You might have seen on the evening news a few days ago the story of a little girl who was afraid of the dark. So she thought about it, and then she walked into a local pharmacy and said she wanted something to get rid of the monsters that came into her bedroom at night. Luckily, she had come across a very understanding pharmacist, because they mixed up a solution for her right on the spot – ‘Monster Spray’, the label read: spray around bed at night before going to sleep.
I wish I’d had some of that when I was five. I distinctly remember waking in the middle of the night rigid with terror that the extra dark lump behind the door was – well, a monster. Even when I woke in the morning and saw that my dressing gown hanging behind the door was exactly the same shape as my monster – well, it still might have been.
Things look different at night. Also, I think, we ourselves are different at night. Our daytime selves are more confident, more professional, more focussed. At night we are more receptive, less certain of ourselves. For the writer of John’s Gospel the difference between day and night is also symbolic – the truth is like the light coming on or the Sun rising, night is when the truth is hidden or submerged, it is the time of doubt, of betrayal – but also, as in this story of Nicodemus, the time when certainties become less fixed, when differences blur.
Nicodemus comes at night for a very good reason. He is a Pharisee, a religious professional and an important man. He has a day job with responsibilities and doesn’t want to be seen as flaky. At night, he is just Nicodemus, afraid of the dark and needing some reassurance. Who is Jesus, and what does he have to offer? Nicodemus is spiritually open and wants to know more – and yet he is cautious, he needs to keep his interest in Jesus under wraps, separate from his public life. When Jesus says to Nicodemus: ‘this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world and yet people preferred to live in the dark’ – we understand that for Nicodemus, the critical moment of his life is this night-time encounter with Jesus. How will it change him?
Nicodemus is a sympathiser who the Gospels never describe as a disciple. It is Nicodemus who, in chapter seven defends Jesus strongly before the temple police and the chief priests and who in chapter 19 anoints Jesus body for burial with a mixture of costly spices. Nicodemus is not inconsistent, he is not without courage, but he is a curiously modern sort of phenomenon – the person of integrity and faith but who keeps that faith within strict boundaries, the person who keeps his faith in the private sphere, separate from his public responsibilities. It’s not that he doesn’t put his money where his mouth is, but he balances his roles and responsibilities in different compartments like a modern Christian who is also a boss or an employee, maybe a member of a sporting club or a political party, a voter and a ratepayer and a parent. For centuries, churches have bought into the notion that faith is a good thing for family and personal morality, but needs to be kept quiet about in public. There are lots of Nicodemus’s around, many of us, perhaps even most of us from time to time find it comfortable and expedient to retreat into a sort of Nicodemus position when the going gets tough.
But Jesus says to Nicodemus, in effect, that his faith is too small, too tentative. Jesus is uncompromising – have you ever noticed? You’d think he would have been flattered and impressed that this important man was prepared to make an appointment and come to see him privately, off-duty, and take instruction from him. You’d think Jesus would see this as a pretty good start, ‘hey, the message is starting to cut through. We can work together, the religious elites and me’. But no, Jesus tells Nicodemus without even bothering to be too subtle about it, ‘your faith is incomplete, immature. It isn’t a grown-up faith, you are like a child who wants to stay safe inside its mother’s womb. You are still gestating,’ Jesus points out, fairly disparagingly, Nicodemus might have thought. ‘You’re not even ready to be born yet. In fact, that’s what needs to happen – you need to come to birth.’
Jesus even pokes fun at the important Pharisee when he doesn’t immediately get the point of his metaphor. ‘What, you call yourself a teacher?’ Trouble is, it’s a very slippery metaphor and I don’t think Nicodemus is alone in not working it out. He seems to want to tease it out by taking it literally – ‘huh? When you’re born, you’re born. You can’t do it again surely?’ His question focusses on the how and the what – what am I supposed to do to make it happen? And of course this has become one of those hot-button issues for Christians today also. ‘Are you born again?’, means ‘are you the right kind of Christian?’ Have you made a decision for Jesus? And of course for people who aren’t Christians at all, ‘are you born again?’, just means, ‘are you a fruitcake?’.
Of course Nicodemus should have got it. Jews of the time used this sort of language non-literally, referring to themselves for example as sons and daughters of Abraham. The typical ancient understanding was that the character of the parent was revealed in the child, so a son or daughter of Abraham was one in whom God’s promises to Abraham bear fruit, one in whose life we see the fruit of faithfulness. Jesus says to Nicodemus, ‘you must be born again’. But he is also saying, ‘you must be born from above’. The delightfully ambiguous Greek word he uses, anothen, has both of those meanings. At the level of repartee or conversation, Jesus is making a skilful play on words. But the question Nicodemus should have been asking is not, ‘well, how do I do that’, but ‘if I need to come to birth, then of what must I be born?’. What brings me to birth? If I am gestating, if I am growing in the womb, then who bears me? If I need to be born – again, or from above – what is going to change in me?
One of the ways this has often been understood is that in order to be ‘saved’ I simply need to ‘come to Jesus’, or accept Jesus as my Lord and Saviour. I don’t disagree, but I don’t think goes deep enough. It’s a bit of a ‘tick and flick’ formula – ‘yes, done that’. In his wonderful book, The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg helpfully points out that the image of being born again is very close to the other image that Jesus talks about, and demonstrates for us – dying and rising again. In other words, to be born again is fundamentally a new beginning, it means dying to an old way of being and being born into a whole new way of being. We need to die to the old, self-centred, way of being in order that we can enter a way of being that is centred in the sacred, in Christ and in the Spirit, in God. So its more organic, it goes deeper than just agreeing to the claim that Jesus is my Saviour.
In this sense, being born again really does mean the same thing as being born from above, or from within. Because it means a fundamental shift in what lies at the centre of our lives and what we understand gives us life. Marcus Borg also writes about what it means to believe – it’s not just what we agree to, he says – belief is not just what we think because it is about faithfulness and trust. Belief in God is not just agreeing with the idea of God, but experiencing ourselves as living out of the reality of God. In this sense, belief isn’t something that we can do all at once, but something that grows in us as our relationship with God grows. So being born again – or born from above – is not just a moment, not just a conversion experience that we can look back on and say, ‘yes it happened last September’, but a lifetime of growth towards a new way of being marked by freedom, joy, peace and love. All of which means that ‘being born again’ is not something we do – for example by making a decision for Jesus – as something that we grow towards – just like, in fact, is always the case in childbirth. Babies don’t decide to be born, after all, their part is to wait, and to grow, and to trust. It’s not our initiative, in other words, but God’s.
So are we, in fact, born again or are we, like Nicodemus, still groping in the dark, sometimes resisting and holding back, sometimes trusting and allowing ourselves to be drawn forward to new birth? That sounds more authentic, to me, because gestation needs time and the miracle of birth is preceded by the slow-motion miracles of growth and empathy and love. I wonder what happens next, for Nicodemus? Does this late-night conversation mark the beginning of the journey that will result in the whole of his life, not just compartments of it, flowing from the well-spring that is God? Quite possibly, and if that is how it is for Nicodemus then there’s hope, isn’t there, that it might be like that for us as well.