For many years, I worked on women’s rights issues. This was back in the days when long distance phone calls were expensive and email didn’t exist. So I wrote a lot of letters to my representatives in Congress—the kind you actually write on paper, and put in an envelope with a stamp. One of the things I learned about writing an effective letter of that nature was about something you shouldn’t do. I learned that you shouldn’t ever use phrases like “everyone knows” or “everyone agrees with me.” The idea is that, if you needed “everyone” to back up your argument, it isn’t strong enough to stand on its own.
That piece of advice came to mind as I thought about Nicodemus this week. It seemed like “everyone” Whom I read agreed on what kind of man Nicodemus was and what his encounter with Jesus represented. There were some dissenting voices, of course, but what nearly “everyone” says is that Nicodemus was one of the bad guys. He was one of the Pharisees and was out to get Jesus. He comes to find evidence against Jesus, but he’s too clueless to understand what Jesus tells him and too set in his ways to try.
His night-time visit meant that he was either something of a coward who was afraid to be seen with Jesus during the day, or that he represented the darkness of those who didn’t accept Jesus. After all, the Gospel of John routinely uses the images of day and night, and light and darkness, to contrast those who believe in Jesus and those who don’t. “Everyone” says that Nicodemus’ last words in the passage, “How can these things be?” close the book on their encounter—Nicodemus just doesn’t get it, as so many of his peers won’t get it, which will result in Jesus being led to the cross.
But, the more I thought about the story and what it actually tells us about the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus, the less convinced I was that “everyone” was right. There’s at least on other way of thinking about Nicodemus, and this other Nicodemus has a lot more in common with us than the obstinate leader of the Pharisees.
Picture with me, if you will, a dinner table. The time is near the Passover. Gathered around it are some Pharisees. Not all Pharisees were evil or power-hungry or hypocritical, as you might gather from the gospels. But, they were part of a strict branch Judaism who carefully and rigorously applied Jewish law to everyday life. So, picture this group of Pharisees, with Nicodemus among them, deep in discussion about what had recently happened in the temple courtyard. A man named Jesus had created quite a commotion by making himself a whip and driving out all the sheep and the cattle that were being sold for use as temple sacrifices. Imagine the chaos—all those animals charging through the crowds.
Then, as if that weren’t enough, this guy had overturned the tables of the moneychangers. Coins were everywhere! He ordered the dove sellers to get their birds and their cages out of there. And then he said some really odd and, yes, disturbing things about the temple being his Father’s house and about how, if they destroyed it, he would raise it up in three days. Crazy talk!
Maybe some of our imagined group of Pharisees witnessed all this. Maybe some had just heard about it. But it’s very unsettling, so they gather to talk it over. They haven’t had any contact with this guy Jesus, but they’ve heard of him. They start to speculate about whether he’s the man that John the Baptist had been preaching about. Some priests had gone down to the Jordan to investigate John and, while John had spoken of preparing for the One who was to come, he never mentioned Jesus by name. Jesus had collected a small group of disciples, but no one of importance. So, who was this guy, who’d been spending the days before the Passover doing signs that were causing many to believe in him? Clearly, he’s someone special: they agree that the things he’s doing couldn’t be done without God’s help.
The only way they’re going to find out is to ask him. Someone will have to go talk with Jesus. Nicodemus is an acknowledged leader in the Jewish community. Maybe he gets “volunteered.” Or maybe he offers. Maybe he’s curious about this man and welcomes the chance to meet and talk with him.
Nicodemus gets up from the table to go in search of Jesus. Dinner is over, and there’s no reason to delay. It’s dark out, but this is just a fact of the timing, not an indication of Nicodemus’ courage or lack of it, or a metaphor for the state of his soul or the soul of Israel in general. In fact, there may be an advantage to going at night. He and Jesus can have a calm, quiet, reasonable discussion, away from the crowds, without any temptation for grandstanding by either of them.
Nicodemus begins in a respectful way. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Nicodemus acknowledges that he and his friends see Jesus as a teacher and they believe that the signs he is doing show that he has a special relationship with God. Nicodemus isn’t there for a confrontation or to prove the authority of the Pharisees. He’s on a diplomatic mission.
But, before Nicodemus can even ask his first question, Jesus “answered him”: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” The funny thing is that the Greek word John uses doesn’t just mean to speak to someone. It means to answer a question, or to comment on something that was said before. But, Nicodemus hasn’t asked Jesus anything yet!
This isn’t as surprising as it seems. John tells us, just before our passage, that Jesus “knew” everyone—knew “what was in everyone.” Jesus had an intimate knowledge of the hearts of the people around him—the kind of knowledge God has, the kind Psalm 139 describes: “Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.” So, Jesus knew what was in Nicodemus’ heart, and maybe it wasn’t just desire for information he could report back to his friends. Maybe Nicodemus had a deeper longing than that—a longing to know God better, a longing to know himself to be one of God’s beloved, a longing to know that he had a place in God’s kingdom that had nothing to do with how respected he was by his peers or how well he followed the law. Maybe the question that Jesus answered, because he knew it was in Nicodemus’ heart, was “How can I see the kingdom of God?”
Unfortunately, Jesus’ answer about being born from above doesn’t make a lot of sense to Nicodemus. And maybe it’s not all Nicodemus’ fault. Jesus uses a word that means both “born again” (or “born anew) and “born from above.” “Born again” suggests a continuum of time: a second birth sometime after our first one. But being born again is not the same thing as being born from above. Being born from above is a way of describing God’s action in us. We have nothing to do with this birth; it’s all God’s doing, by way of the Holy Spirit. And that birth, Jesus says, is what enables us to see the kingdom of God.
This idea of any kind of rebirth is way outside Nicodemus’ frame of reference. He can’t get past what he knows about physical birth. Being born again is impossible…isn’t it? He asks Jesus, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Is this the sarcastic question of a cynic, as “everyone” describes it? Or is it a sincere question from a man who knows he has just heard the answer he’s seeking but can’t, for the literal life of him, figure out what Jesus means? Maybe this worker of signs can make the impossible possible.
Jesus doesn’t brush him off. Jesus takes his question seriously and continues to talk with Nicodemus. “You need both,” Jesus explains, “a birth that makes you as new as you were the day you were born of the waters of the womb, and a birth from above that creates in you a newborn child of God. Flesh and spirit are distinct, but both are joined in each human being. When the flesh enters into a new way of life, and the spirit knows itself to be God’s child, then you can see—know, live in—the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus must have still looked mystified. And that’s exactly how he should have looked, because what Jesus was speaking of is a mystery. It is as mysterious as the ways of the wind—how it comes from a place that can’t be identified and blows where it will. This birth of the Spirit—the birth from above—is equally mysterious. Nicodemus’ feelings are perfectly appropriate as he grapples with these things that are beyond what he has ever imagined before.
Nicodemus has one last question. “How can these things be?” Why this is interpreted as a scoffing dismissal of Jesus is puzzling to me. Wouldn’t you wonder the same thing? I would. I do! How does the Spirit work this miracle in us? And, Jesus’ reply doesn’t surprise me, either. “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Can’t you hear Jesus saying something similar to us? I can. I do! “You call yourself my disciple, and yet you don’t understand these things?”
That’s the last we hear from Nicodemus, in this story, anyway. Jesus continues to explain how it is that he knows these things: that he is the one who has descended from the source—from heaven. He explains how his being lifted up—lifted up on the cross, lifted up from the grave, lifted up to his place at the Father’s side in heaven—will be the means by which the world will be saved. And why? Because God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.
I think Nicodemus is much more like us than the hostile cynic he’s often made out to be. How many times have we approached Jesus in our own darkness, seeking assurance hat we are love by God? We approach Jesus from the darkness of our misunderstanding, the darkness of our confusion, or our ignorance. We operate in a world of what two psychologists in the 1950s described as “known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.” There are things of faith we know that we know, as Nicodemus knew that the things Jesus did couldn’t be done apart from God. But there are things of faith that we know we don’t know, and there are likely things that we don’t even know we don’t know, because they are so far outside our human experience—the things we call the mystery of faith. Much of the time, we are as much in the dark as Nicodemus was. But, also like Nicodemus, we continue to make our way towards the light that is Jesus.
Like Nicodemus, we struggle with the twin ideas of being born again and born from above. It’s hard for us to hold these two ideas together in our minds. And, our English language is no help to us here. Unlike the Greek that the gospel writer used, English doesn’t have a word that means both “born again” and “born from above.” Every translator has to choose a word that means one or the other. So, for example, we have the New International Version and the pew Bibles saying that we must be born again, while the New Revised Standard Version says that we must be born from above. Both are incomplete, because we need both kinds of rebirth.
If we content ourselves with just one of the meanings, we end up in the same predicament as Nicodemus—seeing only half the picture. The phrase “born again” is so much more bumper-sticker friendly that many Christians get stuck on that half. It suggests that all we need is a personal decision to believe in Jesus and to live like we believe in Jesus, with all the initiative on our part. But it ignores the other equally necessary part: God’s action in our hearts that causes us to be born from above as children of God. If you take anything away from this message today, I want it to be this: every time you see that phrase “born again,” I want you to add “and born from above as a beloved child of God by the power of God’s Spirit.” To see the kingdom of God we must be born of water and the Spirit—born again and born from above.
We are like Nicodemus in that becoming disciples is a process. It’s often a process that moves in fits and starts. Sometimes we grow rapidly in our faith. Sometimes we move steadily but slowly. Sometimes we may feel like we’re just marching in place or even taking a step backwards. While our experience of being born from above and being born anew can take place in an instant, growing in discipleship is a process that will occupy us for a lifetime.
When the gospel writer leaves Nicodemus to focus on the rest of Jesus’ teaching, we don’t know what his response to all that he’s heard is or will be. Many scholars simply say that he left without believing. But, maybe that first conversation with Jesus simply left him with more questions than answers. Maybe he stopped talking to Jesus because he was more interested in listening to Jesus.
We don’t know what was in his heart when their encounter was over, but maybe the seeds of discipleship were planted in Nicodemus that day. When Jesus visited Jerusalem later on, and some of the Pharisees and chief priests were unhappy that he had not been arrested, as they had ordered. It was Nicodemus, that Pharisee and leader of the Jews, who reigned them in. His words to them weren’t an out-and-out confession of faith, but Nicodemus took a risky step for Jesus that earned him some criticism from his peers.
Maybe those seeds continued to grow until the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. It was Nicodemus who brought an enormous quantity of myrrh and aloes with which to prepare Jesus’ body. He joined another disciple and, together, they wrapped Jesus’ body with the spices in linen cloths. Together, they laid Jesus in a tomb. Perhaps his actions that day said what his words had not—that he had come to believe in the man whom he had first visited at night, and whom he now saw was the Light that had come into the world.
While many scholars cast Nicodemus as a bad guy, this encounter reminds us that what “everyone” thinks is never the whole story. Instead of being the Pharisee in the black hat, Nicodemus gives us a lot to think about during this Lenten season. He reminds us that our faith in Jesus may begin in times of darkness, and we may have questions and doubts even after we come to know him. We learn along with Nicodemus that Jesus invites us into two forms of rebirth that allow us to see the kingdom of God—being born again into a new way of living, and being born from above as God’s beloved children. And, Nicodemus shows us that faith in Jesus may take time to develop, and that discipleship is a life-long endeavor. Thank God for this encounter with Nicodemus, whose faith story may mirror ours: a man who came to Jesus in the darkness, who had a lot of questions with answers he didn’t really understand and who, like us, came to love Jesus. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young