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.[a]”
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[b] gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You[c] 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.”[d]
9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? (NIV)
Some years ago a study group in the Presbyterian church offered a paper discussing the doctrine of the Trinity. The paper affirmed the traditional formula—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while at the same time asking whether the church, in worship and theology, might refer to the triune God in other ways—such as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. The paper also dared to suggest that God as Father could have unpleasant associations for some so perhaps God as compassionate mother or life giving womb?
Needless to say, there were some in the assembly hall less than persuaded. The Bible says Father so Father it is, they said. The minority report also appealed to scripture so there was a bit of an impasse. That the two parties could arrive at opposite conclusions from the same source material really should have been the takeaway. This sticking point about the literal versus the literary is also at the heart of this encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus.
The crux of the problem surrounds the phrase “born from above" or "born again”. How can one be born after growing old? Nicodemus asks. Here is the dilemma. Nicodemus is an educated man, and that is what keeps him from going back to his people and saying we all have to crawl back into our mothers' wombs. I am sure his people would say that is the most ridiculous thing they had ever heard and Nicodemus would offer as defense—-well, that’s what Jesus said to do.
But that isn’t what Jesus said and Nicodemus is smart enough to know that. “The wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the spirit." The Greek word pneuma means both wind and spirit. The wind indeed blows where it will and we see and feel its impact. And so it is with the Spirit of God. Jesus makes use of what is literally true and that which is literarily true. We are literally born out of water and yet we must be born in a new way, made visible in the waters of baptism. The wind blows your hat off but it is the Spirit of God that blows through your life.
Two forms of knowledge- one the literal, the matter of fact. One the literary, the matter of the heart. Jesus is being literary. The deep truths of faith are born of more than literal facts. We need the eternal and the eternal is most effectively communicated through the language of poetry and story, myth and metaphor, intuition and experience.
And yet the divide remains between those who insist on the literal truth of scripture and those who are open to the literary ways the Bible communicates its truth. The back and forth has been going on for centuries. But there is an approach to scripture that perhaps we can all agree on, attributed to a 17th century English theologian and writer named Richard Baxter. In essential things, unity. In doubtful things, liberty. In all things, charity. This encouragement does not clear up all things, as one’s essential thing is another’s doubtful thing—so let us place our emphasis on the final admonition- in all things charity. Whether they be literal or literary: Charity.