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Second Sunday in Lent, Year A
5 March 2023
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Here’s the thing: I have always had a soft spot for Nicodemus. Yes, he doesn’t get it and walks away, but I always took his inquiry to be sincere. He had no ulterior motive. In chapter 7, when pharisees and chief priest want Jesus arrested, he calls for due process, which gets him the accusation of being a sympathizer (John 7:45ff). And in John 19, after Jesus’ death, Nicodemus brings spices to embalm the body of Jesus. For me it is hard to make much of a distinction between the lack of a confession by Nicodemus and the denial of Peter. I see Nicodemus as someone who is drawn to Jesus but does not know how to extricate himself from his other commitments. In that, I think, Nicodemus and I are a lot alike. I would like my confession to be clear and my commitment to be unwavering, but I cannot claim that it always is.
Here’s something else. Someone recently asked me about a church their child attends. I didn’t know the church, so I looked it up. Young faces on the website, happy people. No denominational affiliation was named, which for me is a bit of a flag, because you somehow have to be part of an accountability structure. They have a section entitled Statement of Faith.
If we posted a statement of faith on our website, it would be the Apostles’ or the Nicene Creed. They are also called ecumenical creeds because they are universal and when we express our faith we don’t make it up but we join with people of all times and places, and that includes other Christians. After all, we are not the only ones. Not making things up is important. But this church wrote their own, and the first thing they talk about is “the Word of God,” which they then explain is the Bible. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is the Word of God, for “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” (John 1:1-3a) John confesses the second person of the Trinity, this church confesses a book.
This may sound like sophistry but it is not. The Bible is a wonderful witness and I could not imagine my life without the Bible, but it is not God. And so when people elevate the Bible to be an object of their faith they not only practice a kind of idolatry, but they also seek the certainty that something is this way and not that. But the only certainty we have is that of Jesus. That does not mean that we know nothing else, only that everything else we only know because of Jesus.
In our culture the passage about the encounter of Jesus and Nicodemus has taken on the smell of certainty, a gate through which you enter. If you can affirm what Nicodemus couldn’t affirm, you’re in. But if you’re with Nicodemus you’re out. And that’s probably another reason I like Nicodemus. I have a soft spot for people left in the cold, and if I understand the Gospel correctly, Jesus does too, even if John who wrote this Gospel may not.
I had a friend many years ago who had become a Christian in a fundamentalist church. When this church directed him to give his life to Jesus, he said a particular prayer, marked the date, and signed on the dotted line. Literally. He had never felt that close to God, or anybody for that matter. But over the next few days the euphoria wore off, and he thought he mustn’t have done it right, and so he crossed out the first date, entered that day’s date, and signed again. This repeated itself over a few weeks.
I think the reason he told the story was to say that when you are a follower of Jesus, you do not always live in a state of euphoria, and that while it is true that following Jesus requires commitment of us, we cannot put God in a box, which is why we don’t pray to the Bible but to God.
This opens a window for Nicodemus and others who are uncertain, or for people who are certain but are unsure of whether they are enough.
In Nicodemus’ case, he does not understand what Jesus says about being born again or from above, though he must have known it was a metaphor. Maybe he didn’t want to understand. If he didn’t want to understand, perhaps he had a hunch that it was more than he had come for.
You see, the experience of the community for which John wrote his gospel is one of excommunication. They have been excluded from the rest of the community because they are followers of Jesus. That’s not an easy burden and it still happens. This would have happened to Nicodemus.
Or perhaps Nicodemus does understand the metaphor of being born again, and he realizes that birth is not something the one to be birthed does. Birth happens to you. It is hard on you and hard on your mother but you are definitely not in control. That is hard for someone whose very life is about being in control.
Before Jesus goes on and speaks not only the perhaps most famous verse in the Bible (at least in North America), which leads right into stating the divine intent, that the world might be saved through him, he says this, “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.”
I have often wondered about this verse. It seems beautifully elusive. The wind comes and goes.
But it seems to me that what the image of wind and of birth have in common is that as we were not in control of our birth, so we are not in control of the wind. God then comes to us as a gift, not as something we can bring about or control, and the life in God may take on a shape we also cannot control.
In fact, the Holy Spirit may take us where we do not wish to go, as was the case with St Peter (John 21:18), or at least take us places where we do not expect to go, like becoming part of the community of the church with people who seem so unlike us, then this means that while the Holy Spirit is beyond our control, it is not elusive at all for it will shape us and shape the life of the community of the church.
Stanley Hauerwas often says that he prays that our life would be unintelligible if the God we worship in Jesus Christ did not exist. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. And that is not elusive, and I believe that that is what both drew Nicodemus to Jesus and that which scared him.