Although I am not a teacher of Israel, as Nicodemus was, I also don’t “understand these things,” which makes me nervous. This Sunday is Trinity Sunday, and the gospel lesson (John 3:1-17) confuses me.
Nicodemus was a leader of the Jews, which might explain why he came to Jesus at night. He was curious but wanted to keep a low profile. His opening statement upon seeing Jesus tells us that he had been impressed by Jesus’ miracles: “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.” But Jesus takes his curiosity and takes it a dramatic step further: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” And that’s where I start to lose what’s going on.
There’s a back and forth about being born again. Nicodemus thinks Jesus means to climb back into one’s mother’s womb and start over, but Jesus tells him that it is a spiritual water-birth that he has in mind. (I’m thinking baptism, right?) But then Jesus gives a “flute-without-holes-is-not-a-flute” saying by telling Nicodemus, “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.” To that, Nicodemus rightly says, “What in the world are you talking about?” And then Jesus lays it all out there and says, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”
No, ok. I don’t. I thought I had it, but then you got all eastern-philosophy wind-blowing on me, and I got confused. What is he talking about?
The funny thing is that I think Jesus is trying to show Nicodemus that a strictly physical, earthly mindset won’t work. God is Spirit, and it takes being born of the Spirit to figure that out. So, in a sense, this isn’t supposed to be clear. It’s supposed to be confusing—just like God, I guess.
As many commentators have written, John’s gospel account focuses on signs. Jesus’ feats of wonder are all pointing to a bigger, deeper, more important truth—that Jesus is the Son of God. Those in John’s gospel account who see the miracle and make the connection are led to faith. Others are simply amazed by the miracles and fail to see to what they are pointing. And others are simply threatened by them and also walk away without faith. Nicodemus, it seems, is in that transitional place. He’s been amazed, and he’s beginning to make the connection, but he hasn’t allowed the signs to take him all the way home.
I think Nicodemus becomes the archetype of faith for John’s account. He’s one of the few non-disciples whom we get to see wrestling with the truth. He’s amazed. He becomes interested. He makes the connection. He becomes an advocate for Jesus. And, in the end, he becomes an open follower. And he shows us that one doesn’t get there all at once. Coming to faith takes time. Internalizing in mind and body and spirit the good news is a process. This lesson is an invitation into discipleship by degrees. Maybe there’s a message here for the church to embrace. Jesus invited Nicodemus into a deeper relationship by startling him with a hard-to-grasp message. Maybe we’ve lost the power of an invitation to that which is mystical and counterintuitive.