There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. He came to Jesus at 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 are doing unless God is with him."
During the weeks before and after Easter the Church reflects intensely on the Gospel according to Saint John. Today we begin a series of readings from the third chapter, Jesus' discussion with Nicodemus.
For once, the conversation is not very confrontational. Nicodemus has come to Jesus under cover of darkness, apparently because he wants to speak with him privately, without the pressure and conspiratorial atmosphere of a public encounter. Although a member of the Sanhedrin, which has both religious and political authority, he has come as a private citizen. He addresses Jesus respectfully and "acknowledges that you are a teacher who has come from God."
But the simplest statement Jesus can make about his teaching astonishes and confuses Nicodemus. "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless one is born from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of God."
First there is the bewildering authority of "Amen, Amen, I say to you...." Jesus cannot speak to Nicodemus like a colleague; they are not two "men of the cloth" who share a tacit understanding that "we're human beings like anyone else, but we dress and act in public like religious authorities." Jesus in private is the Son of God. There is no distance between himself and his authority, nor between himself and his word.
Saint Luke would recall that Jesus spoke not like the scribes and the people were amazed. If at one time, as a child of twelve years, he listened to the elders and asked them questions, he has no time now to discuss the merits of various ideas. He does not explore opinions to see how they might sound to others, be developed in conversation, or to see who will agree or disagree with him. Rather, he boldly states the truth in a manner that can be understood by those ready to hear.
"...unless one is born from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of God."
Nicodemus is so astonished by this teaching he wonders, "How can a man once grown old be born again? Surely he cannot reenter his mother's womb and be born again, can he?"
Baptism effects a transformation more fundamental than birth. It is an ontological event, a rewriting, re-framing and redefinition of what it means to be human. The baptized may enjoy his place in family, society and class but these relationships fade and disappear in the relationship with God. "If any one comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple."
The baptized disciple has been born again as a new creature. The Jewish scribe is not prepared to have his whole world upended.
As the conversation continues, Jesus cannot offer Nicodemus a compromise. The member of the Sanhedrin cannot be a Jewish disciple of Jesus. "What is born of flesh is flesh; and what is born of spirit is spirit."
Nicodemus will leave Jesus' presence and return to the dark night deeply distressed by what he has heard. However, we will meet him again. First he will appear in his role as member of the Sanhedrin, defending Jesus against growing hostility in that body. Already a rift has developed between him and "the Jews." Born again, he cannot run with the mob to join in Jesus' murder.
He will finally emerge from the darkness that consumed Judas to prepare the body of Jesus for burial.
The Church regards him as a saint; despite his initial astonishment and bewilderment he believed in Jesus. He had been born again of the Spirit.