Now that all the hype of the Harry Potter craze has died down, how many of us can actually remember back to the very first book? It was called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and my favorite scene starts when Harry, in his letter of admission to the Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft & Wizardry, is told to board the train on Platform 9¾. He arrives at Paddington Station, swarming with adults, only to find that there’s a Platform 9, and a Platform 10, but no Platform 9¾. Harry asks for help, but the conductor acts like he’s lost his marbles. Finally, he spies another child carefully aiming his luggage cart toward a solid brick wall exactly between Platforms 9 and 10, picking up speed, zooming right up to the brick wall… and then passing clear through.
This teenage wizard already knew what Nicodemus was having such trouble understanding – that at every moment, there’s a parallel universe, an alternate reality all around us; very different from the “reality” we experience in our daily lives, or on “reality” TV shows. But this isn’t some escapist world like we find in Harry Potter or in C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. As theologian William Countryman puts it:
“It’s simply the everyday world seen at a new depth, with new comprehension… a place of intense vitality… (that) doesn’t draw us away from the everyday world, so much as it plunges us deeper into a reality of which the everyday world is merely surface.”1
On the surface, Nicodemus has everything. He’s rich and successful, a religious leader, and a master teacher. So why is he so uptight that he comes to Jesus in secret, at night? He’s hungry, something’s missing, and he thinks Jesus might fill that hole. But he’s all head and no heart. Even though he sees Jesus’ amazing miracles, that’s not enough – he needs to be convinced by some heady theological discussion. So when Jesus gives him this ludicrous – sounding message about being re-born, he can only stammer, “How can you be born again if you’re old? Are you supposed to crawl back into your mother’s womb?”
Jesus patiently explains that he’s not talking about being born again physically, but spiritually. Still, Nicodemus can only wonder, “How can this be so?” He reminds me so much of us, hungering for something deeper, casting about in all directions, and when we’re sure no one’s looking, we stumble upon Jesus’ invitation. In our fear, we try to make it into an intellectual proposition rather than an assent of the heart. But just like us, God never gives up on Nicodemus. In fact, the next time we meet Nicodemus is at the end of John’s gospel, when he joins up with Joseph of Arimathia, at great personal risk, to anoint Jesus’ body with rich spices, before it’s laid in the tomb. So if there’s hope for him, there’s surely hope for us.
Today, Jesus is saying we have to be born again with water and the spirit – the water of baptism is not enough; we also have to be baptized in the spirit – to choose to let the Spirit inhabit us and direct us as we try to follow Jesus Christ in our lives.
- In the parallel universe Jesus invites us to enter, all the rules are reversed from what’s erroneously called “normal life.”
- Instead of getting ahead, we choose to be last, so others can be first;
- Instead of being masters of our destiny, in control of our futures, we choose to surrender our ego and our will to God, and become servants to others;
- Instead of spending time with people just like us, or people we really admire, or people who can help us advance, we spend time with other seekers, and with people who are poor or sick or hungry or in prison, and we do it without judging any of them;
- Instead of planning out our whole life, we make room to be blown about by the Spirit, toward however God wants us to grow next, toward whoever needs our help;
- And because we focus not on appearances, but on what’s going on inside, we find our lives continuously interesting, continuously interrupted by joy.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? But it’s not easy. The reason many of us only glimpse this parallel universe, rather than live in it, is because everything around us operates on opposite rules. It’s so much easier to hunker down and live with blinders on, moving faster and faster, numb to the hunger we feel, the hole that burns in our heart. We’re interested in spirituality; we’re interested in Jesus; we’re interested in the gospel; as long as none of these has too much “bite.” They’re easier to wear as accessories, rather than as the substance, the essence of our lives. That’s why it often takes a crisis to help us fall into this parallel universe, and to discover, if we truly want to live, how much we need to stay there.
C. S. Lewis once said “We are half hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition, when infinite joy is offered us; we’re like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”2
But the Good News in today’s gospel is that Jesus never asks us to live in this parallel universe alone. He invites us into a community where we help each other discover a new depth of joy; where we learn to “go with the flow,” to be blown about wherever the Spirit invites us; where when we fall down, as we all do, someone’s there to help pick us up; where we get to be re-born not just once, but every day; a community that understands this is the whole point of the gospel – to access the new life bubbling up from within that Jesus offers. “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.”
So in this season of Pentecost, go for the gusto! Go for the big thing, not just the easy thing. Choose to be re-born into eternal life. And if anyone criticizes you or makes fun of you for behaving so strangely, don’t apologize. Just say, “I’m living in a parallel universe. Do you want to join me?”
1Countryman, L. W. (1999). Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing.
2C. S. Lewis (1965). The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. New York: Eerdmans Press, pp. 1-2.