Today’s Gospel reading (John 2:23-3:15) starts with a statement that Jesus wouldn’t entrust himself to the people who came to see his signs, because he knew all people and didn’t need their testimony. And then the narrative pivots to an encounter with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin. Nicodemus and his fellow council member Joseph of Arimathea are interesting characters. Both learned Pharisees, and both highly placed in the Jewish hierarchy in the governing body. And both followers of Jesus. While they didn’t follow Jesus on his missionary rounds as did the ragtag collection of fishermen, tax collectors, the healed, and women with means who tended to their material needs, they were, nonetheless, faithful to this Teacher. Often called secret followers, ones who might come to Jesus in the night, they were men who after the Crucifixion were placed where they could spread the word as effectively as those around Jesus. Nicodemus’ name comes up three times in John’s Gospel. Here and in the following (Jn 3:16-21), when he protests that Jesus deserves a fair hearing according to the Law (Jn 7:50-51), and when he and Joseph take Jesus’ body for burial and Nicodemus supplies the anointing herbs. It doesn’t hurt to have friends in high places.
And here Jesus is teaching this learned man some of the deepest and most mystical aspects of his teaching. One might assume that as a pious Jew, Nicodemus was already bound by Law to care for the needy. But Jesus is introducing him to the new Covenant he had been born to bring. It is all here. First Jesus gets Nicodemus’ attention by telling him that one must be born again. He could have said “made new” or “washed clean”, words that would not have shaken this pious Pharisee awake. The word he uses can mean from above or from the top, but it can mean again, and “born again” is the phrase most often used for a spiritual awakening. And Nicodemus takes it that way and counters Jesus in the fashion one would expect in an academic dialogue. Teacher, do you mean to hop back into my mother’s womb? Jesus counters with an explanation of baptism by water (cleansing) and the Spirit (being remade from above). That whole exchange about being a teacher of the Law and ignorant of the wind/spirit blowing where she wants is probably a reference to all the prophets who heard the Spirit of God send them on some task. And who descended from heaven to bring this? The Son of Man. But also the Spirit of God. And then Jesus references the bronze serpent.
There has always been an ambiguous relationship between the people and serpents. But people who live in wild places know of the danger of serpents. An accidental encounter and one bite and you are dead. We have the Serpent in the Garden of Eden who brings death. And the shape changing staff of Moses before Pharaoh which warns of death. But there was a bronze serpent attached to a staff in the first Temple which was destroyed at some point. Moses made it when an influx of vipers threatened the people. Looking at the bronze serpent would save the life of one bitten by a snake. Jesus would be lifted up on the wooden cross as the bronze snake was lifted up on a wooden pole, and looking at and abiding in him would save one from death. This teaching passage is thick with meaning, and capsulizes Jesus’ teaching. Even more so if one continues to the rest of the lesson, John 3:16-21, which spells out who the Son of God is and what he was brought to do. Not to condemn but to save the world. To bring the light, and that light will illuminate what is true, what is of God. Nicodemus is not, as some commentators have suggested, just another doubting Pharisee, but a disciple of great worth to Jesus, one with whom Jesus shares his whole mission, one who is educated and devout enough to hear it. For whatever reason, be it to hold off Jesus’ trial before the time was right or to assist in his burial, or perhaps to continue to teach the Gospel after the resurrection, Nicodemus is important to Jesus. He comes by night. To hide from his fellow Sanhedrin members? Perhaps, but perhaps because it is a time when he and his Teacher can spend some quality time. Maybe over a cup of wine, a loaf of bread.
What Jesus teaches Nicodemus is vital to us, too. How many of us sense the presence of the Spirit? Because after our baptism the Spirit is with us. Always. She doesn’t always answer our questions. Sometimes that still small voice is dead silent. But we are sanctified. Hallowed. Made holy. Jesus said so. We are people graced from above and destined to go above. But this doesn’t come free. We aren’t asked for much, but we are asked, even ordered, to pay attention, to ask our Father to open our hearts and ears if nothing else. We don’t have to walk around being unworldly. Jesus didn’t, except when he went alone to pray. But we can cultivate seeing the heavenly interfolded into our mundane and ordinary lives. For a long time kicking up our heels, getting tipsy with friends, unpacking our real selves was prohibited to a good and holy person. And that might have been too much, too unrealistic. But there is something about a righteous person, and I hope it isn’t walking around looking like a grim parody of a Puritan preacher. But a good life takes practice and attention. And the answers to the questions of discernment – marriage, divorce, vocation – all must come in dialogue with the Spirit. And with abiding fidelity to and love for Jesus and learning from the few words we have of his in four slim Gospels plus Acts and a few letters. Can we see Jesus’ sly humor, times when he is tired, his intentional pivots to bring the conversation back to his teaching? Can we hear the Spirit?
Once a day go back over all the things you did and what happened. You are not looking for guilt and shame. You are just looking at what happened. The people you deal with are also just human. And situations are complex, not mortal sins (unless you killed someone or stolen someone’s spouse!) but just life. Consolations are the things that make you and God happy. That is the Spirit talking. Alleluia! The desolations were the oops! In life. Maybe some correction is needed. Time to confess, ask for guidance. Let the Spirit guide, and be patient. We don’t order around God’s Spirit. We use words like vulnerable and humble. To be blunt, be empty. Let God judge. Our Father/Mother wants us to be as close to them as possible. To be like Jesus. And it takes a lifetime. Metanoia, turning to God, isn’t a one-time thing although there may be moments of extraordinary grace in our lives, born again moments, moments when you are told something by God and there us no option. Whatever it is, and Scripture is full of examples, hear the Spirit. That is being a person from above, of the light. Even in this secular and messy world around us. And read and reread this Scripture (Jn 2:23-3:21). Take it in. They are words to live by.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is currently at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.