“God loved the world so much….” (Jn 1:12-15).
The Gospel of John is often considered the most difficult of the Gospels – highly symbolic in its expression and deeply theological in its content. John likes to use terms with more than one meaning and thus invite us to a deeper level of reflection. For instance, in the gospel text of today (from John 3) there are at least three expressions that can have more than one meaning: night, spirit or wind, born from above or born again. This conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus turns out to be a theological discourse, which is very typical of the Gospel of John. Though the text we heard read is only part of the conversation, I would like to consider the whole encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus (Jn 3:1-21), pick out three important elements, and reflect on their relevance to our life today.
1. Nicodemus “came to Jesus by night…” (Jn 3:2).
We are told that Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and a leader of the Jews. This could mean that he was a member of the Sanhedrin – the council of Jewish elders. So Nicodemus was a public person, with knowledge, influence and authority. But why did he come to Jesus by night? Is ‘night’ to be understood in a figurative sense that in spite of his knowledge, Nicodemus was in the dark about the true revelation of God? Or if we understand ‘night’ literally, did he come to Jesus by night because he was afraid of the paparazzi, the public eye. Did he not want to be seen in the presence of Jesus – this unlearned (?), self-proclaimed rabbi from Nazareth? To me, both the possibilities are meaningful.
In the context of increasing secularism, we are tempted to come to Jesus “by night”. We prefer to reduce our faith-life to the private domain. Much like, Nicodemus we may feel shy to be associated with Jesus. On the other hand, all our education, our scientific knowledge and the access to information might tell us the ‘how’ of things, but they are inadequate when it comes to the ‘why’ of the mysteries of life. We are in the dark as far as spiritual realities are concerned. So we come to Jesus, even by night.
2. “…no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (Jn 3:3).
As we come to Jesus, we hear him say, “… no one can see the Kingdom of God unless you are born from above”. This is the second point of our reflection. John uses the Greek word, ‘anothen’, and this has two meanings: ‘again’ or ‘above’. Jesus continues to clarify this further by saying, “in all truth I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born through water and the Spirit…” (Jn 3:5). Still it is not clear what is in the mind of Jesus!
There was a time when I had a discussion with someone who had been a Catholic but recently baptized into an ‘independent church’. She was insisting that without their baptism one cannot be saved! That night as I got into bed I had this question in my mind, “God, would you reduce salvation to just water – H2O? Whether it is the little water that is poured during the Catholic baptism… or the water in the river used by some of the other churches, water is H2O… it is matter. Can salvation that is spiritual be reduced to something material? Next morning as I woke up there was the answer in my head. May be it was an inspiration! The answer was in Chapter 4 of John. In John 4, Jesus talks about water to the Samaritan woman: water from the well, living water, and the water that wells up for eternal life! But actually there was no exchange of physical water (H2O), and yet the woman had experienced salvation. How did that happen?
I think, the answer to that question is found in today’s gospel text. And this is the core of the message of Jesus. It is the core of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. It is the core of Christianity.
3. “God so loved the world…” (Jn 3:16).
The core of Christianity is the experience of the love of God in the person of Jesus. This is the experience of our salvation. This is the meaning of being born from above – being born of water and the Spirit. Water is the symbol of the experience (as from Jn 4) and Spirit is God himself who offers that experience! In the person of Jesus we are able to experience the truth that God loves us. “God so loved the world that he gave his only son not to condemn the world but so that through him all might be saved.” Belief in Jesus then is not an intellectual assent. It is not a set of dogmas that we profess in the creed. On the other hand, it is simply being open to the possibility that we can experience God in the person of Jesus.
This is the purpose of the Word of God; it is the function of this Sunday liturgy; it is the role of the church: to mediate the experience of the love of God in the person of Jesus. This experience makes us realize that we are in the image of God. This experience makes us realize we are the children of God. This experience brings inner peace and lasting happiness. It provides the grounding for our purpose of life. This is salvation. This truth, which is not an intellectual knowledge, but an inner experience, sheds light in our darkness. And thus, the last sentence of today’s gospel becomes meaningful: “the person who lives by the truth comes out into the light” (Jn 3:21). Nicodemus came to meet Jesus by night – in his darkness of doubt and thirst. He goes back after the encounter, living in the light, because he has experienced the love of God made visible in Jesus.
Fr. Franco Pereira, S.D.B.