For the past few months I have been looking at the lectionary a week ahead and usually on Monday writing a post called “Frist Thoughts on the Lectionary.” I like reading the Bible and this is a way for me to keep in touch with the Bible, prepare me a week ahead for the coming Sunday service, and give me a chance to refine my thoughts.
I have also been participating in Diana Trautwein’s series, Living the questions.
I wasn’t sure if I would write anything this week for that series, but in thinking about what I wanted to write for my Lectionary post, I decided to include it with Diana’s last question, “What do we do with the weird stuff in the Bible?’
Before looking at the gospel of John passage in the Lectionary for March 16, I wanted to say a bit about myself and my religious beliefs.
1) I call myself a Christian. My fundamental identity is that I am a child of God.
2) I worship at a church which is quite liberal in its beliefs. I am at home in this church.
3) In writing my ideas on this passage in John, I don’t in any way intend to insist that anyone else look at it in the way I do. I love reading the Bible, but also work hard to get voices of others telling what it means out of my head. So don’t let my words get into your head if you have other associations with this text.
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 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 who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.
If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Whose voice is in your head when you read this passage?
Contemporary fundamentalist preachers?
Philo of Alexandria?
I have seen it written that Philo of Alexandria had more influence on “Christianity than any other person. (except Jesus). Philo lived and wrote in Alexandria about the time Jesus was born. His life work was adapting his Jewish religion to Greek philosophy – especially to the mind/body dualism. I have read parts of his biography of Moses: the portion where Moses ascends into Heaven and is transformed into pure mind. Philo had a strong influence on Jewish leaders like Hillel and his grandson, Gamaliel, the teacher of Paul. When John quotes Jesus as saying “What is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of spirit is spirit,” he is using the language of Philo.
Philo was not the first Jew to adopt the ways of the Greeks. My youthful understanding of how Greek thought came into Christianity was – the Jewish religion pretty much stayed the same until Jesus came along and he introduced the realm of the spirit with the promise of “the Comforter”, the “Holy Spirit.” Then (I thought,) as early Christianity moved into Asia Minor, it encountered Greek philosophy and that element worked its way into Christianity in the gospel of John and the writings of Paul.
What this understanding fails to realize is that Israel was conquered by Alexander the Great in 333 BC, over three hundred and fifty years before Jesus began his ministry. Greek thought had thoroughly permeated the culture by this time. The word “Synagogue” is a Greek word. By comparison, it hasn’t been 350 years since Newtonian Physics was first proposed, but the ideas and concepts have thoroughly permeated our culture.
I think there is a difference between religion and cosmology. Cosmologies change, albeit slowly, but religious truths transcend cosmologies.
In our day, the science/religion debate seems to me like a debate between a pre 17th century cosmology and a 17th century cosmology. I feel that as the 17th century cosmology – that everything can be explained by the laws of physics – a mechanistic materialism viewpoint – as this view becomes more prominent: the dualism of the Greeks becomes more attractive. It is almost as if contemporary religious thinkers accept fully the 17th century cosmology, but say “yes, that may be true, but there is another realm, the spiritual realm, and we have the key to that realm.” “All you have to do is say the right words and you can be a part of this realm too, you can be saved and enter heaven.”
Again I say, religious truths transcend cosmologies. I am a Christian. I believe that I am a child of God – that the spirit of God indwells me. Throughout my life I have believed this. But I have encountered that spirit in almost everyone I have met; certainly in my Jewish wife. I don’t know how this belief interacts with the scientific world, but I don’t have to know.
To conclude: I want to include a protion from my book: Normal: Stories from my life.
The second story, “Hitch-hiking” in section IV, Travel, contains vignettes of different typs of rides: Needy people, Shady Characters, Proselytizers, Seducers, etc. This is the Proselytizers section.
I shouldn’t make stereotypes of Midwesterners, but I would say that at least 75% of the proselytizers who picked me up were from the Mid-West. The usual routine was to have a religious station playing on the radio. Then would come an occasional:
This would happen a few times before:
– Newell, do you know Jesus as your personal savior?
There was often some confusion in the driver’s mind at this point. Some would simply say
– All right then.
And would change the radio to sports or whatever music they usually listened to. Others would question me further:
– So you’ve been born again?
I was not about to let anyone else claim that they knew God better than I did. I would not cede the language. I did believe in the sacredness of life, and the Biblical image of having one’s soul open to that life, born into that world, was a wonderful metaphor. I wasn’t about to let anyone else claim exclusive use of that language. I never felt the need to convert others to what I believed, so I avoided all theological discussions and don’t ever remember the conversation turning ugly. Usually other topics were found and comfort achieved. But I mention this category because I almost never took a trip without being picked up by a proselytizer.