by H.G.Yuhanon Mor Meletius
Gospel Reading: John 3:1-12
1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.”
3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”
4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 8 The wind blows where it wills and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can this be?”
10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?
This incident talks about the dichotomy between Judaism and Christianity. This has been a theme in all the four Gospels and even in the Church in the early times (Matt. 5:17 f.).
Nicodemus stands as a representative of his religion. Of course this has been the religion of Jesus too. But while Jesus represented the change that God brings continuously in the world, Nicodemus represents the static religion. So there is a tension between the Old which is old all the time and the New which is continuously being renewed.
So the last verse in the section can be read first. Jewish religion with its static state has become one of worldly and Jesus represents the heavenly.
Nicodemus comes at night to see Jesus. John the Evangelist is very good in making use of symbols out of time and place. Nicodemus comes at night because he represents a community that is in darkness. We may recall the state that existed before the creation. Darkness was upon the face of the earth (Gen. 1:1). That was a time when God had not started working on the creation project of human environment. It was also a time of chaos (also due to uncontrolled water covering the face of the earth) and hence rather a time ripe (in the fullness of time – Luk. 2:6) for God to work. The same darkness has taken over the whole religion of Judaism. Now God in Jesus has started to create a new identity in it.
It was good that Nicodemus came to Jesus. He is ready to accept Jesus as someone from God seeing the works being done by Jesus. But the problem is that there have been so many people who have come from God and have done wondrous things. The Jews considered Jesus one among those great people of the Old Testament.
Nicodemus calling Jesus ‘Rabi’ is another sign for that. To Jews Jesus certainly exhibits the scholarly skills of a learned person and hence can be called a teacher or Rabi. But Jesus is not happy to see that his own religion is not ready to take things forward and see the ‘signs’ and interpret them on the basis of the message in their scripture and accept Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus knows that he is not just a Rabi. So he takes Nicodemus further and puts a challenge before him. Just being a Jew will not make one eligible to enter in to the Kingdom of God.
The word ‘anew’ points to the insufficiency of the existing state of affair. An utterly or complete renewal is required. It should be noted that this is not ‘born again’ as some would argue, it is ‘born anew’. The same person, but continuously and thoroughly being renewed.
The next question from Nicodemus exposes the insufficiency of Jewish religion in which Nicodemus is a teacher. But Jesus waits till later to spell this out (3:10).
A second good element in Nicodemus is that he wants to continue the dialogue. In other words, he is eager to go further and is not adamant on the exhaustibility of his religion. Hope about future is there in him. But the problem is that he is not sure how to achieve it. The sad fact is that even now he is not ready to accept Jesus as the Messiah. So Jesus talks about the inevitable.
There has been the purification rite of baptism in Judaism. There was the baptism of John too. A lot of Jews did consider John the Baptist as one from God. Now they consider Jesus also as one from God. But they have to go further and take the baptism of spirit.
Two things are to be noted here.
1, talk about entering the Kingdom of God in itself is also an invitation to enter in to the Kingdom.
2, Jesus himself is the Kingdom of God, because he is not simply one from God, rather he is God.
This the Jews have not yet understood. This is the work of the Baptism of the Spirit. No purification act of Jews is sufficient to make people eligible to enter in to the Kingdom. This, John the Baptist had already told them (Matt. 3:11). But the Jews never understood that.
So Jesus further explains it in verses 6 following. He compares born anew human with the wind (spirit). The question is not where it comes from or where it goes to, rather the question is how it relates to one. For Jews, Jesus was the son of Mary. So he, for them, can not have wisdom, can not be more than a person from God. To them he will end up as a man of God just as anyone else in the history of Judaism.
Two things can be noted here.
1, Jesus needs to be understood as someone beyond the normal ‘teacher from God'.
2, anyone born anew is one like Jesus. Any one born anew in Jesus shares the spirit with him.
Here we can recall the statement in the prayer of removal of crown in the sacrament of baptism in Orthodox Church found at the end of the liturgy. The priest calls the baptized one ‘a brother/ sister of the only Son of God’. The baptized one shares the spirit with Jesus.
To continue the meditation two things need to be said.
First, Nicodemus was the representative of the Jewish community when he came to Jesus. We need to ask whom do we represent when we approach Him with our requests and prayers?
Second, how do we respond to the whole question of born anew?
Regarding the first question, most of the time we represent just ourselves when we come to Jesus. We present our worries and our needs. It is not sin to do that. But to do only that is a sin.
The priest during Holy Qurbono, from one of the ‘Sedros’ would read and say ‘I beseech you Oh Lord, pardon and forgiveness for the whole creation’. The phrase ‘whole creation’ is to be taken special note of. Only when we represent the whole creation, or in the limited circle, our neighbor, we can come before our Lord meaningfully. Because born anew is possible only in the company and in the fellowship of our brother (recall the expression of Isaiah at the temple (“Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips – 6:5. Also see the Husoyo prayer of the priest which says, ‘pardon oh Lord my many, great and countless sins and the sins of all your faithful people’).
Newness was lost for Cain and following him a host of people as they were not mindful of their brothers. Nicodemus represented a community that had exclusive claims and was proud of its heritage, scriptures and law codes. But they could not see Messiah in Jesus because they lived in darkness. Seclusion from the rest of the world creates darkness, darkness creates lack of newness and lack of newness forbids entry in to Kingdom of God.
To answer the second question, we need to look in to our own community. What kind of a community do we have? A community which is proud of its St. Thomas heritage; its great liturgical and theological traditions; its great fathers and its rich culture. But when newness is missing, none of these would hold value. This is to be taken very seriously.
Of course the Orthodox Church understands Jesus’ statement about the ‘born anew of water and spirit’ as a reference to the sacrament of baptism in the Church. But Orthodox does not consider baptism as a one time event. It is a continuous process that is initiated in the act of washing in water and anointing by Holy Oil. Unless this washing and anointing happens continuously, just initiation would become meaningless.
This is where we have almost proved to be one like Nicodemus’ community. The very words ‘change’ or ‘new’ creates lot of restlessness and anxiety in us. The great prophet Isaiah says, ‘God creates a new heaven and a new earth’ (65:17). Again the author of the book of Revelations says, ‘Jesus makes everything new’ (21:5).
Are we new or old? Is our community a constantly being renewed community or a static one? To find an answer we may just ask our children how we are to them. They represent a new generation. How is our worship service to them? How is our community structure to them? Many times we misinterpret the term Orthodox and say things in our community can never be changed. Well that is what people of the Jewish community also argued. With a static community, entry in to the Kingdom becomes impossible according to Jesus (if that is authentic enough for us). Jesus was not talking to Nicodemus alone. He spoke that to Nicodemus once. But now he is telling us that every day. Any one listening?
A final word. Every act of salvation is an act of creation as seen in the Bible. This is where the meaning of the phrase ‘born anew’ lies. Before every act of salvation in the Old Testament we can see the presence of either darkness (creation of woman, flight from Egypt etc.) or water (Noah, crossing of Nile, crossing of Jordan etc.).
Same is the case in New Testament. The act of salvation in Jesus begins with a passing through the water in Jordan. At the climax, which is the crucifixion, we see darkness too. Nicodemus comes at night and there was darkness. That was a situation ripe for ‘born anew’.
Look at the world around us, at our community. Do we see troubles, problems, unrest, in-fight and other symbols of darkness and chaos in here? Consider the time ripe for being ‘born anew’. We need to come to the presence of Jesus Christ. Ask him questions, how can it happen to us? How can we do it? Do not be adamant saying what we have is enough and what we are now is just fine.
If there is no born anew, there is no Kingdom of God. Can we afford to lose the Kingdom of God?
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