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.
I am a child of Apartheid.
I was born when the Nationalist Government, the architects of the policy, had been in power for almost a decade. I arrived when there had been just enough time to alter the social structures of society in favour of whites like me, at the expense of other races, who were the majority in South Africa.
As a child of Apartheid, I was the first of my extended working class family to graduate from University and then to proceed with post-graduate studies. This was not only due to my abilities, I wasn’t the first bright child in the family. I was however, the first generation who didn’t have to compete with so many others for a space. My education, social and familial formation all taught me that I was better than other people and that I would be expected to take a position of leadership in society when I grew up. It was called “baasskap”Afrikaans for “boss-ship”.
My name should have been Nicodemus.
Nicodemus literally means “conqueror of the people”. Small wonder he rose to the ranks of the party of the Pharisees. If James Hillman, the Jungian writer, is correct, that “the whole oak tree is already in the acorn” then perhaps the whole of Nicodemus’ life was prophetically packed into that name. Nicodemus, the conqueror of people would expect “baasskap” in his life. He would lead, he would command, he would conquer.
Jesus told him that he needed to start his life over. As a conqueror of people he could function well in the Kingdom of the Pharisees and the Kingdom of the Roman and Jerusalem Politicians, but the Kingdom of God needed another kind of life orientation. To even see the Kingdom of God, Nicodemus would have to start again from the beginning. The very beginning, because every white South African knows, you can drink in prejudice with your mother’s milk!
Perhaps this is why in the fledgling days of the Christian Church, those who chose to follow Jesus were expected to change their names. “Christian” names were the mark of the radical re-orientation that was required to follow Jesus into the Kingdom of God. I wonder what Nicodemus chose as his Christian name. I would like to speculate that he became DOULOS-demos (Doulos=Greek for slave/servant)
I am bemused by what the evangelicals have made of Jesus’ very specific command to the “Conqueror of people” that told him he needed to be born from above. They have made it into a hollow external ritual that has very little to do with radical internal transformation, and everything to do with signing on for an evacuation programme from the realities of life. The “born again” brand of Christianity really does not require a change of name and identity. It is merely an arrogant label by which others who are not in the country club are made to feel less than equal. Nothing could be further from the clandestine conversation that Jesus had with a man trying to understand the alternative Rabbi from Nazareth.
What a contrasting encounter it was! The Conqueror of nations and the Suffering servant, Son of Man.
Power, prestige and privilege, in conversation with compassion, servanthood and service. This must be why Nicodemus found it so difficult to understand Jesus.
Being “born again” [Greek=gennao anothen], can also be translated as “born from above” and even as “rebirthed”. Any way you slice it, Jesus is emphasizing the radical change of heart, values, worldview and orientation that is required of those who want to see the Divine Domain.
Being a child of Apartheid, a well trained “Baas”, it has been transformational and traumatic to have to learn to live as a minority in a nation now legitimately governed by the majority who for forty years were conquered and silenced by the people of my culture and complexion.
My greatest joy in serving Post Apartheid, and still mainly white, congregations, has been to see the previously powerful conquerors, compassionately serving the communities of poor and dispossessed. That silent, suffering majority of South Africans whose own leaders are unable or unwilling to care for them. Despite the fact that the power wheel has turned full circle, the little people that Jesus came to seek and save, are still invisible to the conquerors of nations, in South Africa, Libya, Zimbabwe and I suppose everywhere?
Nicodemus, the conqueror of nations, member of the party of the Pharisees, was not empowered nor informed enough to understand the mysteries of Jesus’ way of Liberation.
I as white, privileged, powerful, boss, have not only had to go back to school, I have had to be rebirthed.
In the dark night of dispossession I have had to learn that my incarnation was never intended to extend and maintain illegitimate power, prestige and privilege. I have had to be rebirthed by grace to be a re-incarnation of the homeless, powerless, rabbi of Nazareth.
It is a daily process, slow but sure, like a seed growing in the depths of my being, but by grace, it will also fruit in new life for others.
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