John 3:1-21, 7:45-52, 19:38-42
March 20, 2011
A visitor who stopped by at our house this week commented, “It seems like the world is having a nervous breakdown.” Japan, Bahrain, Libya, Algeria, the Ivory Coast, the Sudan, Palestine…the list goes on and on, filled with Disasters that strike at the speed of light and Slow Disasters that creep along, relentlessly, day after day, year after year.
These are times for compassion, conviction, and courage. This very day, many are paying dearly as they challenge the prevailing narratives of Empire, Power, and privilege in varied social contexts around the world. These are times for people of the Way of Christ to stand alongside the powerless as blessing, voice, and shelter, providing firm ground to stand on within a chaotic, changing world.
Nicodemus offers us one way to face our doubt, fear, and uncertainty, and come out doing the right thing. A learned Pharisee and respected religious leader among the Jews, he is uneasy with the prevailing narrative of his first century socio-religious context. While it is politically and theologically ‘incorrect’ for him to take a stand with Jesus, his conscience is unprepared to take a stand against him. Many of his colleagues have no trouble vociferously opposing Jesus.
Have you ever faced a dilemma like this, waffling between your conscience and the implications of heeding it? Nicodemus eases his way through this inner ocnflict, taking a first step by seeking Jesus in the cover of night. He’s ready to make a small, furtive move, but not a public one.
“No one could do what you do unless God is with him,” Nicodemus tells Jesus (John 3:2). I’ve read this story numerous times over 40 years, but this confession never stood out to me before like it did this past week. Do we realize what a big deal it is for Nicodemus, a respected Pharisee, to admit this? He’s essentially affirming that he sees God in Jesus and he sees Jesus in God.
Throughout the Gospels, many religious leaders attribute Jesus’ acts to Beelzebub, the prince of demons (Mark 3:22, Luke 11:15). They call Jesus a blasphemer (Matthew 9:3, Luke 5:21, John 10:33). They criticize the company he keeps, his sabbath day healings, and his lax approach to Jewish law (Luke 5:30, Matthew 9:34, Mark 2:23-24, Luke 6:2). But Nicodemus faces honest doubts about this ‘party line’ of many Pharisees.
The rest of the discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus is deeply theological, as Jesus explains the man’s need to be “born again” or “born from above.” In his book, Twelve Months of Sundays, New Testament scholar, NT Wright says, “‘New birth,’ in Jewish ears, meant a new family; leaving the old, cleaving to something new. Abraham’s family redefined…” (p. 43). In ancient society, the family was the primary unit of production and community on which all else was built, so being ‘born again’ was a radical re-orientation. Nicodemus doesn’t get this concept at all, approaching it literally while Jesus speaks metaphorically.
Jesus gets a little impatient. “Are you a religious leader, and yet you don’t understand these things?” Jesus asks (John 3:10). This initial encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus provides no immediate resolution for the conflicted Pharisee. But it’s a start, a step taken, a seed planted. It’s movement.
We meet Nicodemus twice more in the Gospel of John—once when he stands up for Jesus among his religious peers who are eager for the Temple Police to arrest Jesus (John 7:45-52). He’s interrupted and ignored. We meet Nicodemus again when he assists Joseph of Arimathea in retrieving and burying Jesus after the crucifixion (John 19:38-42). The male disciples who spent three years traveling with Jesus retreat in fear after Jesus’ crucifixion. Not so Nicodemus. His bold actions speak louder than a thousand words.
In these troubled times, Nicodemus’ example inspires me. It may take him awhile, but in the long run, Nicodemus walks into the light and publicly casts his lot with Jesus. Like him, we too must face our inner conflicts and questions and wrestle with our consciences. Like him, we are called by Jesus to be “born again,” or “born from above.”
Jesus invites us to make our home within the Beloved Community, the Workshop of the Spirit. We are called to open ourselves to the Wind of God and become family with those who follow the Way of Christ. Drenched, immersed, filled from above, we glimpse the world through the eyes of the God who loves all creation with an everlasting, enduring love––a love enfleshed in Jesus, the One who set his face toward Jerusalem and did not turn back. Amen.