The Nicodemus scene makes me insecure. His intentions are honest. Jesus offers some cryptic teaching, and says, “Unless you’re born from above you cannot perceive the kingdom of God, and unless you’re born of the Spirit you cannot enter it.” Nicodemus neither perceives nor enters the kingdom, and I can almost hear Jesus saying, “Just where did you earn your degree?” Nicodemus bothers me because he should understand. Why doesn’t he? And so I begin to wonder what I am missing. I read his really dumb questions (how do you crawl back inside the womb? Come on, man, that’s obviously not what he is saying!), and they become my really dumb questions, and I start feeling really dumb.
This makes Jesus’ long talk about ascending and descending so tough. I already feel dumb, but I wonder if Jesus isn’t taking me for a fool. Jesus swears he is talking about stuff he knows because he is from God’s presence. You cannot ascend there unless first you descend from there, which Jesus says he has done. And that’s about all he says. Rudolf Bultmann observes that Jesus presents himself as an eyewitness to God in Godself, but an eyewitness who cannot be checked or proved reliable, and an eyewitness who does not provide an account of what he witnessed. About all Jesus says is that the Father sent him, so he came, and he is going back to send the Holy Spirit, so he must be lifted up: on a cross, from the dead, and ultimately back to God as God is in Godself.
Basically, he says, I’ve seen God. Trust me. “What’s God look like?” Look, I’ve seen God, okay? You have to trust me. “Why?” If you don’t, you won’t see what I see. “Which is?” I’ve seen God, okay? I am not sure I want anything to do with this. It has the potential to be horrifically dangerous. I already live in a world of fake news, clickbait, unverified stories, confirmation bias, and #alternativefacts. But I am also well aware of how demagogues and authoritarians demand we believe them without proof. I don’t like the possibilities this has for Jesus. We could use Jesus to say horrible things.
And yet good is good, even if it can be turned to evil. The better something is, the more evil it can be; but when it is good, it is good. We trust that Jesus is not a demagogue or a snake oil salesman, though his words tread close to such things. I believe Jesus is good. Now, if I am honest with myself, part of my reason for believing that is that I grew up this way. I was baptized into Jesus when I was six weeks old, so I’ve always had him. Moreover, I’ve always been Lutheran, so I am used to a specific way of understanding Jesus. I have cultural expectations, you could say. Now, if I am feeling as confused as Nicodemus and nervous about what Jesus is saying, I need to be honest about my cultural expectations. What is it about my cultural expectations that makes me trust Jesus when he could be used for evil? If I get rid of those things, would I still trust Jesus? Why?
This is where our Second Reading, from Romans, is helpful. Those of you who were at Vespers Wednesday heard me talk about how Paul rebels against Hebrew cultural markers. Where we, Christians of the Reformation tradition, see Law as legalism and Judaism as legalistic, Jews don’t, and likely neither did Paul. Rather, the Law was a gift of God. The Law established Hebrew culture, and argued that it was superior to others because it was divinely ordained. (Everybody’s culture is superior to every other culture because God says so.) Paul argues that being Hebrew doesn’t make you righteous; God makes you righteous. God crosses cultures, and the locus of this is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is why Paul appeals to Abraham. Abraham lives before the Law is given. Paul can point to Abraham and say, “Before God gave that cultural marker, God transformed people and they became righteous and participated in God’s work.” The culture doesn’t make you righteous; God makes you righteous. Sometimes the culture provides you with riches: Paul refers frequently to the Old Testament, and expects his listeners to know it. Other times, the culture is so ingrained we don’t realize it is there: apparently, some Romans urge keeping the Law, to which Paul responds, “Why? It’s nothing!”
I think Nicodemus makes sense as someone who doesn’t even recognize his cultural expectations. In Jesus’ day, Jewish writings about the coming of God’s kingdom at the end of time use phrases like “born from above” or “born of the Spirit” to describe those who participate in God’s kingdom. The “teacher of Israel” should know this. But maybe Nicodemus has mistaken cultural markers for what matters. Maybe he cannot hear Jesus’ call to be “reborn,” a call to receive a new origin from God, because he doesn’t realize that’s the good thing his faith has to give him.
It’s the sort of cultural confusion wherein we don’t know who we are. I think of Lutheranism, which in America is chiefly ethnic. I can ask people, “Name something Lutheran,” and someone will say, “Lutefisk.” That’s not Lutheran; it’s just the way Scandinavians ruin fish. I used to say of my intern congregation in Rhode Island they were the most Lutheran people I had met. Others would ask me about them, and they would learn that the congregation was a spinoff of Gloria Dei in Providence, and if you knew the area you’d guess, “So it’s a Swedish congregation?” And I would say, “No, it’s primarily Italian and Irish and Puerto Rican.” They were Lutheran because they understood that in Christ God descended into the depths of creation for their sake and made them into a holy people who could love one another. They knew God forgave them and they tried to let the Spirit embody that forgiveness in them. Couldn’t sing a chorale to save their lives. They always tried to make German hymns sound like the Wehrmacht. Oh, it was heartbreaking! But their theology was one you did not always find in congregations with obvious Scandinavian or North German cultural markers.
Maybe that’s Nicodemus’ problem: he doesn’t even know his own theology, however much of an expert he is on his culture. And maybe Nicodemus was expecting Jesus to push things he recognized from his Hebrew culture, and Jesus isn’t doing that. Jesus is not, after all, preaching Judean Exceptionalism. Jesus’ message, for all of its dancing on the edge of something that could be turned to evil, is not demagoguery or authoritarianism. And I can say that not because I grew up with him and sang my German hymns about him in my middle-class neighborhood; I can say it because his message refuses to be assigned to my culture or any other.
Jesus is calling us to receive a new origin. Jesus says, “What’s born of the flesh is flesh, and what’s born of the Spirit is spirit.” He is not preaching some soul versus body dualism, or saying that all matter is bad. He is appealing to an origin that crosses all flesh, a Spirit that blows through every human. Paul appealed to Abraham as a way of saying, “My culture doesn’t make me righteous; God makes me righteous.” In the same manner, Jesus says, “My Hebrew flesh and our common culture do not make us righteous; God the Holy Spirit makes us righteous.” For God loves the world profoundly. Where a demagogue lifts up one culture as supreme, Jesus declares, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” Where an authoritarian promises wealth and security in exchange for blind trust, passive acquiescence to brutality, and collective blaming of our problems on specific ethnic groups or religions, Jesus declares, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
When I cut away my cultural expectations about Jesus and listen to what he says, I hear Jesus calling me to receive a new origin. It’s an origin that transcends my culture. It’s the same origin he offers to every person on the face of the Earth. It’s the Word made Flesh and lifted up: Lifted up on a cross—not as the cause of suffering but as God who suffers in solidarity with the suffering; lifted up from the grave—not as one who feels really bad about suffering and then gets on with his day, but as God who breaks the bonds of death and tramples evil underfoot; lifted up to the Father—not as one who sets a window of salvation, after which, sorry, you missed the Jesus train, but as God who sends the Holy Spirit so that she can keep transforming us. And she does. She transforms us, gives us that new origin. And we become people who descend into the depths of creation in solidarity with the suffering, people through whom God makes life out of death, people who breathe the Spirit deeply in, and out into the world. People who call the world to trust the Son, to be transformed, and to enter the kingdom of God.