Although I am a leader within a Christian denomination, I have come to the very firm conclusion that the labels that once defined me: ‘Evangelical’, ‘Church’ and even ‘Christian’ have become toxic. I no longer use them. Jesus, on the other hand, never ceases to fascinate people. Just as he did when he walked the earth.
When Nicodemus came to Jesus he had already come to the conclusion that Jesus was ‘a teacher who has come from God’. This was on the basis of the miracles Jesus performed which were all the proof he needed. ‘Job done’ eh? Sign him up for the church membership course!
But, for Jesus, Nicodemus’ expression of belief was not a profession of faith. So he replies: “I tell you the truth, no-one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again.” Such an answer would have been received as a highly provocative statement by any Pharisee who, by definition, prided himself in longing for the Kingdom with greater fervour than most – especially given the motley crowd who called him their Rabbi.
Surely the message we should draw from this is that correct beliefs about Jesus aren’t all that is required if we are to be his followers. Nicodemus was on the right track but it wasn’t enough. Nicodemus had more processing to do.
Much of Jesus’ activity was an overflow, into the present, of a realm he called the Kingdom of God. This seems to be how he was alert to signals others couldn’t see and brought restoration of life and health. I understand (or, to be truthful, I do not understand at all) the Kingdom of God to exist on a sort of parallel plane to our own, where what is normal within the Kingdom of God can be experienced on earth ‘as it is in heaven’. All because this Kingdom is ruled by a King (Jesus referred to his Father) who has ultimate authority which he is prepared to delegate to his Son.
In order to live and move within this Kingdom it was necessary that Jesus possessed a soft heart which was capable of being moved by compassion, ears which were open to hear from heaven, a second pair of ‘spiritual’ eyes through which he was able to see things which may not be visible to others but were real nevertheless, and a new way of thinking which was able to appreciate a deeper kind of supra-rational reality.
So in John 3 Jesus was trying to help Nicodemus understand that the miracles he was witness to were a sign that the boundaries between the two realms he lived in can be blurred by faith. All he is doing, insists Jesus, is using those faculties which must be received by faith and can be nurtured by repeated use. If we are to participate in bringing the rule of the Father into the present, says Jesus, it will feel as if we are receiving and learning to use an entirely new body – eyes, ears, heart, mind, intuition, hands and feet. But, unlike our flesh, the different components of this new body must be delivered to us, as and when we need them, by the Spirit.
So the way to please and follow God, according to Jesus, is not simply to believe facts that are true but “to enter the Kingdom of God” which feels like being born again. The whole point of believing is so that we might see and participate. This feels, says Jesus, like living according to the beat of a different drum, led by a Spirit that others cannot detect.
Nicodemus might be willing to believe, but knows nothing about God’s ways or his Kingdom. It is therefore impossible for this conversation to progress any further since he is stuck within the confines of his mind and the traditions which govern what he is willing to believe. Our challenge is the same. Do we believe or are we willing to follow?