Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (John 3:1-15) transports me to the planet Genesis, where the USS Enterprise has boldly gone in search of Spock, whose corpse was left on the planet in Star Trek II. That movie movie ended when Spock sacrificed his life for the needs of the many, but not before mind-melding with Dr. McCoy and telling Jim, I have been and always shall be your friend. In Star Trek III, we learn that Spock transferred his katra to the Doctor in the mind meld, and the Enterprise crew head back to Genesis to retrieve the deceased Vulcan’s body and transport it to his home planet, where the Vulcans perform the ancient fal-tor-pan, or refusion ceremony, a maddening experience which will bring the life force back to Spock’s body, allowing him to be reborn, and saving McCoy’s life in the process. Crazy stuff, complete with five actors playing the screaming newly born and rapidly aging Spock at various ages of childhood, youth, and young adulthood, before Leonard Nimoy finally takes on the role once again.
These movies were true to form for the Gene Roddenberry legacy, mixing fantastic mythological imagery with religious symbolism and political overtones to send a social message. In some ways, I think that’s what the gospel writers did with Jesus’ legacy, as they pulled from an Old Testament stock of fantastic imagery and symbolism to address the political realities of their day and offer a spiritual, if not social, message. John is probably the most like Roddenberry in the way he tells the Jesus story. The passage today is a perfect illustration. Walking onto the scene under cover of darkness is a man of power, Nicodemus. He has a name right out of Greek mythology, Nike Demos, meaning Triumph of Humanity. Nike Man, a member of the mainstream religious power squad, comes to see if he can make sense of all these signs Jesus is performing. I’m not sure we can appreciate the tone of this conversation, since it is one of the most widely quoted and overly familiar in all of the Bible. We have taken Jesus’ phrase, ye must be born again, and so domesticated it in our witnessing and conversion programs, that we have completely lost touch with the fantastic imagery and symbolism, the signs as it were, he gave the Nike Man. John, who had gone back to planet Genesis at the beginning of his gospel, now takes Jesus into two of the stranger episodes of faith history. First, when Jesus explains that being born again means being born of the Spirit, he is referencing the anointing of the first king of Israel, Saul. The prophet Samuel gave the new king a lot of signs that would confirm his power. The culminating sign was this: Then the Spirit of the Lord will possess you, and you will be in a prophetic frenzy along with them and be turned into a different person. Sounds like being born again, and for Saul, it turned out to be a maddening experience. John then turns to another wild story, this time straight from the wilderness, when the complaining discontents faced a plague of poisonous snakes, and God showed them mercy by instructing Moses to subvert one of the ten commandments and craft a graven image, a fiery bronze serpent on a pole, for the people to look to for healing. By recording these two references in Jesus’ conversation with Nike Man, John seems to be saying that conversion is not for the faint of heart, that a dangerously subversive savior will bring both a deadly bite to the materialistic longings of the wild world, and a healing antidote through his sacrificial death on a cross. Crazy stuff. From the perspective of a domesticated and overly familiar mainstream religious mindset, it is messianic madness.
Sometimes we get overly attached to the goings and comings of the mainstream Nike Men in our world, those triumphant ideologues who celebrate the victory of human ingenuity and power. But if we’re going to discover authentic life, new life, it seems to me we need to look elsewhere; we need to look outside the celebrated centers of human power to the radical margins, where the frenzied prophets do their mad dance. We need to risk going out into the wilderness of life where the bitter complaints of people dissatisfied with what the material world has to offer makes them vulnerable to the poisonous venom of life consequences. Perhaps only then, among the frenzied prophets and the snake-bit discontents, can we find salvation. Perhaps only then do we have the wherewithal to lift our eyes up to a serpentine savior who sacrificed his life for the needs of the many, the One who offers a mind meld that will completely transform us into people of compassion, the One who has been and always will be our greatest friend.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.