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Thursday, March 12, 2015

Nighttime Conversations with Non-Sequitur Jesus

I don’t know why some people say that the best place for new believers, new Christians to start reading the Bible is with the Gospel of John.  It is a frustratingly difficult book.  And it is deliberately so.  Misunderstandings and esoteric double meanings are constant through the fourth gospel. This coming Sunday we’ll be reading from that very familiar part of John’s Gospel – Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus in chapter three (3:1 – 21).  But, as familiar as it is, I think we (most of us) really don’t understand it. Jesus seems set to deliberately confuse.  Follow this, if you can:

Nicodemus (whose name means “Victory of the People”) came to Jesus at night (the symbolism is thick and heavy throughout this passage and through John’s gospel as a whole) and said, “We know you are a teacher who has come from God.  We’ve seen the signs you’ve done and no one could do them without God…”

And Jesus answers, “I solemnly assure you (or in the old King James vernacular, “verily, verily I say,”) no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above (or anew).”

If you don’t have whiplash there, it’s because you weren’t paying attention. Nicodemus didn’t ask a question, and didn’t mention either being born from above or the kingdom of heaven. Yet Jesus seems to begin in the middle of a conversation. Nicodemus’ confusion is natural. “What are you talking about, being born again? How can a man be expected to reenter his mother’s womb and be born all over again?” 

Non-sequitur Jesus continues “I solemnly assure you, if you want to see the kingdom of God you’ve got to be born of water and of spirit.” More whiplash.  First it’s “born from above” or “born anew” –expressions that he doesn’t stop to explain, now it’s “born of water and spirit” – also not explained. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He launches into a discussion about the movement of the wind. The connection there is a little easier to grasp: in Greek (as in Hebrew) the same word is used for both spirit and wind. Jesus uses the double meaning to make another unsignaled turn in the conversation.

Nicodemus still doesn’t get it (and how could he?): he asks: “How can things like this happen?” And then he disappears (at least until chapter 7, and he makes a final brief appearance in chapter 19).  Nicodemus fades back into the darkness; the dialogue becomes a monologue (Brown 145). 

From this discussion of the wind, Jesus makes a tergiversation and says “no one has gone up into heaven except the one who has come down from heaven”–apparently speaking of himself, and also apparently forgetting (or ignoring) Enoch, Elijah, Moses, Daniel, and Baruch who were said to either have been carried off to heaven, or to have seen into the heavenly places. Shifting directions again, almost midsentence, Jesus equates himself (apparently) with the bronze serpent that Moses lifted up in the desert and makes the first reference to “eternal life” in the Gospel of John.

Then comes that verse that Martin Luther did NOT describe as “the gospel in miniature": 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.”

And though Bannerman may hold up his placard with this verse at football games, and children may memorize it in Sunday School it is not quite as simple as we might believe it to be.  It’s the word “so” that is tricky.  Does the verse mean that “God loved the world SO MUCH that he gave his son…”  making “so” a measure of the degree of intensity of God’s love - or does answer the question: How did God love the world? Like so, he gave his only son. 

Jesus turns again and says that he’s not come to condemn the world but to save it, and besides those who don’t believe have already condemned themselves. And then he brings the passage full symbolic circle by comparing light and darkness (reminding us that Nicodemus came to see Jesus at night). 

But where is Nicodemus?  He’s gone off somewhere to try and figure this all out.

Brown, Raymond E. The Gospel of John (i - xii) : Anchor Bible Volume 29. Garden City, New York, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966.

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