“How can anyone be born after having grown old?”John 3:1-10
Many people were surprised recently when N.T. Wright, an Anglican Bishop and distinguished New Testament scholar, publicly stated that “heaven” is not a place you go to after death. When Jesus speaks about “heaven,” Wright said, he is not talking about a heavenly realm beyond the clouds populated by angels playing harps. The word “heaven” is used by Jesus as an alternative for the word “God” because that word was not meant to be uttered. Heaven is the presence of God. Where God is present there is heaven whether in this life or the next. Heaven is a reality beyond death but also a possibility on earth. As the Psalmist says God is present everywhere. (139:7)
So what does the “kingdom of heaven” or the “kingdom of God” mean? It refers not just to God’s presence, but also to God’s authority. When we obey God, the kingdom of heaven is within us or among us, in the life of the Church and the world. How we participate in God’s kingdom, how we obey God’s authority, was precisely the subject of the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisee Nicodemus which we read about this morning. Nicodemus was not asking how he could get to heaven when he died, but how he could live now as a citizen of heaven on earth; that is, how could he enter God’s kingdom.
Jesus tells him straight out that he had to be “born again,” (Authorised Version) or in other translations, “born from above.” Nicodemus was perplexed. What do you mean? He thought he knew all there was to know about God’s kingdom for he kept the Law of Moses diligently. He was also perplexed because he was old, and old people cannot change their ways, they cannot as it were enter into their mother’s womb and start life again. Jesus, who we must remember, was about 30 years old, is adamant. Nicodemus, you just don’t get it! You can’t see that God’s kingdom has come in what I am doing and saying because your mindset prevents you. I am showing you the door through which you can enter God’s kingdom but you are resisting because it requires a fundamental change of mind. You are trapped in traditions that prevent you from seeing and entering. Instead of the Law enabling you to understand God’s rule, it has become a stumbling block because you have turned the law into burdensome rules.
This was the bone of contention in all Jesus’ dealings with the Pharisees. It was not that they did not keep the commandments or were insincere in their beliefs, but they had turned keeping the Law into a burdensome legalism which prevented them from seeing the whole point of the Law, love of God and neighbour, justice, mercy and compassion even on the sabbath. That is why Nicodemus had to start again. “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15) Think of it this way. When children play together in a nursery school they don’t worry about the fact that some are white, others black, some from rich backgrounds and others poor, some foreigners and others local, some clever and others not. They simply accept one another as play mates. It is only when they grow up that they begin to be conditioned by social norms, cultural conventions and prejudices. They lose their childlike capacity to be inclusive of others just as they lose their creative imagination.
Nicodemus acknowledged that God was at work in what Jesus was doing. He was a thoughtful, wise and righteous man. But he had yet to grasp the secret of the kingdom revealed in Jesus. Namely that God’s grace fulfilled the Law, that entry into God’s kingdom was not determined by race, ethnicity, gender, class, or religion. In Jesus, God had opened up his kingdom to all who would enter. Jesus even said, “the last shall be first in the kingdom of God.” He also said that rules like those for the Sabbath could be broken if human need required it. This was the good news of the kingdom of heaven which Nicodemus had failed to grasp. So he had to go back to nursery school and start again. And the same applies to everyone, not least those of us who think they know what it means to be born again! For many “born agains” live by laws that exclude others rather than by God’s grace and love that embraces them. (See Galatians 5) So they not only fail to enter the kingdom, but also prevent others from doing so. (See Matthew 23:13-15)
During the Volmoed Youth Leadership Training Programme the “voeltjies” as we called them, kept on helping us to see things differently, not least Sam White, the African American whose booming voice so enriched our worship. Well he, and some of the others have since become active in the “Black lives matter,” movement in the US and in South Africa. Understandably some people have responded: “yes, of course, black lives matter, but then all lives matter!” That is an understandable reaction but it misses the point just as Nicodemus did. Yes, all people matter, that is fundamental. But in many contexts some matter more, and often far more than others. Blacks not whites were slaves, migratory labourers, , paid less, lynched and shot by gun-toting cops. In fact apartheid was based on the belief that white lives mattered more than black ones. That mind-set is still prevalent among many white South Africas, even those who claim to be “born again” Christians! It is called racism.
Jesus did not say that his fellow Jews did not matter; but he insisted that Samaritans matter as well, as do women, children, slaves, tax-collectors, prodigal sons, prostitutes — in fact he specifically named and included everyone that the Pharisees excluded. And that is why today we have to say that black lives matter, Palestinians matter, gay people matter, poor people matter. Like Nicodemus we have to begin to think out of the boxes into which we have been imprisoned since nursery school by convention, culture and prejudice. That is what repentance in the NT means, quite literally change your mind so that you can see things differently. We all need a change of heart so that you can live and act differently. And by God’s grace we can do that even if we are old. Otherwise we won’t get the message of the good news of God’s kingdom, God’s inclusive, saving grace which embraces us all and sets us free to love others. We all really do need to be born of the Spirit, as Jesus said.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 13 October 2016