3:1-21: Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 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 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 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?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 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.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
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. 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? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
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.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. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
There are some thoughts we only allow ourselves at night. We’re ashamed of them in the daytime when we have to be realistic and practical. But when night falls, when the shadows lengthen and sway, the world becomes fluid. All of the sudden the absurd is normal, the fears we keep under lock and key come out to play, but also if your thoughts aren’t racing too much, the night can allow you to make sense of problems that have been eating at your subconscious. When else but four in the morning can you find that perfect clarity only delirium brings, that you find only when your inhibitions are gone so that you can say out loud that ridiculous thought you have about the doctrine of the Trinity or your unrequited love or whatever deep disappointment haunts your soul? There are some thoughts we only allow ourselves at night, when we don’t worry about anyone condemning us for having them. There are fears and hopes that come forward only when prying eyes aren’t watching, aren’t making us ashamed.
In our story this morning, Nicodemus goes to Jesus at night because that’s when he can go see him without condemnation. At this point in John’s Gospel, Jesus has just vandalized the Temple. Being seen with him at that moment would certainly have brought some skeptical looks. So he goes to Jesus at night and says, I imagine with some tension in his voice: 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. It’s a statement but it comes out almost like a question as it hangs in the air. If Nicodemus knows Jesus is a teacher who has come from God, why does he have to go to him under cover of darkness? Maybe because he won’t quite allow himself to believe. He wants that to be true, he can feel that it’s true, but he can only say it at night because he’s not really sure. He goes to Jesus at night because his own hopes are dim, and if he spoke them during the day they would only bring condemnation, maybe from himself as well as others.
It’s a silly thought, right, that this Jesus of Nazareth could be a teacher from God? Even though he drove out the moneychangers and turned water into wine, surely those moneychangers set their tables right back up. And turning water into wine is a nice party trick, but what does it really do in a world that’s run by the Empire and the Temple? In the harsh light of day, how can he be who he says he is? How can the Kingdom of God really be at hand when the kingdoms of this world are so firmly entrenched? Even entertaining the idea is naive and idealistic, shameful for a responsible adult. Nicodemus knows better. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. I know those signs are from God but I also know that just can’t be true.
He knows that’s just not how the world works. When you run out of wine, the party’s over. You have to have some moneychangers in the Temple to keep everything running smoothly. Jesus might think he can rebuild the Temple in three days, but Rome wasn’t built in a day and doesn’t seem to be going away any quicker. You can feel the tension in Nicodemus, because it’s ours too, the tension between the promise of who Jesus says he is and the reality of life in the world, between the dream of God’s Kingdom and the cold light reflecting from the moneychangers’ coins.
No sooner do we imagine a better world, get an inkling of God’s Kingdom, than do we learn to correct ourselves. Maybe you’ve had an experience like that, where you’ve had some hope, some dream of how things could be better, only to see it choked out (maybe before you’ve even spoken it out loud). Where you think, “someone should do something about that” but before you’ve even asked the question you’ve already stopped yourself and said, “No, that’s silly.” Maybe you’ve thought in a community this wealthy, there shouldn’t be homeless people or hungry children, but then it’s such a big problem, there are obviously no easy answers. Maybe you’ve thought, I’m really stressed about my finances, but I can’t talk about it because I’m afraid someone will say I’m complaining. Maybe you’ve tried to help someone but it didn’t go how you thought it would. We have these dreams of justice and jubilee but we know how the world really works, and so instead of trying something, anything, we throw our hands up and mutter about a sinful world or waiting for Jesus to come back.
Jesus calls this way of living, where faith stays in the dark, “the flesh.” Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. The flesh is opposed to the Kingdom of God. Now, when Jesus talks about the flesh he doesn’t mean that our skin or our bodies are bad and so we should be ashamed of them. The flesh, in the New Testament, is this reflex to correct ourselves, to stay in our lane. It’s this instinct to keep our hopes in the dark so that they never change the shape of our days.
The “flesh” is the muscle memory that we’ve learned from being slapped on the wrist by the Powers of this world. When I was a kid, I did tae kwan do, because I wanted to be a Ninja Turtle when I grew up, and I had this instructor who popped me in the back of the head with his knuckle every time I made a mistake. And over time, I started flinching whenever I thought I’d made a mistake, even when he was across the room. That’s the flesh, not my body but that trained instinct to flinch at condemnation (which lets my accuser’s will live in my skin). The flesh is that instinct to put yourself under judgment because the world is judging you already. It’s that reflex that makes women apologize for everything, because this world is constantly teaching women that you’re very being is a problem; the flesh is that pressure to go along with whatever a doctor says even when you’re uncomfortable with it, because they’re the expert and must know more than you so it would be dangerous to say “no”; it’s that impulse to keep silent because you must be wrong or to talk over people because you have to prove you’re right. The flesh is condemnation written on your body so that we learn the world is what it is and you’d better learn to deal with it. What is born of flesh is more flesh. Keep those desires for the kingdom of God to yourself. You can whisper them into your pillow but this is the real world.
That’s the Flesh, and with the Flesh the Kingdom of God is impossible. But Jesus invites Nicodemus, and us too, to be remade in a different kind of life, the life of the Spirit. Where the flesh says, “You get one birth, one life, it goes the way it goes, so best grin and bear it” the Spirit says “You can be born again. The world doesn’t have to be the way it is and you don’t have to be who you are in response to it. I come to bring new creation and you can begin again.” This isn’t a Spirit that’s opposed to matter. Jesus isn’t saying, “Forget creation, the pleasures of eating and loving and living among friends. Don’t worry about politics and money and all that earthly stuff.” No, the Spirit Jesus is talking about is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who is the love between the Father and the Son. The Spirit is God’s love for the world who gives the only begotten Son so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.
This Spirit is the opposite of the flesh because she only condemns condemnation. The Spirit does critique and reject anything that is opposed to life, but Jesus doesn’t come to condemn the world. Jesus comes to heal us where accusation has torn us down. And this doesn’t make us float away from the world but draws us deeper in. For example, I asked earlier why is there homelessness in Chapel Hill? There are plenty of empty apartments and there is plenty of money available to give every homeless person an apartment, especially if you reallocated what the city pays to jail and hospitalize our neighbors who live outside. We simply choose not to do so because we’re willing to condemn our neighbors as lazy or foolish, and so they need to prove themselves through work or education before they’re worthy of shelter. The flesh condemns and in doing so takes life away, but the Spirit blesses and gives life.
In the Spirit, God blesses like the father of the prodigal son, not because of some quality in us that’s proved itself but simply because God delights in us as creatures. That’s the kind of life God wants for us, a life where instead of being knocked on the skull, we’re embraced, where instead of being told to be quiet, we’re asked to speak up and we’re not shamed when we do, a life where you don’t have to apologize for taking up space but are known as the gift you are. That’s the kind of life we’re called to live together as the church. We’re called to be a place where those thoughts we only allow ourselves at night aren’t laughed at or shamed as naive because when God pours the Spirit out on flesh “our sons and our daughters shall prophesy,and our young men shall see visions,and our elderly shall dream dreams” and they shall do so in the full light of day.
My friends, the Powers of this world are strong and they do seem to choke out new life. It’s hard to blame Nicodemus for keeping his hopes in the dark. But the Kingdom of God comes near in the Spirit, the Spirit who blesses with profligacy and abandon, who blesses and so breathes life even where it seems like it can’t emerge. And that’s our calling, too, to bless each other and our neighbors, without accusation, to give each other the space to relax our twitchy muscles, knowing that it might take some practice to unlearn the reflexes of the flesh. We are called to be a space of blessing without condemnation, and then to see what new life emerges when the morning comes. Amen.
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