Sunday 12th March 2017, Lent 2, morning
by Revd Chris Palmer
I find Nicodemus a fascinating and compelling character. This is partly because we know so little about him, so it’s easy to conjure up romantic notions of what he was like. His story begs more questions than it answers. He appears only in St John’s Gospel, where he crops up three times. First in today’s Gospel reading. He is a Pharisees – that is a member of a self-appointed group of lay experts in the law, who prided themselves on careful observation of what the law required. But he was also a leader of the Jews. We don’t know whether this was some kind of official position or whether he simply commanded respect – though later in the Gospel we find him in the company of other Pharisees and of the chief priests; an unlikely alliance, and probably simply ad hoc meeting of influential people convened informally to talk through a problem.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. Probably he didn’t want others to know he was coming; this was a secret meeting. But indicators like ‘night’ are important for John – and he repeats this one towards the end of the Gospel: ‘Nicodemus, who had first come to Jesus by night…’. It matters to John that this meeting was clandestine, hidden, secret. We forget in our electricity reliant, light polluted society just how impossible it was ordinarily to do things by night. It took special effort and preparation; though it also provided the perfect cover for those who didn’t want to be seen.
Nicodemus is intrigued by Jesus, his curiosity has been piqued. He is full of questions. He doesn’t quite get Jesus’s answers about being born again. And clearly he doesn’t yet believe. Jesus says, ‘Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do no receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?’ Maybe the night also represents the time of not believing – that state of being in the dark.
And yet Nicodemus is interested. More than interested, he seems to be struggling to understand, eager to discover what Jesus is about. This is a wonderful stage of the journey of faith – and completely essential. No one ever comes to mature faith – as distinct from partisan allegiance – without going through this time of eager curiosity to know more about Jesus – wanting to meet him; desiring to understand; eager for his company; stretching heart and mind to embrace what Jesus is saying.
And I say this with some feeling. Because I’ve seen too many Christians in whom this basic eagerness to know more about Jesus is lacking. Where every suggestion of reading or study or prayer or meeting to learn more of Jesus is met with a weary kind of ‘O most I?’ or ‘I really haven’t got time for that’. But no relationship will flourish without an eager curiosity to know and understand the other person. But this eagerness to seek out Jesus, even if we want to hide this from friends – we want to come by night – is the starting point of faith.
And Jesus gives him a simple yet baffling image to talk about belonging to the realm of God. We must be born again. Just as our natural birth is the profound passage by which we become part of the human community, so a similarly profound journey is needed to become part of God’s community. Being born again gives us a wholly new identity. It gives us new parentage. To call God our Father – or our mother – is a direct challenge to our allegiance to our natural parents.
And this new birth is unpredictable. Jesus changes the image from birth to ‘spirit’ or ‘wind’. ‘The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ There are signs and sounds of God’s Spirit all around us in the world and in the lives of those touched by the Spirit, but nothing we can pin down or hold on to or encage. You can’t put the wind into a box; to feel the wind is to be exposed. And this is deeply frustrating, because we want to control God – we want to define what is of God, so that we can judge other people, and feel certain of ourselves. And instead, we are simply asked to stand in the breeze, sometimes the gale, of God’s spirit – to expose ourselves to his power and influence and disruption. This is another image for allowing our curiosity to lead us into the path of God.
Nicodemus appears twice more in John’s Gospel. The second time he speaks up for Jesus in that ad hoc meeting of meeting of influential people: ‘The law doesn’t judge someone without giving them a hearing…’ The other people in the meeting are suspicious that he’s part of Jesus’ company.
The last time we meet Nicodemus is when Jesus is buried. He joined with Joseph of Arimathea. He brings 100 pounds – weight – of myrrh and aloes – a colossal amount, fit for the burial of a king. The two of them bury Jesus in a brand new tomb. No one ever heard of given such a burial for a crucified criminal. The story never says that Nicodemus was actually a disciple, but his curiosity has turned into a dangerous love – a love that puts his reputation and wealth on the line in service of a convict condemned on a capital charge. It feels a rather more real version of discipleship, of commitment, or believing than standing up in church and reciting the creed – as we’re about to do in a few minutes.
The question I’m asking is whether we are willing to be on the same journey of faith that Nicodemus took. To hold an eager curiosity for Jesus and go out of our way to satisfy it; to stretch ourselves to understand his meaning; to ask questions; to risk the new life of being born of God; to put ourselves in the path of his disruptive uncontrollable wind-like spirit; to speak up for him in hostile company; to lavish our devotion on him, even when it seems that all is lost. To dare to love him, even though we don’t fully understand.
I find it somewhat frustrating that we don’t know more about Nicodemus. What happened to him next? Was he part of the early church? Did he stay in Jerusalem or travel the world? Why doesn’t he show up anywhere but in John’s Gospel? But these are a kind of academic curiosity – a way of keeping the story at arm’s length as an interesting fact about the past, offering tit-bits to the mind. The curiosity that Nicodemus displays – and that God calls us to – is one that grips our lives, and calls us to venture into paths that may change us fundamentally – that will lead us to unexpected advocacy, to unexpected places, to unexpected worship, to unexpected answers, to unexpected giving, to unexpected exposure to God. It is an adventure – and one we can enjoy today.