We should be more surprising.
My hope is that at some point I’ll be able to reflect on the Gospel of John without complaining. We’re only on chapter 3, so I’ve got time, which is good, because this is not that reflection.
I happened to be watching Oceans 12, which was not as good as the original (or Oceans 8) but better than Oceans 13. Be that as it may, there is a scene early on that echoed back to me as I read John 3. Matt Damon’s very young character Linus has argued that he should get the chance to participate in the leaders’ negotiation along with George Clooney’s Danny and Brad Pitt’s Rusty, even though they don’t think he’s ready. Danny and Rusty set up Linus, to teach him a lesson, as the three of them sit down with their potential patron, Matsui (played by the guy who played Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies). Rather than a coherent conversation about the potential job they need, what transpires is a series of absolutely abstract non sequiturs that the true con men pass off as “code” for meaningful discussions. Linus is completely adrift, offers a poem as his contribution, and is quickly ushered out by Danny and Rusty, who tell him that what he said was deeply offensive to Matsui. It is painful and funny. But mostly painful.
Nicodemus might as well be Linus. He approaches Jesus one night and says to him, clearly you are a teacher sent by God, or else you wouldn’t be able to perform all these miracles. Which seems like a positive thing.
And Jesus replies “no one can see the Kingdom if God without being born again.”
And since Nicodemus is not versed in the modern evangelical understanding of “being born again,” he responds, essentially, “What?”
Jesus doubles down: you have to be born of the water and the Spirit.
Nicodemus: Huh? I mean I was just complimenting you but maybe you didn’t hear what I —
Jesus: What kind of teacher are you, anyway, Nicodemus? If you don’t understand the being born again thing or the being born of water and the Spirit thing, how am I going to tell you the good stuff? Because this guy – me – I’m the only one who knows…
Nicodemus: Oh, look at the time. I really have to run.
Seriously, if you read through John 3 and set aside the layers of interpretation we’ve put on it, you have to think that it was one odd conversation that Jesus and Nicodemus had that night.
Of course, amidst all the confusion may be the clearest (and certainly the best known) one-sentence formation of the Good News that exists: John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” If you don’t get scared away by the other stuff, it really does jump out like a jewel amidst unpolished rocks.
But I’m drawn tonight to John 3:8, where Jesus tells befuddled Nicodemus “The wind blows wherever it wishes; you hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going. It is like that with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
When we were walking around the mountainside hermitage earlier this summer that St. Francis used to frequent, I thought of this verse. It was really hot, even up there, but a storm had blown through the night before, and whatever Mediterranean front had brought it through had a lot of wind on the backside, so there was a refreshing breeze throughout the day. What I noticed, when we hiked down into a crevasse in the mountain, was that the wind whipped through the trees far above us, whooshing them around with cracks of branches and ripples of leaves. You couldn’t really tell where that wind was coming from or which direction it was heading – it must have been swirling around a good bit – but you knew it was powerful. And that’s what I thought John 3:8 must be talking about.
Except Jesus doesn’t say “It’s like that with the Spirit.” He says “It’s like that with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
And, honestly, I don’t think I live up to that. Nor can I really name more than a few people who do. Who do you know who moves with power, in surprising ways, clearly moved by God’s love?
Most of the people I can think of who claim to be Christian and seem to be powerful are pretty predictable. And if I’m being honest, it’s not really clear that it’s God’s love that is moving them around.
There are a few people who are surprising, in the direction God’s love has moved them. They tend not to be too official, and to the extent that they are powerful, it’s a sly kind of power that you only realize when you slow down and think about it. Most of the ones I can think of are saints who lived their lives with the dispossessed. Maybe people like Fr. Greg Boyle at Homeboy Industries would be a living example.
But mostly, most of us, we are pretty unsurprising. We do what “good Christians” are supposed to do, or we do what those with power are supposed to do, but not what Love does. Maybe we should be more surprising, even if it’s hard for Nicodemus, or Linus, to keep up sometimes.
(Thanks to Michael Williams for the Tiger/Daly meme.)
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