Born from Above by Rev. Richard Hasselbach, Ph.D.
In Crown Heights, Brooklyn this week, a mob of mostly teenage boys attacked a 15-year-old girl. They beat her, pushed her to the ground, kicked her in the head and chest, stomped on her and stole her sneakers, phone, and debit card leaving her unconscious on the ground. Though she survived the attack, she will carry the psychological scars of the attack for the rest of her life.
There is darkness and evil in our world, and if you doubt it all you need to do is read accounts of attacks like this one and others like it. Thus has it always been. What does the story of Nicodemus in the Gospel have to say to these two brutalized young women?
In the third chapter of John’s Gospel (John 3:1-21) we find Nicodemus coming to Jesus “at night.” When John tells us that Nicodemus came “at night,” he is telling us more than about the time of day: he is saying something about Nicodemus’ world and the state of his inner life. Nicodemus was literally “in the dark.”
The darkness John alludes to is, in part, the darkness and evil of the world. Like the girls attacked in Brooklyn, Nicodemus also lived in a world infused with evil: his was a brutal and dehumanizing age where life was cheap and disposable. The Romans were brutal overlords who would think nothing of slaughtering even the innocent to terrorize the populace into submission. Crime, then (as now) was rampant. Roving bands of brigands made traveling the lonely roads of Judea and Galilee dangerous unless you traveled with others. The poor and sick were often cast aside and left to starve or die while the wealthy lived in opulence nearby.
But Nicodemus was also, spiritually, in darkness. As Solzhenitsyn put it, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.…” The evil outside us reflects the evil within us. We are all touched by it, we are all a part of it. Nicodemus, the teacher of Israel, the leader of his people, was no exception.
He comes to Jesus with respect and interest. He has heard of the signs Jesus has performed and come to the conclusion that God must be with Jesus. He addresses Jesus as “rabbi,” teacher.
In the conversation that followed, these two men completely missed each other’s meaning. Instead of responding to Nicodemus’ greeting, Jesus told him: “Unless you are born (the Greek word used here means ‘sired’, i.e. born from the perspective of the father) from above you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” Bearing down on this, Jesus reiterated: “No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the spirit.”
The confused Nicodemus asked: “How can anyone be born a second time? How can you return to the womb?”
To understand Jesus’s meaning, we need to look at John’s prologue. John writes: “To everyone who receives him, who has faith in his name, he gives the right to become children of God. Children not born of natural descent or of human decision, but born of God.”
Jesus is responding to the darkness not only around Nicodemus but within him. God’s answer to evil is not a proposition, but a person: it is Jesus himself. When we receive Jesus, when we have faith in him, he gives us the right to become God’s Children. God makes us new. He overcomes the evil within us, and sends us into the world do continue the saving work of the Son: we are to ransom and heal and save with Jesus and in his name.
Look to the Cross, Jesus tells Nicodemus (and us). “The Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.” On the cross, Jesus suffered on our behalf and in our place. By suffering as God’s servant Jesus became one with all the sinful broken world: he overcame evil - all evil, of every time and in every place.
Faith in the crucified one gives life — and gives us the assurance that no evil will ever be more powerful than the selfless love of God revealed in the Crucified. No matter how powerful it looks we are assured that death too will die. Sin leads to death, only the cross leads us to life. When Jesus calls us to look to him and live, he calls us to more than personal salvation: he calls us to live in his saving love, to be “other Christs.” If we are to believe in the Crucified One, we must follow his call to pick up our own crosses and follow him. We must embrace his lifestyle of selfless giving: as he held nothing back, giving his last drop of blood on the cross to overcome evil and win the battle, now we must similarly give of ourselves lovingly.
The Spirit empowers us to do this. Like the wind, we can’t see the Spirit, but we know where it is because we can see its effects. How do we know where the Spirit is? In Acts 2, when the Spirit descended on the disciples, they could hear others “each in his own tongue.” The Spirit brings down the barriers that exist between those who are, for any reason, estranged. On the night of his resurrection, when Jesus comes to the disciples in the upper room, he breathes on them and prays “receive the Holy Sprit. Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven…” The Spirit is present when we forgive and let go of the burdens of our bitterness and anger. Finally, at the last supper Jesus tells us “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. The Spirit is present when we follow Jesus command to “love one another as I have loved you.” Then we become the living temples of the triune God.
Jesus gives an answer evil in the world whether in Jerusalem or Crown Heights: he is the answer, and so are we because he is present in the world now through his disciples. We are to lead this broken to salvation and life by creating communities of love, and by loving as the Lord calls us to love. When we live selflessly, when we act prophetically and speak out against evil, when we life in God’s values and not in the values of the world then we embrace the Kingdom. When we have been born of God we can both see and enter the Kingdom now, even as the spirit leads us to the place where the tears shall be wiped from every eye, and the Lord will create a new heaven and a new earth.