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Our reading this week is from the Johannine community’s version of the Jesus story.
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the reign of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the reign of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:1-17)
In this week’s reading, Nicodemus and Jesus are both speaking for the communities they represent: Nicodemus represents Judeans identified with the community of Pharisees and Jesus represents the Johannine community.
The writer explains the differences between them by naming the flesh as bad and the spirit as good. I believe there are more wholistic, healthy, and bodily affirming ways to tell the Jesus story today in our context than this contrast. The dualistic way of classifying our material being and world as negative or disposable and the spirit as positive and of sole value evolved into a major component of later Christian gnostic beliefs. This became the foundation of the postmortem focus of Christianity over the concrete realities people faced in our present world. It also gave rise to a solely inward focus on one’s spiritual well-being, a focus and emphasis that too often produced disregard for oppressions and/or aggressions a person was experiencing in their daily material lives. That disregard then led to a privatized, personal, individualistic form of Christianity that was complicit in the oppression of vulnerable populations. We encounter the fruit of this today whenever Christians speak negatively of social justice and related movements for a more equitable society. When Karl Marx labeled religion as the “opiate of the masses,” religious disregard for people’s material suffering was why.
Today, though, we can tell the Jesus story in better ways. We’ll discuss that next.