The Great Birkini Debate
This past summer the debate about religious clothing in France reached a global audience when police enforced a ban on the birkini, modest swimwear that many Muslim women were wearing. This set up the uncomfortable situation where male police officer were demanding, under penalty of law that they remove their clothing.
One man tweeted a picture of Nuns bathing in their habits to raise questions about pluralism, fairness and bigotry.
While a court suspending the ban questions about religion, gender and the law rage across the world. How do we make moral decisions? How do we make political ones? What can guide us? In our pluralistic world the temptation is to embrace skepticism. “who can say?” But skepticism doesn’t offer much in terms of practical guidance on how to live, and more importantly, what is important and where can meaning be found.
The American Moral Compass
A number of years ago sociologist Christian Smith did a large study on American youth to try to figure out how they came to their moral and religious conclusions. What he found was that American youth embraced contradictory ideas about judgment and morality. On one hand they held ideas about relativism and non-judgment. People should decide for themselves what is right and wrong.
On the other they had very definite ideas about right and wrong and asserted that these ideas arose from common sense and were self-evident.
Upon hearing of something like the birkini ban or that women in Saudi Arabia might not have the same kinds of freedom as women in American they would immediately offer the judgment “that’s just wrong!”
As one 16-year-old black Jehovah’s Witness girl from California said of a friend who has switched between four different religions, “Whatever floats her boat.” In this context, as it is often pointed out, the very idea of religious truth is attenuated, shifted from older realist and universalist notions of convictions about objective Truth to more personalized and relative versions of “truth for me” and “truth for you.” In fact, despite the rhetoric, few teenagers actually consistently sustain such radical relativism. In certain ways and areas of life, teens do actually draw clear lines, often quite moralistic lines. Like many of the adults who are socializing them, they also often readily proffer decisive judgements as obvious facts that they take as self-evident to any reasonable person, such as, “Well, obviously you shouldn’t hurt someone else” or “It’s totally wrong to have sex with someone you don’t really care about.” What almost all U.S. teenagers—and adults—lack, however, are any tools or concepts or rationales by which to connect and integrate their radical relativistic individualist selves, on the one hand, with their commonsensical, evaluative, moralist selves, on the other. So teens continually seesaw, with little self-awareness that they are doing so, between their individualist Jekyll and moralistic Hyde selves, incapable of reconciling their judgments with their anti-judgmentalism, and so merely banging back and forth between them.
Smith, Christian. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Kindle Locations 3074-3084). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
This book was published in 2005 so that 16 year old is now 27 or 28. If anything the tensions between these two ideas are greater today. We have pluralism on one side that wants to say matters of good and bad, right and wrong are relative or constructed, while at the same time ideas about public morality usually surrounding matters like freedom or equality are increasingly shrill.
There are two secular models for adjudicating these conflicts, one is to appeal to science and the other to the democratic process. The difficulty is that you cannot find a basis for human rights or equality in science and democracy will only tell you how a majority of people feels about something, not whether it is, in fact, right or wrong. Democracy has as checkered a moral past as nearly any political or religious regime. If, as was true in the US, a majority of people feels its good to enslave a group of people based on the pigmentation in their skin that becomes the law. Neither science nor democracy really can tell you whether that is “right” or “wrong” in the sense that we appeal to in our common sense way.
The Strangeness of the Jews
Questions of how to determine good and bad, right and wrong are as old as civilization. These issues preoccupy us as we deal with one another, gain and loss in our short, difficult lives. Out of the ancient world the story of one group of people stands out: the Hebrews/Jews. When we first meet them in the Bible they seem like just about everyone else, people trying to scratch out a living in the midst of competition between other groups trying to work the gods to gain an advantage.
This might sound surprising to you but Abraham doesn’t look like much a monotheist. This God Yhwh calls him and he begins to worship him, but its doubtful Abraham didn’t imagine that Yhwh was one god among many. This seems to hold true for much of Israel in her early years. She was up until the destruction of the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem always flirting with the Baals and other gods of the region.
What comes through in the Bible is this assertion that Yhwh is the creator God, the high God, and eventually the only God and that this God claims ownership of the world and the right to decide good and bad, right and wrong. The Hebrews believed that this God delivered them from Egypt and revealed his will to them in the law given through Moses.
The Hebrews had a tough time with this throughout her history but by the time the brightest and the best are exiled from the southern kingdom into Babylon her identity as “God’s first born” or “God’s chosen people” is cemented. You can find the complexities and trials of this idea in the book of Daniel where these faithful sons of Israel have to figure out how to make life work in a foreign land, under pagan overlords who don’t recognize the claims of their God.
The reasons I go into this backstory is because the ideas of good and bad, right and wrong, and the claims of this God of Israel are all behind the story we will look at. We have to understand this story if we’re going to understand this Pharisee named Nicodemus who comes to Jesus in the night.
The Weight of Being Special
The heart of post-modernity may be found in the song of a purple dinosaur.
Barnie says that everyone is special. Dash makes the observation that when everyone is special, no one is special.
The Jews believed that the creator God was working the reconciliation between heaven and earth and that they played a special role in this.
At the same time all of their experiences were inviting them to doubt the truth of this.
- Had they not been subject to pagan empires for almost 600 years?
- Had their God not only failed to deliver them from these empires but turned them over to them one after another?
- Wasn’t the world filled with people who thought that they were special and in the end they were just like everyone else?
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a prominent one with education, status and wealth in his small fish pond. He was, as one scholar says from “the serious” (political/religious) party. In the midst of the divine no-show this party tried to live in this world but not be of it. Through their scrupulous matrix of fences they sought to live by God’s rules in the midst of an occupation where their leaders were more than ready to accommodate to the Roman lifestyle even at the expense of Jewish custom and sensitivity.
Herod the Great and his sons who continued his reign often tried to walk a fine political line, but most of the “serious party” knew that they were at heart compromised.
Then Jesus Shows Up
John 2:23–25 (NIV)
23 Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name. 24 But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. 25 He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person.
If the burden of being special was weighty Jesus seemed to accentuate it.
The signs that Jesus was doing were so spectacular they invited those who saw him to ask important questions about Jesus’ identity and his teaching. Could Jesus be sent by Israel’s God to rescue her?
The situation was complicated though. John the Baptist, who Jesus seemed connected to had been working “outside the lines” by baptizing people in the Jordan River with a baptism of repentance. Many common people had gone out and been moved by John’s fire and brimstone preaching while many of the people who had status and authority were skeptical about this new movement.
Nicodemus was an honest man. He was sincere and a true believer. While he was serious and loyal to his religious and political party he was also open to God and what God may be doing. He knew meeting with Jesus was risky for a man like him, with potentially a lot to lose. To publicly side with Jesus could cost him a lot, influence, status, even security. He would meet Jesus at night to investigate further.
The Night Visit
1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” 3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again/from above.”
Nicodemus concedes that on the basis of the miracles that Jesus must be from God. We’ve already seen, however, that Jesus is reluctant to embrace this profession. While Jesus is a teacher from God, he is more than that, which is what Jesus is about to emphasize.
We have to talk about the end of verse 3. The Greek word that is translated “born again/born from above” is ambiguous. It can be understood in either way.
The word ἄνωθεν (anōthen) has a double meaning, either “again” (in which case it is synonymous with παλίν [palin]) or “from above” (BDAG 92 s.v. ἄνωθεν). This is a favorite technique of the author of the Fourth Gospel, and it is lost in almost all translations at this point. John uses the word 5 times, in 3:3, 7; 3:31; 19:11 and 23. In the latter 3 cases the context makes clear that it means “from above.” Here (3:3, 7) it could mean either, but the primary meaning intended by Jesus is “from above.” Nicodemus apparently understood it the other way, which explains his reply, “How can a man be born when he is old? He can’t enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born, can he?” The author uses the technique of the “misunderstood question” often to bring out a particularly important point: Jesus says something which is misunderstood by the disciples or (as here) someone else, which then gives Jesus the opportunity to explain more fully and in more detail what he really meant.
Biblical Studies Press. (2005). The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press.
The gospel of John will play on this double meaning.
John 3:4–8 (NIV)
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
The Kingdom of God
It’s important for us to pause here to contemplate what Jesus and Nicodemus are talking about. They are talking about Israel’s hope, now put off at least 600 years and really ever since her rescue from Egypt. The Kingdom of God is the end of the confusion about good and bad, right and wrong. It is the world set right according to the will of its maker and owner. It is the completion of Israel’s call and the hope of even her vast plurality of religious and political parties. It is the end of the divorce of earth and heaven that leaves us in world of confusion and decay where empires crush the weak and moth and rust consume.
What Jesus introduces here, however, is a note of individualism. Jesus has not declared that SOME can enter it while at that same moment OTHERS who are living next door are not inside of it. So on one hand it feels like a religious/political take-over, like what happened when the Babylonians or Persians or Greeks or Romans rumbled in to re-orient the Jewish world but with heavenly power and authority.
Jesus suggests that this new status, this new situation, this new change comes “by water and spirit” and that while its presence is obvious it isn’t always obvious where it is coming from, kind of like the wind. This suggests that God’s rescuing invasion has begun but not in the way that everyone else was anticipating.
This was not what Nicodemus was anticipating. This is the Achilles heal of all “self-evident” morality or assumptions. If you don’t have the humility to know what you can’t know when things come up in an unexpected way you’ll have cognitive dissonance.
John 3:9–15 (NIV)
9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. 10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
Now we can understand something of why Jesus was unwilling to fully embrace the interest he got through the miraculous signs he did. On one hand he could understand the newness of what he was bringing. How it was changing the narrative.
On the other Israel, and especially this teacher should have been prepared to embrace what was happening. They understood that the Lord their God was a jealous God who demanded obedience.
Last week we noted that God tests us, we don’t test him. If Nicodemus really believed what he initially said, that Jesus must be from God, then he should be ready to believe, to follow. Nicodemus isn’t there yet even with all of the evidence.
Scholars have a difficult time figuring out what is happening here because the conversation with Nicodemus seems to drop off. Is this Jesus talking to Nicodemus or the narrator talking to us about Jesus?
What is clear is that being “born from above” is not only fundamental but also mysteriously part of the process of God’s mission to the world. The “above” is the kingdom of God, God’s will for a world that has decided it wanted to go its own way, only to then discover that our own way is a dead end. We love darkness and not light. Into this God comes and we must be born from above.
The chapter then transitions where Jesus is baptizing. He is baptizing not far from John the Baptist and John’s disciples and others are feeling uncomfortable with this. Which baptism is real? Which one is foundational? Born from what water really saves?
John the Baptist then gives a speech that explains why Jesus must increase and John decrease, and it has everything to do with coming from above.
John 3:31–36 (NIV)
31 The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all. 32 He testifies to what he has seen and heard, but no one accepts his testimony. 33 Whoever has accepted it has certified that God is truthful. 34 For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit. 35 The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands. 36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.
The Audacious Claim
The claim laid out here is nothing less than that Jesus is the man from heaven. That Jesus comes into this world not only to teach, but to bring about the end of the rebellion of earth from heaven and rescue a people for himself. He is unique in this, unlike any other.
Nicodemus was stumbling around in the dark and came into the light. As one who goes from darkness to light he was squinting, reaching, probing, trying to make sense of a revelation that was unlike anything else he had ever seen. How could this new thing, this thing with water and spirit really transform not only him but the world?
It of course did. The followers of this Jesus, lifted up like the serpent on Moses’ pole would in fact change the world in the most alarming and surprising way, and that process continues today. We, like Nicodemus, come squinting, and Jesus asks us to be free of the darkness and believe his testimony.
How do we come into this light? We have with us our questions and skepticism. We live in a world of multiple voices who either directly claim to know the truth, or sometimes posing like skeptics sneaking their moral and metaphysical assertions in beneath the surface.
We who believe wait, in some ways like Nicodemus in exile awaiting the God of Israel to finally, fully finish the job. Rescue his people. Dispel the doubt and confusion. Deliver us from evil.
The Son of Man, the man from heaven was in fact lifted up, and generations born from above of water and spirit have been rescued. The claim is that in history, one man accomplishes what will end the fog the world lives in. He is the light that shines in the darkness. He is path by which no only Israel, but the rest of the world can make its way to that light.
Now here we are some 2000 years later. Nicodemus faced competing factions within the Jewish community just as we do in the Christian one. There are many competing voices and it is tempting to throw up your hands and default to the inconsistent paradox of American youth: “if it’s right for you OK” and “That’s just wrong I know it”.
Jesus offers himself as the man from heaven and invites us to be “born from above” by water and Spirit.
We know very little about what happened to Nicodemus that night. John trails off and doesn’t say much about him. This “being born from above” is not always an instant, although it can be, it is sometimes a process by which God moves us through the re-birth canal. We find Nicodemus at the end of the Gospel of John at the foot of the cross.
John 19:38–42 (NIV)
38 Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. 39 He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. 40 Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. 41 At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. 42 Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
It appears he began to see the light. He stepped out of the shadows and took the risk of claiming what to the world looked like the defeated Messiah’s body to honor it with a proper burial. That step of faith would of course lead to exactly what Nicodemus doubted could possibly happen. That step that has lead to what he could not conceive, that history which is still unfolding today in our midst and around the world.