Genesis 12:1-4a • Psalm 121 • Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 • John 3:1-17
The readings for March 8th present us with two old guys – Abraham and Nicodemus – being asked to do or think something new. Abraham, age 75, is told to move to a new and unknown land, and oh, by the way, that he will be the father of a great nation. Nicodemus, with senior status as a Pharisee and a ruler, is told that he needs to re-think the basics of his religion to be part of the kingdom of God.
Nicodemus seems baffled. Who wouldn't be?! First, he is sneaking out at night to have a word with Jesus. He sees God in Jesus and tells him so. Does Jesus seem flattered? No. Does Jesus seem glad to have this important person's approval? No. Does Jesus say anything to agree or side with Nicodemus? No. Instead, Jesus shows his respect by sharing his own views. First, he is saying that only those who have been born from above can see the kingdom of God. Well this was a hard one for Nicodemus, and he says so. The being born a second time, what does Jesus mean? Go back into our mothers' wombs? Jesus insists that it's so: with a description of being born by water and the spirit.
The spirit blowing wherever it wanted to go was a completely new way of thinking for Nicodemus, who as a Pharisee would think of the spirit as guaranteed for Abraham's descendants; his people, his group. Jesus was telling him something different – that entrance to the kingdom of God is not automatic, that something else is involved besides being part of the group.
Something happens to human beings in our group identities. Somehow, we feel safer within a group; it becomes a way of managing anxiety. Nicodemus was comfortable as a Pharisee. Others living in his same community may have been comfortable as Romans. Jesus is challenging him – and us – to move beyond the group identity, requiring that each of us become more of a self, born from above, where the perspective on life is much, much bigger.
The tendency to prefer our own kind, our own tribe, is natural across many species including not only humans, but also fish, wolves, ants and honeybees. The herd instinct runs deep and sometimes, humans can cut-off from one group only to join another group of equal intensity, continuing the same process of insiders and outsiders. But the human brain is malleable; we can teach ourselves new ways. If the spirit is blowing across the world, going where it may, then the view from above can help us to see each other as part of the same kingdom. This capacity, though, has to be cultivated. Wondering about, rather than reacting, to that 'rude' person – clearly from another tribe! - can give room for a relationship to begin. Asking about, rather than ignoring, the thoughts of that quiet person – possibly from one's own group or not – can give room for a new view. In seeking to understand, not only is wisdom within and between groups increased, but also the individual capacity to relate to different people grows. These everyday opportunities matter.
For Nicodemus, what a remarkable evening this must have been! Think of him going home to ponder how different the world might be, if these ideas were real. If we as adults can be re-born, well, then there is hope. Each of us can learn new ways. Adults can stop excluding others, seeing some as in and others as out. All the energy now spent on divisive tactics can be repurposed. The chance to be born from above is given continually, in a thousand daily opportunities to get to know others while being true to one's own deepest thoughts and principles.
Morning: What groups am I comfortable in? Curious about? What happens when different views come up?
Evening: When did I give up my own positions or distance myself to remain a part of a group? What changes when I have the perspective of being born from above?