Nicodemos was a man of the law. That’s what it meant to be a Pharisee. Not that you were a lawyer, but that your sole purpose was to serve God by ever more scrupulous observation of intricate regulations governing every aspect of behavior, of thought, speech, diet, hygiene, relationships, work, leisure and worship. The Chosen People lived by Mosaic Law, but that wasn’t good enough for the Pharisees. They sought God in ritual perfection. Then Jesus comes along and changes the game. He preaches that love… not law… is how God keeps score. Forgiveness… not retribution… is his passion. And for God’s people, from now on, things are going to be different.
The good news of this gospel is not good news to Nicodemos. He has invested a life-time in ritual holiness. Yet he has seen the power of Jesus. It obviously comes from God. And he can’t dismiss Jesus as a crank. Christ is telling him that his world has changed and that he must change with it. He must be born again to see the kingdom of God. But wait a minute, what’s that all about? How can a person already born be born all over again? It doesn’t make sense to Nicodemos… not at first anyway. But as John’s gospel later reveals, Nicodemos did come to believe. He defended Jesus in the Sanhedrin and bravely went with Joseph of Arimathea to claim the crucified body of Christ.
So it is safe to assume that, at some point and at some level, Nicodemos finally got it. He overcame his intellectual and legalistic objections, and received the grace to see Jesus for who he was. He understood that: God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.
And so the mystery comes into focus. Through the creation of the Father we are born of the flesh. Through the redemption of the Son we are born again of the Holy Spirit. As sure as oxygen and nutrition power our bodies, God’s grace powers our souls. Cut off from oxygen and nutrition our bodies perish. Cut off from God’s grace our souls perish. But Jesus tells us not to worry: God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. In him we are safe; we are saved. All will be well.
But our salvation comes at a terrible price. And as Jesus foretells, he will pay it for us. The Son of Man will be lifted up on the cross for every sin that ever was or will be, so that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life. The lyric verse of John’s gospel is magnificent, but it never pulls a punch for literary effect. Jesus lays it out straight for Nicodemos, his wannabe disciple, and for us, his easily distracted people: Keep doing what you’re doing and you’re going nowhere. Come follow me. Be born again of water and the Holy Spirit and it’s all yours… the forgiveness of the penitent, the serenity of grace, the joy of the beloved, the eternal life of the saved.
Jesus has changed the game. And God is waving us home.
The Reverend David Sellery, Author, Resource Creator and Retreat Leader. Committed to a vocation that focuses on encountering God in the midst of everyday life, I serve as an Episcopal priest who seeks to proclaim the good news of God in Christ in worship, pastoral care, education, stewardship, congregational development and community outreach, while continually engaging our wider culture with dynamism and hope.