It’s Saturday night and some preachers are struggling with sermon preparation that has to say something about a reading from the third chapter of John’s gospel. It’s a passage about a nighttime visit to Jesus from Nicodemus, a high ranking pharisee who is interested in learning more. It has to be the strangest passage in the gospel narratives. In it Nicodemus and Jesus exchange words, but they’re not as a dialogue in which conversation leads to mutual understanding. Nicodemus speaks in the ordinary language of every day life, while Jesus responds with mystical non sequiturs that leave today’s readers wondering if they, along with Nick, are just not spiritually sophisticated enough to get it.
It goes a little like this: It’s night. Nicodemus has apparently heard quite a bit about Jesus and is curious enough to seek him out for some one-on-one conversation. He opens by acknowledging that ‘we’ know you are a teacher from God. Who the ‘we’ are is unknown. My guess is that others had urged him to go find out more about this guy.
Jesus’ response? You can’t see the kingdom unless you are born from above. Who asked to see it? How does it relate to Nick’s greeting? Maybe something’s missing from the record.
Nevertheless, Nicodemus asks an obvious follow up question: How can one be born after having grown old? It’s a perfectly reasonable question worthy of a reasonable answer. So what does he get?
He gets a short monologue about how you can’t enter God’s kingdom, much less see it, without being born of water and Spirit. Most of us recognize the allusion to Christian baptism, but what sense would that have made to Nick? Then Jesus goes on to tell Nick not to be astonished, that flesh is born of flesh while spirit is born of spirit, and the wind goes where it wants, and it’s the same for spiritual people.
Even Yoda makes more sense than that, so it’s no surprise that Nicodemus responds with, What!?, only to be admonished for being a teacher of the faith yet too dense to understand these heavenly truths.
John’s gospel is full of mystery and mysticism. Its poetry, pithy aphorisms assuring believers of God’s love, its description of the divine Jesus knowing and in control of everything, yet displaying the human Jesus in the grittiness of daily life, is what makes it a favorite among new Christians and veterans alike. But this passage leaves honest listeners scratching their heads and preachers stumbling over what to say. Now and then I hear someone nearly swoon over the profundity of it as if they had special insight. I’m fairly certain they don’t. Even my go to commentator, Ray Brown, had trouble with it.
None of this prevents the passage from being included in the lectionary, so something helpful has to be said about it. I’ve generally begun by reminding listeners (there are a few) that John’s gospel is intent on answering one question only: What does it mean to say that Jesus is the Son of God? This passage, which may be a poorly edited version of a more complete story told by John, reveals truth about the full integration in Jesus of divinity and humanity, of material and spiritual, and that in Jesus’ presence the reality of the kingdom is both seen and entered. It’s a garbled passage, so don’t get too hung up over it. The truth it reveals gets worked out more clearly as the gospel narrative develops.