JOHN 3:1-17

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 kingdom 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 kingdom 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?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 “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. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 “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.

17 “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.

In many ways, the gospel of Jesus is the esoteric (inner-oriented) and spiritual fulfillment of the historical saga of biblical Judaism. If the fall of Adam removed our species from proximity to the tree of immortal life, so that we pain and hope for a life after death, the gospel of Jesus reveals the path back into Eden, to authentic life before (and hence also beyond) death.

If the journey of Abraham was across the geographical terrain of the ancient Near East, that of Jesus is across the spiritual landscape of the soul. If the mission of Moses was to gain the political freedom of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt, the work of Jesus is to liberate the human spirit from the prison of guilt and fear. If the old Joshua led the way into the new frontier of the Promised Land, the New Joshua (the Hebrew form of the name Jesus) opened for us the higher frontier of freedom and love, the kingdom (or kin-dom) of God.

This means that there are two ways of looking at the same phenomenon of religion – according to its outward, external, and historical aspect; or its inward, subtle, and eternal aspect. It’s the difference between mythology and mysticism, religious ceremony and spiritual awakening, dogma and experience, logic and insight, worship of God and union with God.

These are not exclusive of one another, but neither should they be thought of as co-equal. The one is meant to be form to the other’s substance, body to its soul, house to its living presence. Nicodemus to its Jesus.

                                                                                            

The problem is that Nicodemus can’t understand Jesus, just as religion will never be able to understand spirituality. It will try. It will try to force its rigid nouns and logical rules over the intangible and elusive mystery of Spirit, but to no avail. It doesn’t matter how hard he tries; words just can’t define the indefinable, can’t capture the ineffable. The deep experience of Mystery simply cannot be translated into the boxes of language, however inspired.

Indeed, the harder Nicodemus tries to comprehend (literally, “to grasp”) Jesus, the more frustrated he is bound to become. This may very well account for the violence-prone desperation one finds in fundamentalist religions.

As Jesus is talking about spiritual rebirth, Nicodemus is trying to imagine the gymnastics required to get a full-grown adult back into his mother’s womb for a second go at it. And when Jesus speaks of “eternal life” – literally a life with no beginning, life outside of time altogether – all that Nicodemus is likely to hear is only some formula for “everlasting life” (a life that never ends, and which remains stuck in time).

What Nicodemus needs is a transformed mind (metanoia, the Greek word that most frequently gets translated as “repentance”). His religious ritual of baptism, “being born of water,” must give way to the new creation within, where the inner self is infused by the Divine Mystery beyond.

“How can these things be?” the bishop asks in bewilderment. He will never understand.

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