I'm still mulling the irony that the very pericope that includes the object lesson of Jesus "healing" Nicodemus of the blindness of literalism is one that ends up being used as a blunt instrument by the "Our Way Is The Only Way" crowd -- and as signs in the end zones at football games. Go figure! Here's the lesson for Sunday:
Lent II -- John (3:1–17)
A certain Pharisee named Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin, came to Jesus at night. “Rabbi,” he said, “we know you are a teacher come from God, for no one can perform the signs and wonders you do, unless by the power of God.” Jesus gave Nicodemus this answer: “The truth of the matter is, unless one is born from above, one cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said, “How can an adult be born a second time? I cannot go back into my mother’s womb to be born again!” Jesus replied: “The truth of the matter is, no one can enter God’s kingdom without being born of water and the Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh; what is born of the Spirit is Spirit. So do not be surprised when I tell you that you must be born from above. The wind blows where it will. You hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” “How can this be possible?” asked Nicodemus.Nicodemus is one of my all time favorites. The story we have for the Gospel this second Sunday in Lent is a perfect example of someone of good faith with great intentions and a sincerely seeking heart utterly missing the point Jesus was trying to make by falling into the trap labeled “literalism.”
Jesus replied, “You are a teacher of Israel, and you still do not understand these matters? The truth of the matter is, we are talking about what we know; we are testifying about what we have seen – yet you do not accept our testimony. If you do not believe when I tell you about earthly things, how will you believe when I tell you about heavenly things? No one has gone up to heaven except the One who came down from heaven – the Chosen One. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so the Chosen One must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes might have eternal life. Yes, God so loved the world as to give the Only Begotten, that whoever believes may not die, but have eternal life. God sent the Chosen One into the world not to condemn the world, but that through the Only Begotten the world might be saved.
And even more than I love Nicodemus, I love how graciously and patiently Jesus works to move him beyond the limits of literalism that trap him into failing to see the wideness and abundance of God’s love, justice and compassion. Jesus does not give up on Nicodemus -- even after he asks one question after the other … even as he seems determined not to “get” that being born from above (other translations call it “born again”) has nothing to do with a physical birth but with a spiritual re-birth.
This conversation we have here in the third chapter of John can’t be the only one Jesus and Nicodemus had. The others aren’t preserved for us – by John or by anybody else. But there are two reasons I’m convinced that Nicodemus continued to learn from Jesus – and those two reasons are the two other places Nicodemus shows up in John’s gospel. We encounter him again in chapter seven during a debate between Pharisees and the temple guards about what to do about this radical rabbi from Nazareth:
Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?” They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.” Then they all went home.So Nicodemus – a teacher and political leader – has gone from meeting with Jesus under the cover of darkness to standing up in the Sanhedrin (think Senate or House investigative hearing) to defend him.
But wait – there’s more! The third and last time we encounter Nicodemus is in the nineteenth chapter of John … just after the crucifixion:
Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen … and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.Quite a transformation! From missing entirely the point of the Good News Jesus had come to proclaim to standing up and speaking truth to power in his defense at the Sanhedrin to courageously seeing to it that Jesus was properly buried after all the disciples had fled in fear, terror and disappointment.
Nicodemus may not have grasped what Jesus meant by “born from above” when first they met but by the end of the story he is a living example of what that re-birth looks like: of someone who both stepped out and spoke up. He is an icon of transformation.
And it seemed to me – mulling this text this year – that the first step on that transformational journey for Nicodemus was moving beyond the limits of literalism and being open to what Jesus so patiently tried to teach him … and us … in this third chapter of John. “The wind blows where it will,” Jesus said. And that is as true for us as it was for Nicodemus, for that wind is still blowing. The wind of change. The wind of challenge. The wind of the Holy Spirit.
• Where are we being called – like Nicodemus was – to look beyond what we think we know in order to become what God would have us become?Holy God, heal us – as you healed your servant Nicodemus – of being so blinded by literal words on paper that we cannot see the Living Word in our world. And help us, we pray, to follow Nicodemus by boldly proclaiming your Good News to all as we speak truth to power and stand with the marginalized and oppressed. Amen.
• When have we – as individuals, as a church, as a community – been challenged to give up literalism in order to embrace new understandings?
• How can we – like Nicodemus – be “born from above” and empowered to speak truth to power in our own “Sanhedrins” as he did in his?