How do you hear the gospel? Do you hear like Nicodemus hears? What is the filter through which we experience God? None of us can attain a true tabula rasa. We filter everything through the culmination of every experience we have had before. A hymn that brings warm memories for one person can be a reminder of something unpleasant or even painful for another. Everything that happened in each person’s life comes together to create an epistemological reciprocity. We cannot know something other than through the lens of our experience. Thus, when we encounter Christ, do we have to sneak out, go lurking around at night, so no one sees us like Nicodemus? Or, do we go boldly?
John 3 tells Nicodemus’ story and presents us with a quandary for how we approach Jesus. The text says that Nicodemus was “a leader of the Jewish people,” yet he went to see Jesus at night. John usually has multiple layers of meaning. When it says Nicodemus went to see Jesus at night, it might have just been a note about the scene. That is, “Picture it. A warm Jerusalem night and one of the leaders of the Jewish people goes to see an itinerant rabbi.”
Going to see Jesus by night could mean because Nicodemus was in the dark—he didn’t understand. It could mean the nighttime of his life. It could be the darkness of dislocation because his belief system wasn’t doing it for him and he wanted to see what Jesus was about. We know that John didn’t throw in superfluous set details as if he were writing staging directions for a play. We also know that there’s a lot of light/dark interchange in John. Finally, we know that light transforms darkness.
Nicodemus goes at night, in the dark, to see Jesus, who is the light. Nicodemus testifies that Jesus could not do what he’s been doing if he were not in the presence of God. He recognizes something about Jesus is light. After hearing the question, Jesus replies with an enigmatic answer about being born from above. Nicodemus keeps the conversation in the realm of reality, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” They go back and forth about water, Spirit, flesh, birth, and wind. When Nicodemus asks in 3.9, “How can these things be?”, that’s the last we hear from him in this pericope. He comes up again in John 7.50-51 when he speaks up for Jesus and in 19.39-42 at Jesus’ burial.
Jesus answers Nicodemus in 3.11-21 with a coherent speech about what we know, how we know, what we have seen, and why we believe. It is a story of transformation, the kind that would confront someone who comes to God with a list of rules and says, “How do you fit in with this?”
Some Insight to John 3.1-17
Ernesto Cardenal was a Nicaraguan priest who began his ministry in the Solentiname Islands on Lake Nicaragua. He founded a Christian community that evolved into an artist’s colony. Cardenal wrote poetry in addition to theology. He supported the Sandinistas and, after they took over, the Sandinista government named him Minister of Culture. Pope John Paul II was against this appointment and told Cardenal to resign his post.
When John Paul visited Nicaragua in 1983, Cardenal met him on the tarmac. The Pope stepped off his plane and Cardenal knelt before him. The Pope scolded the kneeling priest and shook his finger at him, saying, “Usted tiene que arreglar sus asuntos con la Iglesia”(“You must fix your affairs with the Church”). In 1984, John Paul suspended Cardenal, and the suspension remained in place until Pope Francis lifted it in 2019.
Cardenal died last Sunday.
When he was a young priest in Solentiname, he would say mass each week. After he read the gospel, he did something radical for a Catholic priest. He asked the people, poor peasants and fishing people, what they thought the text meant. He recorded their reflections and edited them into the four-volume Gospel in Soletiname. One woman named Olivia, when she heard about Nicodemus coming at night, said, “He needed to put aside hypocrisy and become converted to love… [when you’re] born again, it’s when a new consciousness is created in you; you become a new person.”[i]
Olivia is right. The Nicodemus episode in John is about transformation. He did not make a trade to experience faith. He didn’t come to God through rules or an institution. He needed something new, something radical. He needed light of Christ to shatter the darkness of his life. The problem for us is that we might need it too, but sometimes it is hard to see. Nicodemus was part of a system that had it all figured out. In some ways, it is like modernity. We have all the answers—until we don’t. For many people, this coronavirus is the kind of reminder that we don’t know all the answers.
Another woman, named Gloria, drew transformation out a few steps further. She saw Nicodemus as symptomatic of his religious system. She said, “Religion by itself, like the Pharisee’s religion, doesn’t change society. It doesn’t end injustices, exploitation.”[ii] Transformation disrupts institutions. A religious system becomes self-reliant. The whole notion of being “born again” is a step away from institutionalism and toward transformation. Gloria’s point is about collective transformation. When a bunch of us experience transformation, we can change society.
Institutions are big and unwieldy. Rémi Brague tells the story of “The Elephant and the Mouse in the China Shop.” It goes like this:
A very gentle elephant and a very wicked mouse each entered a china store. Who caused the greatest commotion? It was the elephant, of course, not because of its ill will, but because it was huge. The mouse, who as a matter of fact did want to destroy everything in the store, was too small to do so.[iii]
Institutions can be like the elephant. Even if an institution has the best intentions, it can swerve away from God. It becomes self-sufficient or self-focused. That’s one of the problems of modernity. Juan Luis Segundo writes, “Everything that comes from people… is in the last analysis something human… But there exists another plane: the divine plane. Only through transformation… can we enter into it.”[iv] What about us? Can we look at the world in a different way? Karl Barth writes, “If knowledge of God’s Word is possible, this must mean that an experience of God’s Word is possible.”[v]
We can look at the world and God in a different way than Nicodemus. We can experience the light of Christ in our lives. When we are transformed, we can be Spirit-inspired agents of change. As I thought about this text, I realized that it could be summarized, “Don’t be like Nic. Don’t go to Jesus at night. Go boldly.” Then, I remembered that we are all at different places. It might be that going to Jesus at night is the only thing you can do. It’s the only thing Nicodemus could do. If that’s all you can do, that’s okay.
We cannot go to Jesus with a blank slate. We go to him with everything we’ve ever done. And, when we experience transformation in Christ, we can take him with into every new experience we have. How does this work in our lives? Last Tuesday was Super Tuesday. It reminded me that as people who are transformed in Christ, we should vote as if Jesus were watching. For that matter, we should go to work, drive, and do everything else we do, as if Jesus were watching.
Being transformed in Christ, or
born again, is a step away from institutionalism and a step toward the light.
And, when Christ shines through us, we can change the world.
[i] Ernesto Cardenal, The Gospel in Solentiname, Volume 3, trans. Donald D. Walsh (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1979), 15.
[ii] Cardenal, Solentiname, Vol. 3, 17.
[iii] Rémi Brague, Moderately Modern, trans. Paul Seaton (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2019), 199.
[iv] Juan Luis Segundo, Grace and the Human Condition, trans. John Drury, A Theology for Artisans of a New Humanity, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1973), 61.
[v] Karl Barth, The Doctrine of the Word of God §1-7, ed. G. W. Bromiley and Thomas F. Torrance, trans. G. W. Bromiley, vol. I.1, Church Dogmatics, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2010), 195.