Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.2He 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.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus 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?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The 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.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”10Jesus 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. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that 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.
The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone who believes they know everything? Someone who won’t listen to your perspective because they believe they have all the answers? I heard someone say one time, “When you’re right, you don’t have to listen to anyone.”
That’s Nicodemus here. He, a leader in the Jewish Sanhedrin, comes to Jesus in the dark (one of the gospel-writer’s ongoing metaphors for “not getting it”). Yet, his comment to Jesus indicates he thinks he’s got it all together. “Rabbi, we know,” he says. “We know you are from God.” I’m representing a group of people who understand you. We’ve got this. We’re on board. We have it all together. It’s you and us, Jesus.
Yet the ensuing conversation reveals just the opposite. Nicodemus doesn’t get it at all. And he can’t seem to grasp the reality that he doesn’t get it. He simply can’t get that God’s perspective is so utterly different than his that he can’t begin, with his current awareness, to see it. And in order to even begin to understand, he has to start over, to be born into a new perspective. He would have to be born anew. Otherwise, he couldn’t even begin to understand anything.
It’s like this: I have always tried to keep a broad perspective and to be open to new ways of understanding on a variety of topics that matter to us. Different interpretations of scripture, perspectives on sexual orientation, religious starting places, and also racism.
But no matter how hard I thought about it, my perspective on race obviously always starts as a white person, a white male specifically. Although I believed I was non-racist (that has always been my intention), I am unable on my own to see life realities from the perspective of an African American, a Latino, a Muslim Arab, not to mention an Immigrant or a Refugee/Asylee.
When I began to listen to my Black friends, however (at least those with the patience to share with me), I heard a completely different perspective on race in America. My views on what life is like for African Americans had to start over. And even more so, my views on life as a European American had to start all over too.
Our Black sisters and brothers point out that the societal playing field isn’t level on a whole cultural level, and the overall power clearly favors whites (and always has in this country). There’s a whole cultural power structure involved that African Americans, in order to survive, are forced to be more attuned to. As a white person, it continues to be a long and slow learning process for me.
I had no idea. As hard as I had been trying, and as much as I wanted to, I needed others outside of my white view to share their perspective. It was like I had to start over, to be born into a different point of view. Regarding my views on race relations in America, I had to, in fact, be born anew. Otherwise, I couldn’t even begin to understand anything.
It’s when we quit listening, quit learning, quit being opened that we quit understanding. Otherwise, we fall into the trap of believing that when you’re right, you don’t have to listen to anyone.
This makes me wonder about where in my life I believe I’ve got it all together. Where in my faith do I believe I’ve got it all together. Where with God do I believe I’ve got it all together. Chances are, those are the areas where I’m in the dark. Those are the areas in which I may not be listening. Those are the areas where I need to be born from above.
I don’t think this is a text about how to get to heaven when you die. If it was, Jesus would be saying this to everyone. But it’s part of one conversation with one Pharisee. Rather, this is a text about how to see the Kingdom of God, how to see things from God’s perspective. Once you begin to see things from God’s perspective, you can begin to see what God is doing and be part of it.
I’ve learned over the years that especially when it comes to God, I don’t have all the answers. But here’s what I do know. The more I listen, the more my eyes are opened. The more I am opened to God’s perspective, the more I understand how differently God sees things. Which means the more I want to be see the Kingdom of God, the more I need to be born from above.
And there’s an overall direction to all of this. Consistently, every time I get my eyes opened, every time my perspective with God is changed, every time I am born from above, I see more and more that God includes those I exclude. I see more and more that God loves those I don’t. I see more and more that God values those I consider to be expendable.
Although I don’t know how to change racism in our culture, I do know that I have to continue to be open to the perspectives and experiences of my African American sisters and brothers. That means I will continue to change, to be renewed, to be born over again.
We don’t know whether Nicodemus ever got it. My hope is that he could experience a new perspective, and new awakening, a new birth. I hope in his lifetime he could finally begin to see the Kingdom of God, and be part of it.