March 5th, 2023: Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night
“May the words from my lips and the meditations of our hearts always be please to you O God.”
For four Sundays in Lent we will leave the Gospel of Matthew and read a chunk of the Gospel of John.
Our story today is unique to the Gospel of John. This is the story of Nicodemus. The curious religious leader who comes to Jesus in the middle of the night. Nicodemus was a Pharisee - possibly a member of the Sanhedrin. He was a leader of the Jews and a teacher. He comes to learn from the teacher that his colleagues and friends have rejected.
We can probably identify with his sense of caution and his behaviour. He was a person of note - a person with status. He was also a member of a group that had at first found Jesus to be a nuisance but quickly began to fear social unrest.
He comes to learn about life in the Spirit and the Kingdom of God. He is curious. There is something about Jesus that he wants to experience himself. He wants to talk to this teacher - this man who is doing signs and developing quite a following. Nicodemus is curious but he is not really sure what its all about. He acknowledges that Jesus must be connected to God - he could not do these signs if he was not.
But Nicodemus does not yet see what others have - that the Spirit rests on Jesus - that he is the one they have been waiting for - the Messiah - the Son of God.
This conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3 is the 1st lengthy discourse about the identity and significance of Jesus.
In this discussion Jesus says that Nicodemus must be born from above - with water and the spirit. Nicodemus takes Jesus literally and in frustration asks - how can this be? And then he vanishes from the story - for a while. Nicodemus will turn up again - he will defend Jesus in front of his colleagues. And at the very end he will appear again with Joseph of Arimathea with spices for the proper anointing and burial of Jesus.
This passage with the command or invitation or suggestion that one must be born again in order to enter the Kingdom has sparked much debate and division in the Church. Until the 19th Century the Church understood being born again as referring to Baptism. In our time we know that some denominations make this a pillar of the faith - a way to separate people - to question a person’s salvation. Are you in or are you out - are you saved or are you not.
As Lutherans we do not talk much about the idea of being born again. We tend to follow Martin Luther’s counsel and rely on our baptism as something that only needs to happen once. Yes we are to remember our baptism, and we do that in worship when we have a Thanksgiving for Baptism. We also do it each time we baptize a new member for we restate our faith and our promises.
Nicodemus has come to Jesus in the middle of the night. He is fearful but he is curious and fascinated. He is not yet ready to leave his comfortable position and become a follower. He is on the margins. He is separating what he is learning from Jesus from the other areas of his life. That might be a familiar thing for us. As we live and work in a very diverse and secular society we might separate things as well. Maybe we set aside Sunday for our faith and not think much about it the rest of the week. Unless you are watching our youtube videos on another day! In a secular society, a pluralistic world religion moved to the private sphere some time ago.
There is humour in this section. Nicodemus makes a great foil, he has already asked the stupid questions. Did Jesus see the humour or the irony? After all Nicodemus is a revered teacher - he is supposed to have all the answers and all he can do is ask how can these things be? Is there room for our ignorance as well?
And maybe we struggle to understand like Nicodemus - we are growing in our faith, learning how to follow Jesus and work for the Kingdom. Nicodemus reminds us that even the best educated and most authoritative among us are still searching.
Nicodemus’ faith was not faulty. And neither is ours. A faith that can flourish in the dark is genuine, heartfelt, personal and often very deep. Jesus is telling Nicodemus that his faith is not faulty, it is just too small.
In John’s Gospel being born from above and believing in Jesus are not so much about what we do with our minds as about what we do with our hearts and our lives.
In John’s Gospel believing and doing are inseparable.