When Jesus tells Nicodemus that only by being born again through water and the Spirit can he enter the kingdom of God, Nicodemus is stunned and confused. The reason for this is simple. Every morning, Nicodemus wakes up and the first thing he must ask himself is, "What must I do today to be saved?" "What must I do to be saved from my own selfish cravings and death and from being eternally separated from God?" "What must I do today to earn God's attention and favor?" And every day the answer is the same: "I must do what God commands." "I must be obedient to God's holy Law." And God help Nicodemus if he deviates from this path! Nicodemus' whole life, day after day, month after month, year after tedious year, is decision after decision after decision after decision and hopefully his decisions add up to everything working out alright for him.
Then Jesus comes along and upends everything Nicodemus believes about God and the Law and his decisions. Jesus reveals that all Nicodemus' decisions have not brought him one inch closer to God's kingdom. In fact, Nicodemus is about as far from God's kingdom as one can be without becoming a full-blown atheist. The proof is that Nicodemus does not recognize God is standing right in front of him. He does not understand a word of what Jesus says. Nicodemus’ obedience to the first command blinds him to the truth: the One who spoke the first commandment to Moses is now speaking to him.
But, for Nicodemus, what he believes and what he does is more important than who is talking and what is being said to him. Born again? How is that possible? Son of Man? How will I recognize him? How can water and Jesus’ words do something for Nicodemus that results in his receiving eternal life? How can a little water and Jesus’ promise about being born again be so impressive to God, so praise-worthy, so attention-getting that it trumps anything Nicodemus has already done or will do?
What baffles Nicodemus, the religious leaders, and religious people in general, is that Jesus does not come to approve of Nicodemus’ religiosity. Obedience training is not what Jesus has come to sell. A do-more-better attitude will not get anyone, not even a religion leader like Nicodemus, one inch closer to God’s kingdom. Jesus does not come to improve upon Nicodemus’ religion or to create a new religion.
Jesus is the end of religion.
This is why Nicodemus is so confused by Jesus. Nicodemus is a very religious man. His whole life is about believing, behaving, worshipping, and sacrificing in order to get right with God. But no amount of effort can take away sin. No amount of effort can perfectly obey God's Law. Everything Nicodemus does, and everything we try to do to get right with God, has already been done, once and for all, by Jesus in His death and resurrection. And everything Jesus has done is given to us by way of water and Spirit. Baptism, not our religiosity, is the thing.
Baptism is God's sign that the religion shop is out of business. And since God’s not in the religion business, His children aren't either. We are baptized into the Gospel preaching business. We are not baptized so we can bring the world the bad news that God will think kindly about people only after they've jumped through the right creedal, liturgical, and moral hoops.
Our baptism into Christ means any and all requirements for being a child of God are ended. Everything Jesus has done for us is given to us in baptism for no religious purpose at all. It is all gift from the Father for us. Jesus' works are our works. His faithfulness is our faith. His self-giving love is our love. His hope in the Father's mercy is our hope.
So enjoy baptismal freedom. Enjoy walking always in God’s watery forgiveness and love for us. Enjoy using baptism in daily life. Enjoy living in God's baptismal grace today and always. We are baptized, and in spite of our best efforts to dress up God’s baptismal grace in religious clothes, Jesus promises us that even when we are faithless He is faithful, and that means no matter what crosses are laid on us, no matter the struggles and afflictions we suffer, no matter our lowest low or highest high, everything is going to work out because we are baptized into Christ Jesus.