The Faith of Nicodemus – John 3.1-17

March 16, 2014 – 2nd Sunday in Lent

As Mark said last Sunday, we are preaching from the gospels during the season of Lent. Beginning this Sunday we will hear stories from John’s gospel. This morning’s story is of Nicodemus who goes to visit Jesus at night. Next week we hear the story of the Samaritan woman who talks with Jesus beside a well. The following week is the story of the man who was born blind and who is given sight by Jesus. The week after that we hear the story of Lazarus who Jesus calls back to life after he has been dead.

In each of these stories there is a progressing plot line of belief and trust in Jesus. It starts hesitantly and ambiguously with Nicodemus and it ends with a full-throated confession by Lazarus’ sister, Martha, who names Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world from God. (11.27)

Today we begin with Nicodemus. “Nicodemus is a respected, educated theologian, well schooled in religious matters.”[1] He and his theological colleagues have been talking about this new rabbi in town. “We know you are a teacher who has come from God” he says. It sounds like they’ve been talking in the lunch room about Jesus–some of Nicodemus’ colleagues are probably skeptical and dismissive; some curious; some puzzled. I read this story about Nicodemus as about a person who is seeking. Intrigued. Curious. Wondering. Maybe in hearing about Jesus–or maybe he’s heard him speak in person–Nicodemus felt his heart strangely warmed (to use that phrase from John Wesley) but he didn’t know what to do about it or what it might mean.

So he goes to talk to Jesus himself. But not out in the open for fear of what others would think. He goes at night.

The writer of John’s gospel loves to use words that have multiple meanings–words that we can hear in different ways. Words that are confusing to the people in the story and to us because in English we only hear one meaning so it makes it a little harder for us to understand what’s going on.

“No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” Jesus says. That phrase “born from above” also means “born anew” and it means “born again.” It means all of that in the one Greek word anōthen. Born again, born anew, born from above. Only when you hear the biblical reading and the translator choose “born anew” as the NRSV does, you think that’s the real meaning of the word. In the NIV translation, which I used in college, the translators chose “born again” which makes you think that’s the real meaning of the word. If you were a Greek speaker and heard Jesus say “You must be born anōthen” you would hear the multiplicity of meanings at the same time. English doesn’t allow that so we need to hold all three meanings at the same time. Imagine holding three good sized oranges in one hand–trying to keep them all in your hand without any one falling out. That’s what we’ve got to do when we hear this story. Jesus tells Nicodemus to see the realm of God–to know the time of God’s reign–one must be born again, born anew, born from above.

Nicodemus latches on to the physical impossibility of being born again. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” It doesn’t make any sense to him.

Jesus only makes it more confusing. “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” Which doesn’t really clear up anything for Nicodemus. Water could still be about physical birth–the breaking waters being a sign of a birth about to happen. Today, we might hear back into Jesus’s words aspects of baptism: water and the Spirit.

Finally, Nicodemus simply says, “How can these things be?” Which sounds like another way of saying, “I have no idea what in the world you are talking about.”

To which, Jesus gently chides Nicodemus. “You are a teacher of Israel–a scholar, a dedicated student of the scripture–and yet you do not understand these things?” Jesus seems to be saying, “Can’t you see beyond yourself and beyond what is immediately in front of you? Don’t look for the physical signs. Look for the Spirit. Listen for the wind. You know so much but you don’t really know.”

Nicodemus was hoping—I suspect—to have some insight to take back to theology on tap after work the next day and, instead, ends up having no idea what Jesus is talking about.

And then Nicodemus disappears from the story and Jesus turns his gaze to us. He draws on a story from Hebrew scripture where Moses and the Hebrew people are in the wilderness and poisonous serpents were biting and killing them. God told Moses to make an image of a serpent, elevate it on a pole and when someone was bitten, they would look at the elevated serpents and they would live. Only now, Jesus transfigures the story to be about himself. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”

In the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, “Son of Man” (or we could say “the Human One”) is a title associated with Jesus’ suffering and death, and future coming. But in John’s Gospel, “the Son of Man[–the Human One–] is the one who bridges the distance between heaven and earth.”[2] The Human One goes between heaven and earth and connects the two. Like a thin place, as the Celts talk about. A place where the veil between heaven and earth is pulled back and you see what is real—only it’s not a place but a person—Jesus.

In John’s gospel, remember Jesus doesn’t start on earth and then ascend to heaven. Jesus starts in heaven and descends to earth. Think back to the first chapter of John–the passage that is read on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day–In the beginning was the Word and the Word became flesh and lived among us. Or as Eugene Peterson says it in The Message, “The Word became flesh and came to live in the neighborhood.” The Word, the Light, the Truth, the Human One, has come from God to make God known to the world.

So the Human One must be lifted up “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that God gave the only Begotten Son, so that everyone who believes may not die, but have eternal life.”

And now we’re at another word in John that has double meaning that we lose because we’re not Greek speakers. That word we translate “believe” also means “entrust” or “trust.” We have grown used to hearing “whosoever believes” will have eternal life but it is also “whosoever trusts” will have eternal life. Trusting and believing. They present as different actions in English but in the words of Jesus in John’s Gospel they are parts of the same whole.

And contrary to popular culture, “eternal life” in John’s gospel does not mean some idyllic life in heaven after we die. What this gospel means by eternal life is the change that happens because of faith in Jesus. “To have eternal life is to be given life as a child of God” which is what God gives to all of us. It is life “lived in the unending presence of God”[3] which is a present reality. We can live in the unending presence of God now–and that is eternal life. Now.

We don’t know from this story what Nicodemus took back to work the next day. We don’t know if he told his colleagues about his confusing conversation with Jesus. We don’t know if he continued to seek Jesus out. But later on in the gospel, when some of the religious leaders want to have Jesus arrested, Nicodemus spoke up, “Our Law doesn’t judge someone without first hearing him, does it?” (7.51) At the very least, Jesus deserves a fair trial, Nicodemus says. The only other place Nicodemus shows up in this gospel is after Jesus has been killed. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea take the broken body of Jesus off the cross and reverently and lovingly prepare it for burial. (19.39)

That’s not a lot to build a case on but it does make me wonder about what Nicodemus was seeking and the ways the life and ministry of Jesus continued to work on him—and in him.

And it makes me wonder about the ways that God meets us in Jesus–the one in whom God is made known to God’s people–made known to us.

This season of Lent that we are in–is a season of the Christian year that invites us to do things–to give up, to take on, to pray, to give our money, to abstain from whatever it is that we use to fill our deepest longings–longings that can only be filled by God. Lent is a season for looking honestly at our lives and our life with God. It can seem like a season of heavy lifting on our part.

But it’s not all about our efforts. Before us, with us and after us, God so loved the world as to give the Only Begotten One–to make God’s self known to us–so that we might have eternal life–so that we might have life with God as God’s beloved children. Not in some galaxy far, far away, but now.

That we might live our lives “reshaped and redefined by the love of God in Jesus.”[4] Not because we’ve got it all figured out or know all the answers or don’t have any questions or don’t have any doubts. But because God first loves us–loves the world–so much.

A love that brings life and power, brings peace and love to us and to the world.

* * *

[1] Frances Taylor Gench, Encounter with Jesus (Studies in the Gospel of John), Louisville: Westminster John Knox press, 2007, p25.
[2] Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” New Interpreters Bible, vol. IX, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 532.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., p555.

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