II - 2008
between Nicodemus and Jesus: Millennium Goals 2 & 4
gives a painting its power? An impressionist painting communicates
differently than a photograph. In some regards it shows me more. The
colors, the perspectives, the subject matter, all contribute to the power
of the painting. The Gospel readings for the next four Sundays, from St.
John, function in a similar way. John tells of encounters between Jesus
and others. The conversation in each encounter has an edge -a sharp edge
in some instances. The images that inform the conversations give these
stories their power.
encounter with Nicodemus is well known. Preachers and evangelists quote
the famous verse "you must be born again". It's often repeated
as if it is an accusation by Jesus against Nicodemus, and against us. I've
often thought that making this kind of "born again theology" the
pivot point to be very much like saying that a Van Gogh (painting) is
pretty, but kind of "blurry".
O'Driscoll (1) describes the meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus as one of
the great encounters of the bible.
are several powerful elements in the telling of the encounter. I want to
draw your attention to just two of them. One is education. The
story would not be what it is without the premise of education and
learning. Nicodemus is a Pharisee. As such his knowledge of scripture and
tradition is comprehensive, learned, detailed, simply impeccable. In the
story Jesus refers to him, wryly but I think respectfully, as " a
teacher in Israel". Nicodemus, in turn, addresses Jesus as rabbi.
This is a form of address for Jesus also found elsewhere in John's Gospel.
Nicodemus describes Jesus as " a teacher sent from God". His
teaching has credibility because it is matched with signs. He "talks
the talk", but it has been noticed, he also "walks the
walk". The encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus is at Night. Two
biblical scholars, Pheme Perkins (2) and Raymond Brown (3) both note that
it is at night that the learned and the wise study the law. It's a night
hawk routine that is customary among many scholars. I think Jesus and
Nicodemus recognize their common ground. Their passion for their subject
matter pours out. They begin to forge a relationship of mutual respect.
According to John, much of this is based on their learning and education.
second image, one that is at the forefront of their conversation, is that
of birth and second birth. The image of rebirth, often flattened
out by evangelistic types as "born again", is actually based on
a word play that is quite evident in the original Greek. The word "anothen"
means both again and from above. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be
born "anothen". Nicodemus, with tongue in cheek, teases an
explanation out of Jesus. How can that work? Aren't we a little too big
for that? Jesus suggests that Nicodemus knows perfectly well what is
intended. You must be born from above, by the spirit, from God. Theologian
C.H. Dodd described the relationship between birth and rebirth in this
conversation. (4) The same God who gives and takes away breath in physical
life, offers spiritual life. The image is so basic. Through birth we enter
the world. Through Christ's birth into the world human beings are offered
eternal life. Jesus can count on the knowledge Nicodemus has, aware that
Nicodemus can connect the dots immediately.
I would like to point out that the birthing image works in both
directions. Natural birth is a way of understanding spiritual birth. It
works the other way as well. Spiritual birth is offered because each
person born is so important to God in the first place. People are born
into this world. The have potential. They count for blessings in the eyes
of God. They are offered the gift of eternal life. Indeed, the world
itself is important. God loves the world. Archbishop Williams Temple, a
past Archbishop of Canterbury, said that what is at work here is
redemption of the whole world with a scope as wide as God's Love (5).
Nicodemus gets it. I know it. Even if the story doesn't come right out and
say it at this point. However, Nicodemus will show later that he gets it.
As Herbert O'Driscoll reminds us "At what moment this new Nicodemus
is born, we do not know. But we do know that when our Lord's body was
taken down from the cross, it was Nicodemus's arms that received it as it
slid towards the ground...." (6)
think about these two images of education and re-birth.
is such an important value. The result of education is that people can
talk with one another more effectively, learn from one another,
participate more fully in the economy, broaden their relationships, and
deepen their cultural connections with one another. The human mind is a
great gift from God. It allows human beings to transcend their immediate
surroundings in partnership with one another. Education is one of the ways
in which this potential becomes an actual reality. Education, from
monasteries to Sunday schools, has been a significant value for the
Christianity. Parents labor so that their children might receive an
education. I can tell you that in communities populated by laborers,
education is worth a sacrifice. A great many coal miners, for example,
labored so that their children might get an education and have a better
life. Moses Coady identified education as one of the key components of
social and economic renewal.
Goal Two is directed toward the achievement of universal primary
education. I encourage you to find out how big a challenge this is in our
world. According to 2005 United Nations enrollment figures, seventy-two
million children who were of age were not enrolled in primary school. In
fact, The enrollment figures data is such that this number is likely much
higher. This does not include hit and miss primary education as a result
of unstable social, political, and economic circumstances. Primary
education is just that-primary and basic. So many doors are closed without
word birth is a synonym for hope for the future. We speak of an
idea being born, or the birth of a new age. Consider the anticipation we
invest in the arrival of children and grand children. Every development
during pregnancy can be the cause of either excitement or anxiety.
Spiritual rebirth, understood variously, is one of the central goals of
most of the world's religions. The problem is that rebirth is directly
related to birth itself. Without being able to thrive after birth, rebirth
matters very little. Birth and rebirth, in the Christian tradition, are
two interlocking pieces of the mystery of human creation. It is impossible
to understand one without the other. St. Irenaeus said, "God's glory
is the human person fully alive".
child mortality is Millennium Goal Four. I recall looking over a
burial register in one parish I served in, for a period near the turn of
the 20th century. There were pages of entries for children who died from
illnesses that today are treatable and virtually non-existent in our part
of the world. Not so elsewhere on the planet. The UN reports that in 2005
over ten million children on earth died before their fifth birthday. There
have been improvements since 2005; but the improvements have been uneven
depending on geography and economic class. According to the Millennium
Goals Report immunization programs continue to be an extremely important
strategy in increasing children's health and in reducing child mortality.
Millennium Goals give us a framework for relating our faith in God to a
world that God loves. God the life giver gives us The Christ. Those whom
Christ encounters, he challenges on the basis of all that is life giving.
Jesus and Nicodemus shared a religious heritage that was grounded in the
value of life, in an understanding of God as the giver of the breath of
life. According to John their education in this same religious tradition
gave them a basis of establishing a relationship with one another, and
exploring the ultimate meaning of human community and human destiny. Is it
such a big a leap from the values embedded in the description of their
encounter, and our encounter with the values in the Millennium Goals?
Herbert O'Driscoll The Word Among Us: Year A Vol. 2.
Anglican Book Centre, Toronto 1999. P. 21
Pheme Perkins. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary: Article 61 The Gospel
According to John. Geoffrey Chapman, London, 1990. # 49.
Raymond Brown The Gospel According To John. (i-xii). Doubleday and
Company, Garden City, NY. p. 131
C.H. Dodd The Interpretation of The Fourth Gospel. Cambridge University
Press, 1953. p. 226
William Temple Readings in John's Gospel: Chapters I-XII. MacMillan and
Co., Limited, London, 1943. P. 48
O'Driscoll. Ibid., p.22