[This article is part of the series, The Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.]
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night… John 3:1-2
What does it mean to be born again? In the vernacular of this age, the language has come to suggest some sort of metaphysical transformation, a shift that promises eternal reward. Believe in Jesus and you are born again, the logic goes, and then you get to go to heaven. For many being born again is the culmination of the Christian task, but for Jesus and his followers this second birth marked a beginning of a dangerous and fraught journey. It entailed leaving behind the safety nets woven and stored up in life and starting fresh, aligned with something new, something politically subversive, socially fraught, and existentially threatening.
The second birth of water recalls Jesus’ own emergence from the waters of the Jordan. It recalls Israel’s own emergence from slavery into liberation through the waters of a parted sea. In short, it recalls moments when people have set out on new and treacherous journeys, called by God to make themselves in a new image. To forge an identity apart from the markers that had shaped them and reimagine their communities and their very bodies as God might.
The second birth as a boundary marker after which the world is to be conceived differently. Like the new community forged by laws given in the wilderness, or the new life of Christians on the other side of baptism. To be born again is to enter the world with a new set of guiding principles, a new way of approaching everything, and a radically altered perception. Thus, this second birth is a politically subversive act.
Jesus is asking Nicodemus to be born in a new way, to be born from above, to bear God’s logic amongst a world that functions astray from the will of the divine. Jesus is asking Nicodemus to be on the ground floor of something new. To turn away from what has been done before, to turn away from the rules and logic that have ordered his life up to this point, to emerge anew into the world.
Although Nicodemus seems confused by his conversation with Jesus, he had to have expected something like it. Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. His behavior suggests that he knew he was defecting, at least in some small way, by going to speak with this radical Rabbi, and Jesus does not disappoint. He calls Nicodemus to walk away from the power and privilege of his leadership position and join a lost cause for justice and liberation, to cast in his lot with outcasts.
Jesus is pushing his followers to understand that new life emerges constantly from the old, that God sends new life from above and that new perspectives that interrupt our new habits. This is what Jesus names as salvation. God sent Jesus so the world might be saved through him. Through his message of love and the vision he bears. Through the human transformation he facilitates and for the radical departures he encouraged. To be political followers of Jesus demands a similar radical departure from norms and a similar willingness to boldly make all things new.
John Allen is a Master of Divinity Student in New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and a chaplain to the Occupy Wall Street Movement. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies from Davidson College. He is an ordination candidate in the United Church of Christ Metropolitan Boston Association.