John begins his letter to the Church (1 John) by talking about how the forces of light and dark pull on us. The dark promises to keep our secrets for us and thereby make us look clean. But the light of Jesus promises to actually cleanse us. John learned to talk like this, of course, from Jesus who, throughout the Gospel of John talks a lot about light and dark. But these aren’t just words or convenient metaphors. They are real forces at work in our lives, as we see in John 3.
By approaching John 3 from the perspective of 1 John 1, the first thing we notice is that Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, in a state of darkness. Nicodemus, a Pharisee, is assured by the dark that his meeting with Jesus can go unnoticed. Even though he bears no ill will toward Jesus, by initiating their encounter in the dark, we already know that Nicodemus isn’t fully on board with him, even if part of him wants to be. Nicodemus tells Jesus that he and the other Pharisees know Jesus is for real, that God is with him in a uniquely powerful way. But Jesus mostly ignores this compliment with his own non sequitur – “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (Jesus is letting Nicodemus know that this conversation won’t go how Nicodemus wants it to go.) And when Nicodemus proves he has no idea what this means, Jesus clarifies – “born of water and Spirit.”
Jesus continues that just as the wind blows where it wants in a free and seemingly chaotic way, so the Spirit moves about in the world in a completely free way, subject to no one else’s control (wind and spirit are the same word in the original Greek). To keep parts of ourselves in the dark is an exercise of control. By coming to Jesus at night, Nicodemus wants to control the perception of their meeting. He wants to control the flow of the conversation. But, Jesus says, those experiencing life in the kingdom of God now have as the animating force of their lives the Spirit that freely moves this way and that. To be born from above of water and Spirit is to submit to the Spirit that is completely free from our control.
A few verses down, we have a brief reflection from John himself on this interaction between Jesus and Nicodemus in which John lays out what’s really at stake: a world too scared to live in the light that exposes and cleanses. So we go on loving darkness so that our faults and sins may continue free of consequence. And this is God’s judgment, that those who love the dark may continue to live there, cut off from the cleansing light of Jesus. According to John 3, God’s judgment on the world is not some grand, end times punishment, but rather simply that those who wish to remain in the dark will be allowed to do so.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night because he’s looking for a kind of discount discipleship. He wants Jesus so long as a life with Jesus doesn’t affect his status and friendships and priorities. But Jesus calls us to nothing less than being completely reborn, completely remade. Baptized and reborn with the uncontrollable Spirit as the animating force of our lives.
To be born from above is to be born of water and spirit. To be born of water and spirit is to live completely in the light and will of Jesus, with no darkness, no shadow left over. Our invitation is into the baptized life of complete submission to the free Spirit and to the exposing, cleansing, life-giving light of Jesus.