A second time
Nicodemus is ready to hear any number of things; with the exception, perhaps, of Jesus’ recommendation that those who wish to see the kingdom of God re-enter the womb (v.3).
Who said anything about wanting to see the kingdom? Nicodemus had only gotten as far as saying that God was clearly with Jesus. If the suggestion was that he, Nicodemus, needed to take a second trip through the birth canal, well, that sounded like trying to reverse the flow of toothpaste (v.4).
Certain things are like toothpaste. I’m thinking of the Advent calendar I made this past year. I applied glue on the wrong side of the black sixes, only to realize that the glue that I used was white and unresponsive to acetone. There would be no flipping the felt over and saving face.
When people say that there is no undoing their experience of divorce or the damage done to a loved one’s body by a traumatic injury, we are better for honoring these statements.
In the case of Nicodemus and Jesus, however, neither crafting goofs nor life-altering loss is in the air. Jesus is talking about what can and does need to happen a second time if we want to grow beyond where we are. Jesus is talking about birth.
At birth, our senses sprung into action. Rebirth therefore signifies the activation of another set of senses – what John Wesley called the spiritual senses.
In using birth imagery, Jesus steers the conversation to a place where Nicodemus must consider not simply what he knows but how he knows what he knows. It’s not that the lesson is on spiritual rebirth. It’s that spiritual rebirth is important if Nicodemus wants to receive what Jesus has to give: a quality of life.
Sometimes there is work to be done before the work we want to do. If our spiritual senses dull or disengage or never come alive in the first place, the metaphor of being born from above captures the necessarily first order of business.
How we know what we know matters. It matters enough for Jesus to use the precious time he had with Nicodemus to address this very thing. Growing beyond where we are might begin somewhere other than where we place the starting line.