Text Study for John 3:1-17 (Pt. 4); Holy Trinity B, 2021

4. Wholly and Holy Possible

“One of the church’s biggest blind spots,” Kaitlin Curtice writes in Native, “is ignoring the stories of those on the outside. We hide behind dogma and theology,” she suggests, “instead of leaning into our humanity to connect with one another or to the land” (page 66). It’s not much of a leap from this description to that of Nicodemus in the third chapter of John’s gospel.

Nicodemus is an excellent representative of establishment (white) Christian churches in any time and place. For the most part, he is a stereotype used by the writer of John’s gospel to make theological points. So, we should not consider this a description of a variety of first century Judaism. Rather, Nicodemus stands in a mirror looking back at us, safe and secure, passive and privileged members of the American Christian establishment.

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Gail O’Day offers an insightful and rich meditation on the resistance to newness in John 3 as she writes in her 1988 Word & World article, “New Birth as a New People: Spirituality and Community in the Fourth Gospel.” I think it’s worth our time to review that article, reflect on her comments, and riff a bit on where she leads us.

The talk of being “born” in John 3 should take us back to the Johannine prologue, and especially to John 1:12. “And whoever received him [the Word], he gave the legitimate authority to be(come) children of God, to the ones who placed their trust in his name…” (my translation). O’Day argues that in the Prologue, we learn that “when one becomes a child of God, one is given a new identity” (see John 1:13), and “one also enters into a new community” of those who have beheld the glory of the Word (see John 1:14). “Thus, through belief in Jesus’ name,” she concludes, “we become a new people and I become a new person” (page 53).

As our weekly text study group discussed this text, both the gift and the challenge of this text became obvious, Newness means relinquishing oldness, and that’s painful, frightening, destabilizing, and threatening. That possibility may not be any better news for us in our established churches than it was for Nicodemus in his (stereotypical) settled certainty. Newness of life appears to mean that some sort of death comes first. Generally, we settled and certain types are not lining up for that opportunity.

O’Day notes this tension in the text of the Prologue. “There are others who do not recognize Jesus for who he is and do not receive him,” she observes. “This note of tension and resistance is not present only in the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel. Rather,” she suggests, “these opening verses are programmatic of the response Jesus receives throughout the gospel” (pages 53-54). The call to newness can evoke a generative response, but it is just as likely to provoke what the Hebrew scriptures call “hardness of heart.” The story of Nicodemus is a case study of this tension.

O’Day notes that Nicodemus already has an identity and a community. He is named and comes “out from” the Pharisees. His interest in Jesus is rooted in a credulity based on Jesus’ previous signs. The fourth gospel has ended chapter two, as O’Day notes, by asserting that “sign faith” is precisely the kind of faith that Jesus will not trust as faithfulness. “As if to test Nicodemus’ knowledge,” O’Day writes, “Jesus’ response to Nicodemus is to offer a teaching. Jesus is providing Nicodemus with the chance to show that he can see and comprehend beyond the level of signs” (page 55).

We have observed the polyvalent possibilities of anothen. O’Day rightly notes that the use of the term “underscores that the newness of which Jesus speaks cannot be contained or comprehended by any simple or preexistent categories. He speaks of a newness that challenges even the conventional capacity of language” (page 57). Jesus invites Nicodemus to expand his imagination and his capacity to trust far beyond the limits of his conventional and established vision and hopes.

What a good word for Christians who, for the most part, want nothing so desperately as to go “back to the way things were” before Covid-time! The invitation to be born, as O’Day notes, is the opportunity to receive a new identity. The invitation to see and to enter the “Kingdom of God” is the opportunity to become part of a new community, “to serve in God’s kingdom with all those freshly born” (page 57).

Nicodemus protests the terms of the invitation and resists the promise, as O’Day puts it. Nicodemus says to Jesus, “How is a person (‘man,’ which connects us again to John 2:23-25 and to John 3:1) able to be born when one is old?” (John 3:4). Nicodemus already knows what is possible, in his view of the world (see previous posts). Jesus’ offer of the new birth “challenges too much of what Nicodemus accepts as settled. His imagination is not prepared for the newness Jesus offers,” O’Day argues, “and so he clings tenaciously to his categories of the possible and impossible” (page 57).

Clinging tenaciously to our categories of the possible and the impossible – this will be the death of any number of congregations and perhaps even some Christian denominations in the next decade.

O’Day identifies a pattern in John 3 which carries through the whole of our gospel reading for Trinity Sunday. Jesus offers new life. We (aka Nicodemus) resist the offer. Jesus repeats the offer, and we repeat the resistance. The second cycle of the pattern happens in verses 5 through 9.

The second round “ups the ante” (pun intended). “The new birth will both contain and transform all prior experience and categories of birth,” O’Day writes. “The reference to water and Spirit means that the new birth can be limited neither to the physical rebirth that Nicodemus seems to envision, nor can it be identified with some form of psychological, internal readjustment of human nature. Jesus speaks of a new mode of new life which both encompasses and transcends these two options. A new life will be born,” she concludes, “no longer only from water, but from water and Spirit” (page 58).

The reference to the Wind/Spirit/Breath in John 3:8 will get more attention in the next post. Jesus emphasizes the unpredictable and uncontrollable independences of the Wind/Spirit/Breath, at least from our perspective. “We can embrace the offer of new life and be born anothen,” O’Day concludes, “or we can spend our days in resistant amazement, weighing the odds and the costs” (page 58). Nicodemus illustrates “resistant amazement” and disappears from the narrative – for the moment.

Before we let him go, we need to look once more in the mirror at our own “resistant amazement” in this moment which calls forth newness or death for many of our churches. Even though O’Day was writing nearly 25 years ago, her questions are pointed and pertinent.

“The particular question that the text of John 3 puts before us,” she proposes, “is whether indeed we will allow our lives to be transformed by God’s possibilities. Will we allow God’s power and promise for newness to have full reign in the transformation of our lives, or will we define the places and pockets where God’s newness is allowed to enter? Will we establish what is and is not possible, or will we relinquish such determinations to God’s “impossible” hopes? Will we embrace the chance to be born anothen, or will we join Nicodemus in asking, ‘How are these things possible?’” (page 59).

I might consider ending my message with that quote and leave the question mark as the conclusion. In a footnote, O’Day quotes Joseph Sittler in Gravity and Grace, who noted that the task of the sermon is “to hang the holy possible in front of the mind of the listeners”. She says, “This is also what this text is about – to move the listener/reader from the human impossible to the holy possible” (page 60, note 13). There’s a sermon title in there for sure!

Of course, John 3:9 is hardly the end of our gospel reading. O’Day argues that John 3:10-15 constitutes the third “offer of new life” in the story. O’Day notes that anothen does not appear in these verses as such. However, Jesus notes that the Son of Man must be “lifted up.” Thus, the offer of new life comes “from above,” but the “above” is the cross. “The offer of new life, ‘to be born anothen,’ has only one source—Jesus’ offer of his own life,” O’Day writes. “Jesus’ offer of his life through his being lifted up on the cross makes new life possible. To be born from above is to be born anew in the lifting up of Jesus on the cross” (page 60).

This “new life” then, O’Day argues, “is the final determination of both new identity and new community” (page 60). It is the definition of what it means to have the legitimate right to be(come) a child of God. Nicodemus will come back twice more in this journey toward new identity and new community. As noted in a previous post, the gospel account does not resolve his story (or ours). O’Day seems optimistic that good ol’ Nic got it in the end: “Jesus’ death opens Nicodemus to the possibility of new life. Grace and newness of life are made available even to those who try to say no. God’s possibilities will triumph and work transformation” (page 60).

O’Day’s concluding words are worth another quote here. “Our personal lives and our lives lived in community will never be transformed, will never move from brokenness and fear to wholeness and hope, until we can listen again to Jesus’ promise of new birth offered in this Fourth Gospel text,” she writes. “We must stop asking, ‘How is it possible?’ and instead affirm that God’s grace can make even the hardest of hearts new” (page 61).

How does she know me so well?

References and Resources

Clark-Soles, Jaime. “Characters who count: the case of Nicodemus,” Chapter 7 in Engaging with C. H. Dodd on the Gospel of John: Sixty Years of Tradition and Interpretation. Edited by Tom Thatcher and Catrin Williams. Cambridge University Press, 2013. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/bridwell/detail.action?docID=1303715.

Curtice, Kaitlin B. Native. Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Koester, Craig R., “Hearing, seeing, and believing in the Gospel of John” (1989). Faculty Publications. 22. http://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/22.

Lewis, Karoline M.; Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries) Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

O’Day, Gail R. “New Birth as a New People: Spirituality and Community in the Fourth Gospel.” Word & World 8/1 (1988), pages 53-61. http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/8-1_Spirituality/8-1_O’Day.pdf.

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Thurman, Howard. Jesus and the Disinherited. Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.

Wengert, Timothy J. (translator). Luther’s Small Catechism with Evangelical Lutheran Worship Texts. Minneapolis, MN.: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2008.

Wengert, Timothy J. Martin Luther’s Catechisms: Forming the Faith. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2009.