Smash Your Ego
March 5, 2023
Have you ever had one of those really good late-night conversations? Not just any conversation at night, but the kind where you and at least one other person get really real with each other? The kind of conversation that for me has often happened sitting around a fire, or on a porch, looking at the stars. The kind of conversation that can happen during sleepovers, or late nights on the town. Maybe someone had one while we were at the Foundry Social on Friday night, who knows?
There’s a different quality to some of these conversations we have at night. While everyone else is asleep, we have all the time in the world to dig around in our deep thoughts and emotions. There is something in the cool evening breeze, and the glow of the moon, and maybe in whatever we’ve consumed that evening, that makes us willing to talk about stuff we normally wouldn’t during the day. They may even take on an almost dream-like quality as we look back and remember those moments now. These late-night conversations are the kind of ordinary sacred moments that can have a lasting impact on us. They might be the beginning of a deep friendship, or the catalyst for some radical change in our lives, or just a moment where we bear our souls and find reassurance together. We can’t plan for moments like this to happen. Like everything born of the Spirit, we don’t know where they come from, or where they will go, and so it was with Nicodemus.
We don’t get a ton of context for how Nicodemus ended up visiting Jesus that night, but we do know that we are only in the third chapter of John, so Jesus hasn’t really done that much yet, but he is drawing attention to himself. As John tells it, Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding in Cana, and then over came to Jerusalem where he promptly started chasing the money changers out of the temple with a whip that he made by hand. I wonder if Nicodemus, being a Pharisee, was watching Jesus from afar with all the other religious leaders. I wonder if the people Jesus chased out the temple were people that Nicodemus knew or that he saw on his way to work every day. I wonder if they held a special damage-control meeting on the day after Jesus tore through the temple and disrupted their lives.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and this group was a part of his identity. His opening line is “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God,” and when Jesus responds to him, the word “you” that he uses is plural, so “you all.” For Nicodemus, the Pharisees were his coworkers and his community. They’re his colleagues, his peers, and maybe his relatives. He’s a teacher, but he isn’t a Rabbi and he doesn’t work in a synagogue. He is a thinker, a theologian. They had strong opinions, but Pharisees were not bad people. After all the times in the Hebrew Bible that God had told Israel to follow the commandments, the Pharisees were just trying to do exactly that. They cared about Jewish law, and they studied it in order to interpret it accurately. It was their calling, which is why they ask Jesus so many questions. He isn’t making sense to them, and they are the ones who study and make sense of things. Their questions of him are legitimate ones because they were experts on their tradition.
Nicodemus wants to understand, so he goes to talk to Jesus himself, which isn’t unheard of for Pharisees. The weird thing is that he goes alone. When Pharisees show up in other gospel stories they always travel in groups, but not this one, not on this night. I wonder why. I wonder what he was feeling that led him there. Imagine yourself in his shoes, sneaking out of your house at night, to go and knock on Jesus’ door after dark. Do you think they could have sat down with a couple of leftover glasses of wine from the wedding in Cana, with a loaf of bread in between them? Mostly I’m being poetic, but I do like the thought of this as a pretty raw conversation, something is definitely up with Nicodemus. I mean, how could a person be sent by God, and yet also be chasing people out of God’s temple, a place that Nicodemus probably loved and spent a lot of time in? I mean, if Jesus showed up here and chased you all around, I would have some feelings about that.
Unfortunately for Nicodemus, Jesus isn’t going to give him any straight answers. What Jesus has to say to him is likely going to make him more confused. Jesus makes a connection between the idea of a spiritual birth from above and the birth by water, and the womb, which brings each of us into life on this Earth. And I think that there is actually a lot that those two might have in common. First of all, birth is not something we can control. We kind of know what to expect during birth, and how to take care of a birthing person, but we don’t control what the body does. Later Jesus brings up the wind, which is also something we experience but have no control over. So, Jesus may be saying to this intellectual person, who spends a lot of his time thinking about rules, that some things are outside of our control and understanding, and God is actually one of those things.
The second thing they have in common, is that birthing is relational. It’s not something we can do by ourselves. We can’t simply will a new life into being, it takes multiple relationships, and not just between the parents, but among all the ones who care for and support them through the process. Especially in Jesus’ time, a birth was a community event. The midwives, the family members, and the neighbors all had a role in the process of birth. Because of the third connection, which is that birthing is labor. It is hard, messy, painful, and complicated. You need to have a lot of support when you are that vulnerable, and that communal work of bringing new life into the world is sacred and holy.
I think Jesus compares them, because being born of the Spirit is actually just as unpredictable, just as relational, just as messy, and just as laborious as our first birth. I think that in order to see the kingdom of God realized here on Earth, we too must go through a complicated, painful, communal, birth from above that is outside of our control, and yet where we are being carefully midwifed into being by the Holy Spirit. Which is precisely what happens to Nicodemus. Just a small seed of doubt and openness with Jesus, and Nicodemus is about to go on a journey because of their conversation.
First, he shows back up in chapter 7 to defend Jesus against the other religious leaders, saying that if Jesus is going to be arrested he at least deserves to have a fair trial, that is what the law says, right? He’s still with the Pharisees, but he is becoming ever more uncertain about what is really true. So much so, that at the end of the gospel, Nicodemus shows up among the grieving disciples, and the women who are tending to Jesus’ body. He brings them aloe and myrrh to anoint Jesus with before they lay him in the tomb. We can pick on him for not understanding Jesus, but how many of us really do get everything Jesus says? I know I don’t. To me, their meeting was never about what Nicodemus would be able to intellectually wrap his mind around, it was about how their conversation would transform him. That late night conversation with Jesus impacted him so much, that he would find himself transgressing his own place in society to mourn Jesus’ death as one of his followers. Even though it was improper, and vulnerable, and probably difficult given where he came from, Nicodemus was saved into the community of the disciples.
“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” The Spirit will disrupt our lives, and transform our entire way of being. Being born again is the process of becoming open to where the wind of the Spirit will take us, even though that is probably to places we normally wouldn’t go, with people we don’t even yet know that we need. Being born of the Spirit means smashing our ego, the part of us that cares about what other’s think of us. The part of us that wants to maintain a place of privilege, and cling to certainty about what it true. The part that wants to hide every bit of vulnerability, weakness, doubt, and dependance on others that it can. That is your punk rock lesson for today, because punk music is gritty, and raw, and real about the things that we avoid discussing because they are improper, uncomfortable, or otherwise taboo. It embraces uncertainty and doubt, and normalizes the human experience of not knowing what the heck is going on.
What the Spirit is up to is messy, difficult, unpredictable, complicated, painful, and communal. The invitation to be born again and from above is no less than an invitation to trust the process. “For 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.” This is not meant to be an exclusive passage, stating that only those who believe correctly will make it to eternal life. This passage is an invitation to us all. Because just as we are all born from wombly waters, the Spirit is at work in all of us. She has no parameters, she is not limited by church walls, or national borders. She goes where she likes and she works in unconventional ways. If you try to wrap your mind around her you will always fall short because she is the wind, you cannot control her, or comprehend her, or bind her with rules. Through small moments and late night conversations, the Spirit whisks us away on a journey through which we are saved, which means rescued, healed, and made whole. Into the life eternal, aiōnios, which is also translated as everlasting, perpetual, forever, and without beginning or end. It is that which always has been and always will be. This is the never-ending work of God to reconcile the world to Godself.
Salvation is not an individualistic, intellectual, one correctly worded prayer and you’re done kind of moment in life. Salvation is how the eternal God, is always transforming us, especially as we learn to trust in what we do not understand and let following the unpredictable Spirit become our way of life. I like what author Sarah Dylan Breuer says about this passage, that being born again is “dislocation from a network of relationships that perpetuate injustice, death, and alienation so that we can be knit into a network of relationships that bring healing, reconciliation, and abundant life rooted in the eternal.” So, it’s okay if we have doubts, uncertainties, insecurities, and other human stuff. They are the very thing that might lead us to Jesus’ doorstep in the middle of the night. Our first step in the direction of the community of God that we are all invited to be a part of.
To do that, we must let our egos go, like we do during those late-night conversations. Willing to see that we don’t have everything under our control. Willing to admit our vulnerabilities and seek out community instead of certainty. Willing to surrender ourselves to the messy, difficult, process of rebirth which is not just for us but for the whole of creation, which Christ came not to condemn, but to save. Amen.
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