Nicodemus was flabbergasted that night, as he listened to Jesus talking to a crowd of poor folks in the streets of a run-down neighborhood. Upper class rabbis like Nicodemus never went there, it was considered a dangerous place. So it had taken some courage for Nicodemus to come to hear Jesus. No one else he knew had ever heard the fellow. But there were rumors, more every day, of the way Jesus incited the rabble to hope for a new kingdom, a different life.
No one had noticed him. Yet. He was under a cloak, and it was dark. But when he heard Jesus urging them to be born from above, Nicodemus’ stood up and challenged Jesus. How on earth could this be? You’re only born once, he said, and, you are who you are.
And Jesus chided him gently. How can you not believe us, when we are talking about our own experiences, Jesus asked him. He was surrounded by his followers, poor men whose lives had been transformed by listening to Jesus and joining themselves to him and his message.
They were testifying that they saw the heavens open and heard the voice of God call Jesus the Beloved, so, through Jesus, they were born again, from above. They talked about his miracles. And they were imbued with huge hope, for a new day that was just ahead of them.
News of miracles had travelled to Nicodemus and his colleagues in Jerusalem. Nicodemus had come out to learn about them. But he was incredulous.
And Jesus cited the story of Moses in the wilderness, his army flagging, his movement on the brink of collapse. And God told him to hang a poisonous serpent on a pole and bring the men to worship it. And the men saw it, and won the battle.
Nothing says death more strongly than a venomous snake. And the message was, if you can’t find your strength in your own experiences, crossing the Red Sea, getting out of Egypt, daily manna, then look at death, staring you in the face, and then you’ll choose life instead.
And Jesus is sayingto Niceodemus’ incredulity, nothing will change your heart now from the worship of death that has been in you for so long, except looking at a man hung up on a pole, who isn’t defeated by death. And just maybe, if you see that man, you’ll find your courage and choose life.
Their hope in the power of people whose hearts were open to God, to end the long reign of death in which they were suffering and dying, day by day.
Their hope that they could reach freedom land. Their hope in America, this strange country that believes all people are created equal, and also believes that some people are created unequal.
This strange country that believes everyone has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and also believes that it is alright to treat people of color like untouchables, denying them votes, education, access to hospitals for whites only, access to public drinking fountains and pews in church and jobs where they can make more than the minimum wage.
This strange country that would look the other way when lynchings were happening, when the KKK rode out night after night, when black men were put in jail without benefit of lawyers.
This strange country that believes prosperity is a sign of God’s blessing even though Jesus was poor, and that poverty is a state of sin.
Martin Luther King walked through all that, letting himself be hung out for the world to look at, a man who was not afraid of death, a man whose spirit was an anti-venom, though so very many whites said he was poison for America.
To his own poor, beleaguered people, King said Yes We Can. King said, we can be born again, as black people of dignity, wisdom and power. King said, America can be born again, into the full potential of its vaunted freedom for all.
White America was as astonished as Nicodemus. And slowly came to agree with King. And if not to agree, then to admire. And if not to admire, then to see in him something so holy it could not be extinguished, no matter what was done to him.
The struggle continues. Will always continue. Is filled with people, white and black, who fall away into worshipping the power of death, with water hoses and guns and bullhorns, with accusations of criminality and laziness, with birtherism and bigotry and insults and labels of uppityness.
But King is a national icon now, and his power will always rise among us, in the depths of the winters of our discontent, to call us back to life again.
And all of this is so that the world may be saved. Can it really be so? Yes, we can.
Image: Martin Luther King Jr. RLSH Wiki-Wikia.