Our last question, then, is in what the divine life in the Holy Spirit consists. The answer here is very clear from the rest of John’s gospel, as well as his letters. The divine life is love, and we participate in that insofar as we participate in communities of love. In Jesus’ so-called “Farewell Discourses” in John 13-17, he makes clear that the disciples are to live under a new commandment to love one another. They can do this because he has already loved them, and they have responded by loving him. Moreover, Jesus has extended himself to them in love because God the Father has loved him and he has loved the Father.
For all its beauty, Jesus’ love for his disciples brings him misunderstanding, betrayal, and ultimately death. Yet the love was worth it. The disciples too will find that loving one another is not always a matter of positive reinforcement. Sometimes love leads to crucifixion.
So faith is the commitment to give ourselves to the life of love, with all the rejections, incomprehension, hurts, and possibly ultimate failures love can involve. Love is never finished. It always is a matter of staying true to the promise. Love is not like arriving in a new country and settling there. It is rather like Abraham’s constant search, never finished, for the Promised Land. Faith in the God of love is not investment in an experiment that within our lives might prove itself to be the successful way to go. On the contrary, love always runs the risk of going sour. Yet the only thing that carries love through the sour periods is the faith to stick with it, the faith to bear its crosses. This does not mean that we should stay in destructive relationships because we are supposed to love the person to whom we are related destructively. No, genuinely to love a person in a destructive relationship is to get out of that relationship. But love does mean to remain vulnerable to love’s rejection. To become a lover who remains vulnerable and faithful in that vulnerability is to become a new person.
The old life teaches us to seek our advantage, cultivating those loves that are to our advantage. To be reborn means to take on a life of love that can endure failure and that perseveres in building the institutions of community that embody justice, piety, faith, and hope even when those institutions are ready to be beaten down.
The faith to commit ourselves to the life of love so astonishingly taught and exemplified by Jesus makes all the difference in the world. It is like setting out for a new country in response to God’s call. It is like being reborn in the water of baptism that frees us from our sins and enrolls us in the new community of love. It is like being reborn in the Spirit of God that breathes through us as we engage the issues of our time, our sorry politics, our dysfunctional families, our mixed-up souls, all to subject them to the humility and discipline of love.
I invite you to faithful commitment to the loving way of Jesus. With faith, we leave behind the bondage of ignorance in spiritual matters, the bondage of neediness for idolatrous power, and the bondage of the old life of the search for self-advantage. With faith, we gain the new life in which God’s spirit of love lifts us into God’s eternal life at the very same time that we risk ourselves in love at the right hand and at the left. Nicodemus might have been a little silly in his question whether he had to enter his mother’s womb to be born again. But he learned Jesus’ lesson. Remember it was he who, with Joseph of Arimathea, persevered in love of Jesus after the crucifixion and took his body to ready it for the resurrection. May our Lenten disciplines increase our faith to persevere for the newborn life of love.