Harry Truman served in the Great War, as the First World War was known at the time. Not that Harry Truman, though Harry S. served in that war as well. No, I’m speaking about Harry R. Truman, a native of West Virginia who lived in the Pacific Northwest for most of his adult life. Last spring, on flights to and from Eastern Washington State, I had a chance to fly over the area where he once lived, though Harry, his home, and the surrounding geography all disappeared on May 18th, 1980. For Harry R. Truman was the stubborn innkeeper who refused to evacuate Mt. St. Helens.
The two numbers to keep in mind are 670 and 680. Six Hundred and Seventy miles per hour was the speed of the debris in the pyroclastic flow when the mountain erupted, though some scientists believe it may have briefly passed the speed of sound. Six Hundred and Eighty degrees Fahrenheit was the temperature when it hit the first human victims. If there is anything that could conjure an image of hell, a wall of six hundred and eighty degree fire moving at six hundred and seventy miles per hour should just about do it.
Fifty seven people died that day. Some of them died doing what they loved, like volcanologist David Johnson and press photographer Reid Blackburn. Then there was Harry. He was just stubborn, just refused to be rescued.
Today’s reading, from the always difficult and often weird gospel attributed to John, is all about a divine rescue mission. But “rescued from what,” we might ask. Who does the rescuing?
Before we turn to this bigger question, that of the rescue, let us spend a few minutes wrestling with the text.
It is John, so that means the story is probably unique, not found in the three synoptic gospels with their overlapping sources. And in fact, Nicodemus does not appear anywhere else in scripture. He’ll appear again in this gospel, though, first at a critical moment in the seventh chapter when the Hebrew social and religious elite are conspiring to destroy Jesus, then again at the tomb, when he brings a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloe to prepare the body for burial.
The scripture makes a big deal out of the fact that Nicodemus is a Pharisee, that his curiosity about Jesus, his attraction to the teachings and personality of Jesus, is a secret. Today we only use the word sect as a pejorative, as in sectarian violence, or when a Roman Catholic refers to Protestant denominations as sects, but sect simply means a distinct movement within a religious tradition, and there were several competing sects at the time of Jesus, including the Pharisees. A radical reformer, Jesus is essentially starting a new sect, as did John, his supposed cousin, before him. The existing groups are threatened, and the whole region is a tinder box of sectarian infighting and Jewish resentment at the brutal Roman occupation, one that will eventually explode in 70 CE with the Jewish War. The conflict may be exaggerated, but there can be little doubt that Jesus denounced other movements, that other movements denounced him, so there is a reason for Nicodemus to keep it on the down low.
Christian scripture was written in Koine Greek, the lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean , but many languages were spoken, and we have reason to believe Jesus himself was multilingual, with Koine, Aramaic, the street language in Galilee, and the version of Hebrew used for religious purposes under his belt. In any case, most of us do not speak or read Koine, so we miss an important play on words. “Anothen,” the word translated as born again, also means born from above. In this same exchange, Jesus speaks of the Human One, the Danielic figure we sometimes translate as Son of Man, who is sent from above, so the author, Jesus or the later gospel author, is knowingly playing with language, setting up a follow-up question for Nicodemus.
Born again has become such a cliché that we snicker at the naivete of this good Pharisee, taking the phrase literally as he does, but it was completely new language in that context, all of this born of Spirit, born of water, and the slipperiness, the word play, is intentional.
Then there is John 3:16, tattooed on countless bodies, for God so loved the world. This passage, like much of John, looks like the result of later theological reflection on the Christ event. The followers, those who knew Jesus and those attracted to this new way in the early years, were trying to make meaning out of something outside of the norm.
Those who were Jews would need to deconstruct and reconstruct their own Hebrew faith, while those who came as Gentiles would need to take on this new Judaism as the context for Jesus, for Jesus means nothing outside of the Jewish trajectory. Moses, David, Elijah. “Eli eli lama sabacthani” he cries from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” citing the ancient psalm even as those around him misinterpret it and believe he is calling for Elijah, a man who never knew death. Everything Jesus teaches is woven from the fabric of the Hebrew narrative, is grown in the rich soil of the prophetic texts.
If born again doesn’t mean born again, or at least not literally in the South Asian sense of the wheel of samsara, then what does it mean? What is this divine rescue mission?
In one understanding, God is rescuing us from God. The Hebrew tradition, like many other ancient religions, viewed the divine, single god or entire pantheon, as human-like, with very human flaws, ego and rage. This then, gives us the twisted logic of Yahweh creating the entire world, giving humans free will to obey or not obey, then condemning the entire operation to suffering when humans act, well… human. This god is angry, co-dependent, requiring human adoration, suffering from narcissistic personality disorder, which sounds very human, but this god really is a human writ large, an angry human with power, the worst kind. In that scenario, God requires blood to appease God’s own anger, and no human blood is good enough, so we run down the rabbit hole of blood atonement. This is the god so many evangelicals cling to today, a god that says more about them than it does about the divine.
Rejecting this structure does not mean rejecting God, for there has always been apophatic theology, a theology that accepted the unknowableness of God, and Jesus himself rejects this very same legalism and vengeance in his teachings, offering us a God that is, pardon the pun, dying to forgive us. The cross is not stripped of meaning, nor must we abandon the belief that Jesus saves, that a divine rescue mission has taken place.
Humans have always created stories that justified our violence to one another, stories of race and tribe. We practice violence and then sanctify that violence, proclaim it to be God’s will. We have to have scapegoats, a target for our anxiety and fear, all generated by our very real vulnerability. We create God in our own image, a despicable god not worthy of our worship.
And there’s Jesus, emptying every single mechanism of victimizing and scapegoating of meaning. Even in what looks like the clearest case of divinely-sanctioned social violence, the proposed stoning of the woman taken in adultery, Jesus turns the whole thing on its head, suggesting that it is the unspoken sin of the accusers that is important.
Rather than the cross being a form of God-on-God violence, one more case of holy terror, it is instead an emptying of human violence. It reveals the lie. God does not demand human violence. God is the victim of human violence. Division, judgment, violence, scapegoating, these do not have the last word. Love has the last word. For this man, so filled with holy mystery, such an embodied outpouring of divine love that he was able to touch people and they felt their bodies changing, their minds changing, their souls changing, this man who was the victim of human sanctioned violence, this man would be understood as still real and present in the life of his followers, even after they had seen him destroyed on the tree.
Jesus saves humans, just not from an angry god. Jesus saves humans from humans.
Of course, we have to opt-in. We have to be born again, not in our fear and self-justification, but in courage and love. We have to reject everything that creates an us vs. them, and that is hard. We have to stop rationalizing our violence, and that is hard. We have to take away the power that fear has in our lives, and that is hard, for every one of us walks through the valley of the shadow of death.
I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. But you are there to comfort me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
I repent of the times I have justified and rationalized violence, legalism. I will fear no evil. But I can’t do it on my own. The side of this mountain may blow off tomorrow. Emmanuel, God-with-us in Jesus, rescue me.