Anglican Church of Canada
Lent 2 March 12, 2017
Poor Nicodemus – as we overhear this conversation he has with Jesus, it is pretty clear he doesn’t have the slightest idea what Jesus is talking about.
I can’t say I blame him much. I don’t know what it was like for you listening to this familiar passage, but reading it this week, I found it difficult to catch ahold of anything. Just when you think you are beginning to home in on an idea, he slips away onto something else. Pity Nicodemus. He is a respected rabbi, a teacher of Israel, come for a serious conversation. And Jesus just seems to be messing with him.
First he talks of being born again, or born anew, or born from above (apparently the Greek isn’t even clear on exactly what he is saying). And I suspect that a pious Pharisee probably isn’t that comfortable talking about childbirth (that’s women’s stuff), nor will the learned teacher be happy to be told he needs to become like a newborn child.
And just as he begins trying to get his mind around this, Jesus is on about the wind blowing where it wants to; then there is something about the Son of Man being lifted up like a brass snake in the wilderness; then there’s the famous “God so loved the world” passage (that at least sounds like it might make sense); then there’s a whole lot about light and darkness and people loving darkness more than light.
To top it off, when Nicodemus shows some confusion, Jesus lays on the irony: “What, you’re a teacher of Israel, and you don’t understand these things.” Jesus is definitely messing with Nicodemus’ head!
Nicodemus came to see Jesus in the night, secretly, so he wouldn’t be seen by others. It seems he never lived that down. He is mentioned twice more in the Gospel of John – once when he stands up and tries to defend Jesus in front of the Sanhedrin, and once again at the end – and he is referred to again as “the one who came to see Jesus by night”.
Nicodemus is a member of the religious establishment, a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin, the religious council. He sympathizes with Jesus, but he doesn’t dare confess it publicly. No wonder: in the later passage, when he ventures a mild defence of Jesus in front of the Sanhedrin, the bullies chime in immediately “What, are you from Galilee too?”
So he keeps his respect for Jesus a secret. He is, one might say, in the closet. Or, to use the language that Jesus picks up at the end of this passage, he is in the dark. He is the one who comes in the night. He comes in the night because he is afraid of the light: just like someone who does evil, he hates the light and does not come to the light, so that his deeds might not be exposed. This religious leader, this man who has the integrity and wisdom to recognize the works of God when he sees them, comes slinking in like a thief in the night. He is ashamed of what he already believes. He has not yet dared to come out into the light, to be the person he knows he is being called to be – a disciple of Jesus – in the clear light of day. Or, to mix the metaphors up (as Jesus mixes them): he has not yet been born anew into his true identity.
Some people are quick to condemn Nicodemus as a hypocrite and a coward. Others tend to excuse him. More important than either of those, perhaps, is to recognize that there may be a bit of Nicodemus in all of us. We come to Jesus, not like a thief in the night, but on Sunday mornings, in the broad light of day, and doubtlessly often in the privacy of our own homes. But their may be other areas of our life, other company we keep, where we might prefer that our faith remain a secret.
I know, for example, other priests who make a point of wearing their clergy collar whenever they are in public, on the theory that a priest is always on duty. I admire their sense of calling, but I have no desire to emulate it.
If I walk into Canadian Tire to pick up some motor oil and a new garden rake, I would prefer that the staff interact with me as just another customer, not as some religious figure.
Perhaps it is similar with you – there are places and people with whom you would rather not wear your faith on your sleeve. In part that is no doubt appropriate, even commendable: we don’t want to play holier than thou with our neighbours, and we don’t want to rub Jesus in people’s faces, like some others we might mention!
But might I suggest that we shouldn’t be too comfortable, too complacent, with too neatly dividing our lives into a believing half and a neutral half. There are at least a few questions we need to keep asking ourselves:
• Is it possible that we may sometimes hide our Christian identity because we are a bit embarrassed or ashamed, because we think it will meet with incomprehension, and that is uncomfortable?
• Are we really holding back out of respect for others, or out of our own discomfort?
• Do we possibly behave a bit differently in places where we are not known as Christians, as though we were “off-duty”? How healthy is that?
• Are we really doing others a favour by hiding our faith, or are we depriving them of encouragement, a positive example, maybe even of the Christian ministry they need from us?
• And, at least as importantly, what does that do to us, living our lives in part openly and freely as Christians, but in part in a kind of secret and somewhat shame-faced denial?
It suggests that we are not quite at one with ourselves, not quite who we are meant to be, not quite who we want to be. We are still half in the shadows. We are not quite finished, not yet fully born in the Spirit.
We don’t really know if Nicodemus ever did finally come out of the shadows. There is a hopeful hint at the end of John’s gospel: with Jesus’s death, he began to show his colours: joining with Joseph of Aramathea in preparing Jesus’s body for burial. It’s a shame it took him so long to finally break free, to finally be born to his true identity as a follower of Jesus. But, you know – a birth cannot be rushed. A child comes when it is time for it to come. The Spirit blows where it wills; in the Spirit’s own time.
I suppose we have probably all heard the question at some time in our life from a fellow Christian: “Have you been born again?” There is scarcely a question that makes Anglicans more uncomfortable.
What is galling about the question is the implication that it is all about our decision: “hurry up, get born again already.” Birth doesn’t work that way: whether our physical birth as infants, or our birth in the Spirit, it’s not something you just do. Nor is it something the mother just does, one must hasten to add. It comes when it comes. In the fullness of time, if you like.
The correct Anglican response to the question “Have you been born again?” is of course, “Yes, I was born again of water and the Spirit in my baptism.” But most of us, I suspect, might find this a bit hard to trot out. And I think with good reason. Because while it is theologically true, it is only half the truth.
What we could say – if we felt we could trust the person asking not to judge us – might be something more like:
“You know, there are days when I can say yes to that, when I feel myself whole and at peace and in the light with my faith. And then there are other days I feel more like Nicodemus: still halfway in the shadows, still not fully born into the person I am supposed to be, still divided in myself. But I believe that I am a work in progress, that God is not finished with me yet.”
How about that as a way of thinking of our lives: between our first birth that brought us into this world, and that final birth that will bring us through that dark passage into the next world, where we will finally see the face of God, the Christian life is a constant daily being born of the Spirit, being born as the people we are meant to be. We are being daily called out of the darkness into the light of our identity in Christ.
It doesn’t happen overnight. It is a hard and long labour. And God is patient, with the patience of a mother, waiting for us to be born. Because God is patient, we can be patient with ourselves. Not complacent, not smug and at ease with our failings; but restless, hopeful, gracious. Having faith in God, and sharing God’s faith in us that we will, in the fullness of time, be born into the people we are meant to be. Day by day, inch by inch, we are being nudged out of the shadows, into the glorious light of the children of God.