SJF • Trinity 2012 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. Nicodemus answered him, How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?
It doesn’t take a divinity degree or years of study in literary criticism to see at once that the Gospel According to John differs markedly from the other three gospels. This is not just a matter of content — that much is obvious, since John’s Gospel lacks a Nativity and the institution of the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper. But beyond these details of the story-line, the whole style of writing differs from that of the other evangelists. While all of the gospels tell the story of the ministry of Jesus, John’s version differs from the others almost as much as a novel differs from a poem. It is true that the other three gospel writers each have their own particular angles and styles, but John is more unlike any of them than they are unlike each other.
Matthew takes pains to show the fulfillment of the words of the prophets; Mark is eager to tell his story quickly and evoke a vivid response from his readers; and Luke sees himself as a patient historian laying out all the facts, but also with a little bit of poetry thrown in.
However, John the Evangelist is the only one of the four who offers us extended commentary, and even more to the point and in light of today’s reading, long dialogue scenes. The other evangelists record very short interactions between Jesus and those who speak with him, but John gives us these extended conversations, some of them running whole chapters or more. You will recall the conversation that Jesus had with the Samaritan woman at the well — easy for us to remember because of the stained-glass window right there. You may also recall the long discourses in which Jesus argues with the people and their leaders about who he is and where he comes from, or discourses on his mission to the disciples; or, as in today’s reading, when he has an earnest conversation with a rabbi on the subject of salvation.
Another feature of these dialogues — and we see it in the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus just as we saw it in his conversation with the Samaritan woman — is that the person or people to whom Jesus is speaking often don’t understand him. This gives Jesus the opportunity to unpack and expand his explanation, and the dialogue can grow into a discourse, as it does in this encounter today.
Whatever it was that Nicodemus had wanted to talk about when he came to Jesus by night, Jesus quickly steers the conversation to the subject of the kingdom of God and how one becomes a citizen of that kingdom. And right from the beginning a misunderstanding sets in: or rather two different understandings of how one is born — Jesus says “born from above” but Nicodemus hears it as “born again.” The problem, which doesn’t translate very well into English, is that in the language Jesus and Nicodemus were speaking, what Jesus said could mean both “from on high” or “from above” and “from the beginning” or “again.” Jesus seems to intend it one way, but Nicodemus appears to hear it the other way, which gives Jesus the opportunity to expound on what it means to be born from above — from the heavenly realm of God’s Spirit.
As I thought about this passage it occurred to me that there is one English phrase that captures this ambiguity, and may help us better to grasp what Jesus is getting at here. If you’ve ever been part of a choir or a band or an orchestra, you will no doubt have heard the conductor or band-leader say, “Let’s take it from the top.” “The top,” of course, is the beginning of the piece of music. “Taking it from the top” normally happens after you’ve worked through the piece of music bit by bit, dealing with the difficult passages and unexpected turns in your part — soprano, alto, tenor, bass; strings, woodwind or percussion — making sure you know when to come in, when to rest, and how to sound, whether loud or soft, whether smooth or staccato. And after working through all of those difficult bits, the director will say, “Let’s take it from the top.” At that point you are ready to try to sing or play through the whole piece to see how it all fits together.
Jesus is saying that coming to the kingdom of heaven works in a similar way. Remember who he is talking to here: a teacher of Israel. Nicodemus is a man who has puzzled through all of the hard bits of the Law of Moses; he has studied the Scriptures up and down and backwards and forwards. And Jesus is inviting him to “take it from the top.” And most importantly, not to do so on his own, but under the direction of the leader of the heavenly choir himself. No one, Jesus assures us, can ascend to heaven except the one who has descended from heaven — “from the top” in every sense of the word, both from on high and from the beginning — the beginning of all things. It means both “again,” and “from the place you can see the whole thing laid out before you” — from the top, as if from the top of the hill, from the top of the mountain, of the view from heaven. Jesus has come down from heaven, “from the top” with the express purpose to be with those of us below, who have worked through all the tough bits of this earthly life — sometimes hitting wrong notes and coming in a measure early when they should have rested. He has come to be with us precisely so as to be able to raise us up with him.
Jesus spells it out in that timeless promise, “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.” In Jesus Christ, God gives us the opportunity to “take it from the top” and to make the beautiful, heavenly music that God desires us to make.
Apart from him we can do nothing, or at best still struggle and get caught in the difficult bits of life and keep playing the wrong notes or at the wrong time. Without him, we are like Isaiah before the seraph touched him with the coal of the heavenly fire, brought down from the top to touch him below here on earth — lost people, lost and of unclean lips, hoping for the best but somehow always doing the worst. Without him, we are like orphans, waiting in vain for someone to adopt us.
But with God’s help, with the Father and the Spirit and the Son, with our sin blotted out and our guilt departed; with the spirit of adoption poured into our hearts; with Jesus our Savior at our side to lead us and raise us up with him — well, with all of this, it is as if we have been born again. By taking it from the top with him — the one who was and is and is to come, the Lord of all time and of all creation — we can come to the kingdom of heaven, sanctified by him and in him.
This is the promise that Jesus shared with Nicodemus that evening long ago, that God has come to us empower us to get it right — to take it from the top with him and not to miss a single note or mar a single harmony. Not through our own virtue, but because we have the best director in the world, the one who will conduct us into the pure harmony of everlasting life, in the kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.