This week’s gospel is not a tale of dispassionate theological discussion between rabbis. It is, rather, part of the history of bloody dispute between different factions in the first-century synagogue (what we might as well call ‘the Jesus party’ and ‘the Moses party’), each with robust views concerning God’s dealings with humankind, and the relationship of earth and heaven. The disagreement thundered and rumbled for 60 or 70 years after the first Easter until Church and Synagogue finally and irrevocably split. The Fourth Gospel therefore is not so much a historical record of the days of Jesus walking and talking in Galilee and Jerusalem but is rather an account of the proclamation of his resurrection-victory, embraced by some, rejected by others. In this dialogue between ‘Nicodemus’ and ‘Jesus’ we hear exchanges between New Covenant and Old, those of ‘his own’ who received God’s Word and those who received him not (John 1.11f).
The claim in 3.13 that ‘No-one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man’ is a typical missile launched into the midst of this protracted divorce process, uttered in contradictory response to other such claims (concerning Moses or Elijah, Enoch or Melchizedek) and in turn eliciting further pantomime ripostes masquerading as sober theological reflection.
But who is the ‘Son of Man’, and why does he matter?
We tend to imagine that the title ‘Son of God’ is decisive in saying who Jesus is and in expressing his unique relationship with the Father. In fact it is not so. ‘Son of God’ simply means a human being, like David, ‘a man after God’s own heart’, one of the earthly kings of Israel, or a person close to God and following the commandments. It implied none of the familial intimacy that characterises the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
For this, counter-intuitively, you need ‘Son of Man’. This character is definitively presented to us in Daniel 7 where in the court of God (drawn as a sort of Albus Dumbledore with added asbestos), a judge sits over the rebellious beasts, one ‘Son of Man’ (not human), given by God dominion and glory and kingship, so that all peoples, nations and languages shall serve him for ever.
Both the synoptics and St John appropriate this title for Jesus, seeing him as the One who has come from heaven, carried out his divine mission and returned to heaven, taking with him all that he has achieved or, as the Athanasian Creed puts it, ‘taking the Manhood into God’. He is thus the guarantor of our eternal life, the link and ladder between earth and heaven, a truly human being who is also the perfect icon of God.
What is more surprising and unsettling is to find that in all the gospels the glorious royal victor of Daniel 7 becomes the tortured and broken wreck of Calvary, and that John should see this latter state not just as a staging-post on the road to God’s victory, but itself the moment when all is ‘accomplished’ and the Lord of Life makes his triumphal entrance into heaven.
Our inability to comprehend this stems from the fact that we see only the earthly drama of Good Friday as it unfolds. We miss the heavenly dimension, in which God has planned from all eternity that the ‘Son of Man’ should be elevated as judge of all. The twist is that this elevation to pre-eminence is unforeseen and unintended by the rebellious children of Israel who raise Jesus high on the cross, ignorant that he whom they have judged and found guilty has thus become their own exalted judge on whom they will rely for mercy.
This, in any case, is the ‘deeper magic’ of the bible narrative. What might be going on mystically and metaphysically at the heart of reality is for philosophers to propose and artists to express. All we can say here and now has to do with our human ability and instinct to recognise ourselves in others, and to respond to their condition as our own.
We live in a time at which it is more important than ever to be able to recognise other human beings as fellow human beings, to see them not as a threat to our welfare but as potential allies in our common pursuits; not as a drain on our relative affluence, but as global companions from whom we withhold our bread not only at their physical cost, but at our moral and spiritual decimation. Whether faced with the insular ranting of distant leaders intent upon building walls — both physical and legislative — to keep out their neighbours; or learning to see our own neighbours no longer as partners but as strangers from whom we seek only the financial benefit of commercial relationship, we inhabit a world intent upon making us suspicious and afraid, training our instincts to see in others not those who are like us, but those who are significantly and threateningly different.
Things are no better in the Christian Church. We have seen in the Church of England in the past two weeks how years of dialogue, listening and prayer (not to mention episcopal authority) can quickly come to count for nothing. For all our talk of ‘mutual flourishing’, we retreat from this (sometimes quite brutally) as soon as our vaunted inclusivity starts to include those with whom we do not agree, whose vision of the world-wide Catholic Church and the implications of our belonging to it are inimical to those who hold a narrower view of a ‘National Church’ which has been steadily growing (all snazzy logos and slick press releases) like a sort of ecclesiastical UKIP.
Nicodemus also is a little inclined to this propensity for separation. Whereas he is impressed by Jesus, admiring his signs and wonders and seeing in him a source of light, he cannot yet jump headlong into Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom as one that admits not only priests but prostitutes, lunatics and lepers, robbers and Romans. Neither is he ready to make the fundamental new beginning of rebirth. For the moment, he is happy to talk a good Kingdom, keeping late hours with rabbis who, if only they can talk long enough, might never have to act.
We who claim to be followers of Jesus need to see and believe him absolutely for who he is and to be re-launched into his abundant life by birth in water and the Spirit. It is not enough to be born in water, sign of the natural world; even of the purification of John the Baptist. It is not enough to be baptised (as infants or adults) then to lapse into a kind of post-ritual stupor in which life becomes pretty much as it would have been anyway, decently uneventful, morally tepid, with a few quid reserved for Children in Need.
Our need is to see the Son of Man exalted in his agony as it appears in all times and places; to know that this is our agony also; and to respond with an open-handed generosity and open-hearted trust. This will require the regeneration of the Holy Spirit, herald and advance guard of the new age of the kingdom. This is the Spirit that breathes where it will, like the mysterious blowing of the wind. We do not see its source or know its destination but we see its power to change and are invited to put ourselves consciously and decisively into its flight path so that we might be reformed and renewed as witnesses to the Son of Man and servants of the kingdom he proclaims and embodies.
Let this continue to be our goal and intention during Lent, as through our fasting, prayer and acts of service our lives take on a new and joyful urgency, and we are made ever more receptive to God’s Holy and life-giving Spirit.
 John 3.1-17. I am especially grateful to the commentaries on these verses of CK Barrett and John Ashton.
 For a compelling discussion of ‘Son of God’ and ‘Son of Man’, see Daniel Boyarin: The Jewish Gospels, chapter 1.