The Gospel according to John is a story that moves in a fascinating way through a series of remarkable and profound encounters. It is also a gospel full of image and metaphor. Jesus is Word, Bread, Life, Living Water and Light.
After the prologue where the coming of Jesus is poetically and philosophically proclaimed to be the Word or Logos of God become flesh. After that the story moves through several vignettes or encounters between Jesus and others.
1) Jesus choosing his disciples,
2) the Wedding at Cana.
3) controversy with Jesus’ angry attack on the buyers and sellers in the Temple in Jerusalem.
4) Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus in today’s story,
5) a jealous debate among John the Baptist’s disciples about who should be baptizing,
6) the encounter Jesus had with the woman at the well in Samaria.
I’m confident that you are familiar with most of these stories or vignettes, but they take on a slightly new urgency or flavour when you read them one after the other.
Last week when I announced before the service that the Sunday school series was being billed as a series on Re-reading the Bible and that is where anyone with interest in membership discussions here at TUMC would be invited to begin (alongside the rest of Adult Christian Ed. – to rereading the Bible) Brad Lepp joked with me after the service that I made it sound like the requirement for membership was going to be Rereading the Bible - in its entirety and he was glad that wasn’t a requirement when he became a member)
I know that the thought of rereading the Bible in its entirety would certainly be a daunting task – occasionally reading an entire book or letter might not be a bad idea.
This week I read at least half of the Gospel of John at one sitting and I began to get a renewed sense of the movement of the story.
The images and metaphors that John was using started to pile up on top of each other, and it became easier to see the increasing struggle and the build up of the tension between Jesus and the Jewish authorities that the gospel writer of John portrays.
The encounter of Nicodemus with Jesus becomes only one such example of the many different ways that Jesus encounters people and one possible “access point” for the reader or listener – an access point or place to find yourself on your own faith journey.
Nicodemus came to Jesus at Night.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee.
I’m not sure what your image of a Pharisee is. We have many different sources for our views. The gospel writers often portray Pharisees in a negative light – quite vicious at times actually.
Biblical and historical scholars have tried for decades to help us to get at and understand the Pharisee of the Second Temple period – the time of Christ. And in one of the articles I read this week there was a comment that I appreciated from a Joseph Sievers, and one imagines he says this with a wry smile, ‘one "assured result" of the research on the Pharisees in the last three decades is that "we know considerably less about the Pharisees than an earlier generation 'knew’.
Be that as it may,
From all of the sources, I have studied and from this particular context I have distilled the following view of Nicodemus the Pharisee.
Nicodemus, as a Pharisee, loved the Torah, and believed that the Law and the prophets and the Oral tradition from the time of Moses were authoritative and normative for life. Knowing the Hebrew Scriptures, loving them, interpreting them and living them, for him, was the way to eternal life and a way into a relationship with the Living God. Believing in eternal life and resurrection, believing that the writings of the prophets and the oral tradition were carriers of the Word of God, made him, a Pharisee different than the Sadducees who believed that the only authoritative word of God was the Torah, or the five books of Moses – Genesis – through Deuteronomy. The Sadducees didn’t believe in an afterlife or the resurrection and believed that proper practice of worship and ritual depended more on the sacrificial cult of the temple than in the practical aspects of daily life. What Nicodemus believed as a Pharisee probably made him more like Jesus than it made him like a Sadducee.
Nicodemus, like Jesus would have taught and read scripture in the Synagogues. Nicodemus probably prayed from the Psalms. Nicodemus cared deeply about proper behaviour and conduct and ritual cleanliness and Nicodemus as a Pharisee would have had trouble, just like Jesus, with some of the things that the Sadducees were doing in the temple. So in the Gospel of John when Jesus went into the Temple and turned over the tables and upset the moneychangers, Nicodemus was intrigued. He went to see Jesus at Night and said, (according to the Message version of our Bible), “Rabbi, we all know you’re a teacher straight from God. No one could do all the God-pointing, God-revealing acts you do if God weren’t in on it.” This statement reveals to me that Nicodemus had a pre-existing relationship with God before he met Jesus, or he would not have been able to make such a statement, or recognize what he saw in Jesus as coming from God.
What follows between Jesus and Nicodemus, could be seen as a typical rabbinical discussion – question and answer and debate for sake of clarification, as the two of them wrestle with ideas about right belief and practice. It would be completely typical except that in this encounter and in this story, Nicodemus isn’t credited with too much intelligence and Jesus maintains the upper hand. I find myself wishing Nicodemus had been portrayed in a slightly more clever way. Be that as it may, they talk about what it means to be born again or born from above. Jesus talks about the creative movement of the Spirit – creative – just like at creation, he uses words for Spirit that were reminiscent of the Ruah (spirit/wind) that hovered over the deep and brought order out of chaos.
He talks about the importance of being born of water and Spirit – one might think of baptism. Jesus explicitly compares the Spirit of God to the wind – in either case, Spirit or wind; you don’t know where they come from or where they are going.
He chides Nicodemus, a teacher of Israel, for not understanding these things.
He reveals to Nicodemus that his, Jesus’ authority comes from what he has seen and heard. Authority is an important question for the Pharisees.
In referring to himself as the Son of Man who will be lifted up, Jesus compares himself to the symbol of the snake on the pole that Moses held up in the desert that gave hope and provided salvation to the children of Israel when they were suffering and dying from poisonous snakebites.
And the climax of the conversation is that the salvation that Jesus is witnessing to is the great and profound love God has for the whole world. That love, according to Jesus through the Gospel of John, is revealed in the gift of and belief in God’s son. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have eternal life.” And if this isn’t enough, it’s then that the conversation gets really personal.
Jesus is talking to a Pharisee for whom correct deeds are important and who has come to him in the dark and Jesus says that if a person’s deeds are true and are done in God then that person will come to the light.
What are we to make of this conversation?
The story as most good stories do – raises more questions than it answers.
What is this encounter with Jesus doing to Nicodemus and Nicodemus’ relationship with God?
That question we can’t answer – although a little later in the sermon I’ll mention the two other times that Nicodemus shows up in this Gospel.
The only question and answer we can begin to look at is what this story does to each of us and each of our relationships to God.
How we hear Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus is linked to where we are currently in our own faith journey, our own faith development and our own relationship to God.
If you’re like me than there are probably parts of this conversation with which you resonate and there are parts of this conversation you resist. Some of you may be very comfortable with traditional language of salvation that says with Jesus “you must be born again” and you find yourself wishing that this language would be used more in the church. For some of you traditional salvation language has lost its meaning. (Saved from what, for what, you might ask? That’s such a good question it would make a good preaching series – I’ll check it with the preaching team.) In this passage we also hear the oft’ used phrase “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him might have eternal life.” I memorized that verse as a child. I think that verse was always meant to give great comfort along with the following passage that says that God came not to condemn the world but to save it.
However for many that verse became mixed up with an overly simplistic view of how to become saved – All you have to do is say and mean it, “I believe in Jesus as my personal saviour” and then you are somehow magically saved and promised eternal life.” But what does it mean to believe and what does it mean to be saved and what does eternal life mean???? Right now I’m feeling a lot like I imagine Nicodemus felt, I am supposed to be a teacher of the Bible and yet I don’t know these things? Well, I do and I don’t and here I’d like to talk about a framework within which to place all of these questions.
In my reading and study of late, I’ve found a helpful paradigm for the many different ways at different times of our lives that we respond to the way a gospel story like this one might touch us. This paradigm espoused by Briege O’Hare, takes into account and yet simplifies much of the excellent work on faith development done by Loevinger, Fowler, Batson, Allport, Ferder, von Hugel and Rahner among others.
O’Hare points out that much of the discussion in faith development is about movement in beliefs and practice. O’Hare suggests that more foundational than where we are in beliefs and practice is where we are in relationship – with self, God and others.
And she also says that the word development is a bit misleading when it implies linear movement rather than cyclical movement. She espouses that we move in cyclical ways in and out of three phases in our relationship with God.
Phase 1 is certainty,
Phase 2 is searching and
Phase 3 is intimacy.
Let me repeat, Phase one is certainty where one often acquiesces to a clearly understood authority and a system of rules. Grey areas are not easily allowed in this phase.
Phase 2 is searching that can be triggered naturally as early as adolescence and young adulthood, but can also arise again during any life-crises and
Phase 3 is intimacy - a more settled peaceful assurance of the presence of God in one’s life.
None of these phases precludes a sudden in-breaking of God’s grace or an experience of God that can change everything all of a sudden.
Growth in relationship with God is movement towards greater intimacy. A relationship of genuine intimacy with God requires a growing capacity for deep, inclusive love and genuine self-transcendence. But in order to transcend the self – one needs to know whom the true self really is. This understanding of our true self is related to our self-image. It is in our growing relationships with others and with God that we begin to realize that we do not need to be “normal” or just like everyone else, or even what everyone else thinks we should be in order to be loved. Rather growth into our full potential in the image of God is growth into the mystery of who each of us is uniquely as we journey towards and find our home in the ultimate Mystery that is God.
In the searching phase, (and I think this is the place where Nicodemus is in this story), we have so many questions. These questions may make us feel separate from people who seem to have strong faith. We may be questioning beliefs and values that we have held dear for most of our lives. We may be finding it difficult to trust that God is really there for us, but at the same time we have a really strong need to be honest with ourselves, with others and with God about all these feelings and questions. In the searching phase, it is difficult to trust in the transforming power of God and in previously understood ways of salvation, and even in the efficacy of prayer. Let me assure you that all of the questions are not a sign of failure to trust and a sign that faith is weak, rather all of this movement and turmoil though sometimes painfully honest, is really an invitation to deeper engagement with God, with self and others so that deeper honesty, trust and intimacy can develop. And though O’Hare says that the searching phase, once begun can extend through a lifetime, characteristics of the intimacy phase can become increasingly present.
The intimacy phase includes enhanced awareness of self, others and God that allows for a greater acceptance of the mystery of who God is and who we are. In the intimacy phase we understand better what truly complex creatures we are and as we tolerate this in ourselves, the better able we are to tolerate this in others for we know that God’s profound love of us is deeper and greater than all of it. And if we can remain open to God’s love and allow it to soak into us, it can and will overflow from us to others.
The encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus is an example of this invitation to engagement even when there are questions.
I really appreciate that this is not the last we see of Nicodemus in this gospel. In John 7:50ff, Nicodemus reminds his fellow Pharisees that their law does not judge a man before giving him a fair hearing. Not only is he willing to continue to listen to Jesus, he wants others to listen to him as well. And finally in a brief but poignant moment in John 19:39 Nicodemus, who at first had come to Jesus at night (we’re not supposed to forget that part) now helps Joseph of Aramathea retrieve Jesus’ body from the cross and after anointing his body with myrrh and aloes wraps Jesus body in linen and places it in a new tomb. Nicodemus helps to bury Jesus’ body. What more intimate relationship could there be? Nicodemus does this deed in the light.