There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”
Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”
Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”
Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”
“Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
Our Gospel reading today is one of the most famous passages in the Bible. It contains one of the most memorized verses in the Bible, too. But I want to focus on something else.
In verse 3, Jesus told Nicodemus, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see G‑d’s Realm.” While the word translated “anew” here (Greek: ἄνωθεν (anōthen)) is better translated as “from above,” I like the Common English Version’s translation. The word “anew” seems to capture Jesus’ meaning. The word “anew” means “a new or different way; over again; once more.” And that first part, I think, is what Jesus is emphasising to us and Nick.
Jesus is saying that to “see” or “discern” or “detect” the Realm of G‑d one must be “born anew.” In other words, for someone to discern that Jesus was establishing G‑d’s Realm “on earth as in heaven,” one must see things in a different way. It takes new eyes, new vision, to detect the Realm of G‑d in our midst.
This is crucial, especially with regards to seeing the Realm of G‑d from that time until now and on into G‑d’s future for creation. When I explain that, yes, Jesus actually established G‑d’s Realm and it’s been growing and expanding ever since, I get that blank stare. That, “You’re kidding, right? You can’t be serious. Look at all of the crap going on in the world! Surely G‑d’s Realm isn’t here.” I don’t just hear this from anyone — I hear it from people who profess to be followers of Jesus!
The idea is that since there’s so much “wrong” with the world — and you can spin that to include whatever you want — G‑d’s Realm is far, far, from here. But that, to me, shows the limit of our faith. We are still in our infancy if we can’t see beyond (or in addition to) the supposed “wrong.”
Let’s approach this from a different angle. We’re in first century Jerusalem. We’re walking with Jesus daily. And he’s going on and on about G‑d’s Realm. About how it’s here and now. That the long awaited promise of G‑d has finally come at last (Mark 1.15; NLT).
And he has the audacity to say this in the midst of Roman occupation! Everywhere we look, the Roman army is present. All around us corruption is running rampant. Our own fellow Hebrews are traitors in the form of tax collectors for Caesar. The rich are continuing to get rich while most of us are just trying to make ends meet. It seems like every day there’s some new tax or law that just takes more from us and gives it to the people who already have more than they could possible need. And to top it all off, our religious leaders seem to be bedfellows with the pagans, too. They seem more concerned about lining their pockets and keeping their positions of power instead of taking care of the people. It’s just mind boggling that Jesus is telling us that G‑d’s Realm has finally come.
And yet, that’s just what Jesus teaches. So, the message of Jesus regarding the Realm of G‑d is no more far-fetched of a claim today than it was then. But that doesn’t make it any less true. This is why one must be “born anew.” This is where faith comes in.
Perhaps “faithfulness” is a better word than “faith.” The word “faith,” in our context, simple means to believe in something or someone. It doesn’t really seem to require anything on our part. It doesn’t really bother us or invade our lives. It’s more of an acknowledgment, really.
“Faithfulness,” on the other hand, takes on the idea of action, of living in that faith, of being in that faith. What Jesus is talking about is faithfulness. Sure, we must have faith in him, but we must also live out that faith. And by that, I don’t mean (and I don’t think he meant) going to church or tithing or whatever. Again, those types of things don’t really bother us or invade our lives. Jesus is meaning something more messy than that.
In another place, Jesus said we should strive after G‑d’s Realm before anything else (Matthew 6.33). He’s not referring to personal piety. It’s never been about that (no matter what someone tells us). G‑d’s Realm is about doing justice, be kind and full of mercy, and live humbly (Micah 6.8; cf. Romans 14.17). When we see those things, it is there that G‑d’s Realm is being manifested. It’s only when we’ve been “born anew” that we discern G‑d’s Realm is transforming our world.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC