Our gospel reading this week tells of the conversation between Nicodemus, a Pharisee and leader of the Jews, and Jesus. In some ways it is very similar to a number of one-on-one conversations that Jesus has throughout his ministry.
Questions are asked, answers are given, there is misunderstanding and lack of clarity on behalf of the one asking the questions and Jesus has to explain. This particular conversation seems to frustrate Jesus that someone who is a scholar and well trained in religious texts and concepts should misunderstand him so easily. Mind you, I think I would have struggled in this conversation as well.
Maybe the concepts that Jesus is teaching are just so outside Nicodemus’ comprehension that he gets it wrong and grasps for words or concepts he can relate to. “Born from above” is not an easy concept so I think Nicodemus may have grabbed hold of the word he could which was birth or being born. Now we all know what that is and we can immediately picture and understand that concept, but born from above? No wonder Nicodemus got lost.
This misunderstanding of Jesus’ conversation partners is characteristic of John’s gospel, more than once Jesus is taken literally, and so we get Nicodemus’ ‘born again’ assumption. Jesus explains his meaning, clarifying that being born from above does not mean being born again but rather being born of the water and spirit thus emphasising a spiritual birth and not a physical one. Here it is the Holy Spirit as the giver of life, eternal as well as physical.
Underneath all the complicated theology of this encounter is the simple yet profound statement at the very heart of the Christian gospel: “God loved the world so much that he gave....” The initiative comes from God, the motivation is love, and the intention is not to condemn but to rescue. This is where the wisdom lies. It’s wisdom we find hard to see at times, or even to hear. It is depicted in the incarnation and the cross, both are vivid symbols of the divine love and the divine embrace of a fallen world. God’s longing is not for condemnation but for salvation.
If we turn away from this wisdom, run from the light of Jesus, we turn away from the very source of life and light and condemn ourselves to death and darkness. These words of wisdom give us the choice to either approach the light and allow it to illuminate us, both good and bad, or to run away from the life-giving light because we are afraid.