Right after Jesus had turned over the tables of the money changers in the temple and driven out the sacrificial animals, Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin approaches Jesus by night. In the strange dialog that follows, we see Jesus reaching out to a member of the establishment that he has just challenged, but we also see this same establishment figure stammering as he tries to understand Jesus and fails. This is a time for stammering as it is a time of transition. Jesus has just ended the sacrificial age with his actions in the temple. The question is: What is the new age going to be?
Nicodemus is confounded when Jesus tells him that he cannot see the kingdom of God without being “born anew,” born “from above” by water and the Spirit. The water and the Spirit both suggest baptism. The Greek word baptizmo means to be overwhelmed and just as Jesus was overwhelmed by both water and Spirit in the river Jordan in the account in the synoptic Gospels. Jesus wishes for Nicodemus and all of us to be overwhelmed by both. In this dialogue, however, Nicodemus is overwhelmed with puzzlement and perhaps, so are we. Jesus then compounds Nicodemus’ puzzlement (and ours!) by suddenly shifting to Moses raising the bronze serpent in the wilderness, a mysterious event recorded in Numbers. The bronze serpent was raised during a social crisis driven by a plague. (Both the disease and the violence against Moses were contagious.) The phrase “lifted up” refers to Jesus being raised on the cross and then being raised from the dead. The bronze serpent, then, becomes an image of Jesus being raised on the cross to draw all people out of the society overwhelmed by violence into a new society as free of violence as Jesus is himself. It seems that being born “from above” entails being born from the raised up cross, which is the entry into a new way of living, what John calls “eternal life” several times in his Gospel. After all, St. Paul said that “we were buried therefore with him [Jesus] by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).
This is the context of the famous words that follow in John’s Gospel: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn. 3:17) These words echo, in a different key, the acclamation of the voice from heaven after the sky opened up declaring that Jesus is God’s beloved son in whom God is well pleased. Baptism, then, initiates us into this love of the heavenly father. If God so loves the world, then God is not bringing a winnowing fork or a rod of iron as John the Baptist expected, but is bringing only himself, wounds from the cross and all, to lift all of us out of the world’s overwhelming violence to overwhelm us with his love.
John goes on to assure us that God did not send the Son into the world “to condemn the world, but that in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jn. 3:18) These two verses should be strong enough to prevent us from thinking that the solemn verses that follow concerning condemnation take back even a smidgeon of the proclamation of God’s love. The judgment is not God’s judgment but the self-judgment of those who “loved darkness rather than light.” If God’s very Being is light and we don’t like it, what else can God do but keep on being the light until, hopefully, we learn to like it and then love it and so turn away from the darkness in our hearts and turn to the cross that gives us a new birth from above?