Preached at Community of Christ Lutheran, Whitehouse, Ohio on March 5, 2023
Sometimes taking Jesus literally is ridiculous. And other times it’s the Holy Spirit at work.
People of God, let’s offer some grace to Nicodemus this morning, and to ourselves. Here we are in Lent, and it’s turning out to be just what that church season is known for: contemplating Jesus’ mortality, and our own. Repenting of our wayward actions, self-examination, making difficult pivots. Yuck. When a leader, like Pastor Lohrmann, goes through a major health issue, it reminds us all of our own vulnerability. Plus, we’re all going through our own stuff too. One of my dear friends had her job eliminated at the end of February, and is waiting on the Holy Spirit to bring in some new possibilities, now without health care for her or her spouse. Another 90-year-old friend just moved into a care center in rural Montana because he just can’t walk without help, and he’s too heavy for his daughter to carry anymore. The church at large, and I’m sure this congregation, has changed significantly since we last read this Gospel 3 years ago on the second Sunday of Lent, for many of us, the last Sunday before COVID upended everything. Viewing the world through our grief and losses, the edges get fuzzy, of our usually sharp wits. So if we say ridiculous things sometimes or willfully misunderstand the bigger picture, there is room for grace.
I know that Nicodemus deserves some criticism, as Jesus questions him in frustration: “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” But I feel you, Nicodemus, and I just want to say to Jesus, “Look, it’s the earthly things that are weighing us down right now. This is where we need you.” We, with Nicodemus, are stuck in the middle of this earthy mess, between re-birth that seems impossible and death. The only other time we encounter Nicodemus in Scripture is when he comes with Joseph of Arimathea to retrieve Jesus’ body from the cross, at the literal, earthly end of this Lenten journey. John 19 says “Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.” He is a Pharisee, a leader among the Jewish people, who only meets Jesus under the cover of darkness. Yet I find it difficult to blame him. When you are seen as a leader, you have more to lose by taking risks, wading into controversy, or showing interest in anything that would upset the status quo. Because the status quo is what gives you your status. So, I get it, Nicodemus. But no one ever said birth is easy.
Jesus says to this Nicodemus: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again, or born from above” and Nicodemus—whether genuinely confused or just being stubborn—takes it literally. The mechanics of being born a second time are completely impossible, and he says so. Now it seems like Jesus is the one who is being ridiculous.
Literal birth imagery is just right
But Nicodemus and Jesus, let me add something to the conversation. The imagery of birth is the right one for turning toward a new life of following Jesus. Because birth imagery is not ephemeral or abstractly beautiful. Not if you’ve ever been there for a birth. The truth is that it is messy, chaotic even. The risk and the pain and the holy reckoning between grief and joy that is a human body producing life has a lot in common with truly following Jesus. There is nothing safe about either of them.
Inadvertently, Nicodemus’ ridiculous response about “going back into a mother’s womb” is actually what God does by entering our fraught lives. Going through birth again is also what God needs us to do for and with others. God is born in human flesh, in our pushing and crying out and bleeding and weeping with joy. God is there in the birthing room, being born and pushing and holding onto the Holy Spirit as midwife. And following Jesus means we’re willing to go through it all again with everyone at a crisis moment, and turning points in their lives. “What if,” activist and filmmaker Valarie Kaur says, “it’s not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?” When we’re going through whatever is really impossible right now, God is with us, pushing outward with us, breaking us into new life. So yes, it will resemble the risk and chaos and relief and joy of a birth to follow Jesus and support others through it. And new life will seem impossible, but somehow God pushes through. That is absolutely true.
Let’s address the most famous verse from our Gospel reading, and possibly from the entire Bible. Say it with me now if you wish: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life.” But what is eternal life, exactly? Is it like this, but just goes on and on forever? That doesn’t actually sound so great. Later in the Gospel of John, Jesus defines the term and it’s really helpful to read this “Bible in miniature” verse with that definition in mind. In John 17, Jesus looks up to heaven and says, “Father, the hour has come; … since you have given [me] authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given [me]. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” So that’s it. Eternal life is knowing God. It’s not about extending this life, but about living in relationship with God. Eternal life begins when we know God is here with us now.
Living eternally—in the knowledge of God—is not abstract or otherworldly at all. It is done particularly, and in heart-wrenching crisis moments. So I’m not trying to be too smug, talking back to Jesus, but Nicodemus is onto something pulling that ethereal “born from above” or “born again” imagery down to the ground level, and into the birthing room. We can only really know and love one another in specific actions, not as a concept or an idea.
To be born again is impossible once you’re grown, because the parts literally do not fit. Whenever we are trying to start over—often only because the previous way of life is cut off and we have no choice—the parts do not fit. We cannot bring all of the possessions of our home into the room in the care facility. We cannot pretend everything is fine and nothing needs to change because we know who is missing from the family table or the congregation, like parts of our own body being cut off. But we can live with the eternal—unending—love of God in the midst of all of this, even as something new is born. We can stay with each other through labor and delivery, of all the new life breaking in upon us every day.