There are interesting conversations that take place in the dark. Sometimes sitting outside away from the lights, maybe looking up at the night sky or staring into a fire, topics can come up or questions can be asked that we might not otherwise ask. Maybe there’s enough safety in the cover of darkness that an embarrassed look won’t be noticed or it allows for silence that would otherwise be awkward. It can make it possible to bring up tender topics that someone wouldn’t risk in the light of day.
One of the best-known conversations with Jesus took place by night. Nicodemus, one of the religious loyalists, came to Jesus one evening with some things on his mind. He had heard or seen some things that Jesus had done and wanted some clarity about them. Maybe more importantly, he wanted to talk with this young rabbi without any of his colleagues seeing him. He wanted the cover of darkness to shield him from questions or criticism.
These things can’t be done without the presence of God, Nicodemus says to Jesus, in the 3rd chapter of the gospel of John. Jesus responds, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
The Greek word anothen is what is used in the text. It can be translated as born again, born anew, or born from above. Jesus is likely saying this is something that God does. It happens to you. But Nicodemus interprets what Jesus says literally. “How can you be born after having grown old?” Jesus clarifies it by saying, “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” He goes on to say, “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.”
To be born again, born anew, born from above is, in a way, to have no choice in the matter. We can’t take credit for being born. That was the result of the people who conceived us. To be born of water and Spirit is, in a sense, not to make the wind itself blow, but to recognize the wind blowing around us, to see that it is the movement of God doing something we could not do for ourselves.
When I was growing up there was a big emphasis on having a born-again experience, where someone is dramatically converted to the faith. There are many people who have had such an experience, which is life-giving and inspiring. There are other ways in which having a born-again experience may feel contrived or manipulated, as if someone might will themselves into being born. Are you born again? can sometimes be used as a way of saying Are you one of us? Or Are you one of them? Used this way it seems to skip over the essence of Jesus speaking of it as a movement of the Spirit, and instead become a cudgel used to determine someone’s acceptability.
A friend of mine sings a song about an older fellow asking him about his faith. He wonders in the song if the fellow is genuinely interested or just wants to know whether he is in the tribe, is someone on the inside or the same side as the questioner. There are times when a question like that can seem more like the person wants to know whether you know the secret handshake, if you’re a prospect for a grilling, or someone to be written off because you don’t belong.
Nicodemus seems to fade back into the darkness, saying, “How can these things be?” We don’t hear from him again until chapter 7 of John’s gospel, when apparently an executive meeting has been called to determine just how much trouble Jesus has been causing. Jesus isn’t looked upon as someone through whom the Spirit of God may be blowing, but a trouble maker to be dispensed with. Nicodemus clears his throat and speaks up, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” It’s a simple reminder that we go about things with fair trials. There are rules to uphold and respect. But the authorities are in no mood for fairness. They immediately point their fingers at Nicodemus and ask if he is also from Galilee, a good for nothing place where no one with respectability would come from, as if you would have a choice about where you come from. And Nicodemus fades into the darkness again, along with his call for civility and fairness.
To be born anew, born from above is perhaps in some ways to take on a different perspective, to see things from the point of view of the kingdom of God. That wider sense of perspective may bring us to see that there are more people who belong, more people who have a sense of the wind blowing on their faces, whispering in their ears, or rustling about them than what we may expect with certain rules about who is acceptable or who actually belongs to God.
Nicodemus might have been close. But, like Nicodemus when he was confronted by the rule keepers, when the loudest voices shout us down for pointing out fairness, or decency, or the rules of civility that we say we adhere to, we may be inclined to not speak up with the boldness of what is right, to fade into the darkness and let the mob have their way. Maybe being born again, born anew, born from above is to step into the light, to proclaim a love that will confront hatred, to express faith in such a way that the ones holding the cudgel will drop it instead, and hear the whisper of grace blowing into their ears.
Imagine the Spirit of God whispering in your ear in such a way that healing begins to take hold, that torn relationships begin to mend, that people are fed good things, that we embrace one another even in our disagreements or disappointments. That is stepping into the light of day as though it is a new day for all of us. It would be like being born anew.
Lander Bethel is the minister of Grand Avenue Presbyterian Church in Sherman and First Presbyterian Church in Denison. He earned a doctoral degree in ministry from McCormick Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Genna, live in Sherman. They have three sons. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.