Schooling Nicodemus (or) “Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow”

The following post appeared Sunday, March 14th on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.

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In the film Men in Black, Jay discovers that aliens exist and many of them live on Manhattan Island. When he confronts Kay about this unnerving new detail, of which he (Jay) was previously unaware, Kay deadpans: “A thousand years ago everybody knew, as a fact, that the earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on it. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”

The season of Lent invites us to examine what we know, or, put more precisely, what we think we know. When we tackle this examination, we open ourselves up to encounters with Christ, which tend to augment, rearrange, and expand our knowledge with the addition of deeper faith. The Gospel contains myriad stories of Jesus blasting people with new knowledge,  so we should expect nothing different in our own lives. One such story co-stars the Pharisee Nicodemus (read up on John 3 before you continue).

As a general rule, if someone in the Gospel besides Jesus says “I know” or “we know,” then that person either knows a small fraction of the whole or, more commonly, nothing at all. Strangely enough, knowing nothing at all can even manifest itself when the statement made is quite true and correct. Such is the case with this leader of the Jews, who comes to see Jesus one night.

Nicodemus uses his “knowledge” displayed at the beginning of the conversation as a weapon to corner Jesus into a particular set of expectations. The Pharisee says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Apparently, so far so good. This statement is true: Jesus has come from God and most definitely stands forever in the presence of God. But there’s irony in the statement, also. Nicodemus calls Jesus “teacher” twice — once in Hebrew (Rabbi) and once in Greek (didaskalos, from which comes the word “didactic”). But at the same time, Nicodemus’s conversational opener allows no room for Jesus to teach. Instead, Nicodemus is the one attempting to teach Jesus, to pigeonhole him into what Nicodemus and his colleagues have labeled him.

But Jesus refuses to be put on the defensive. In usual fashion, he completely ignores Nicodemus’s opening salvo and immediately expands the conversation to a depth and height that Nicodemus is not expecting. Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above/again.” There’s a delightful ambiguity here: in Greek, “from above” and “again” are the same word (anothen). They both work in the context, and Jesus probably means both when he says the word. How better to jostle someone loose from his rigidity than with a small helping of ambiguity?

But Nicodemus grasps at the more mundane of the two meanings and responds: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” This may seem like a sarcastic response, but at least this Pharisee, who has always been the one answering questions, is now (albeit haltingly) beginning to ask some of his own. But Jesus doesn’t seem interested in staying on the terrestrial plane, so he ignores Nicodemus questions and pushes him to a new level of understanding. “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” At this point, I imagine Nicodemus’s brain starts hurting.

But Jesus keeps pushing him. Nicodemus’s opening “we know” now sounds empty in comparison to the mysteries Jesus is revealing to him. To begin to absorb these mysteries, Nicodemus must turn this empty “we know” into an “I don’t know” full of desire and curiosity. With his next words, Jesus gives Nicodemus license to let go of what he thinks he knows: “The wind/Spirit blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” (Here’s another delightful ambiguity—in Greek, “wind” and “spirit” are the same word, pneuma.) Nicodemus must now consent to trusting in things he can never quite figure out. Indeed, he must realize that the truest things that have ever been or ever will be can be believed without being adequately explained. In a word, Jesus asks Nicodemus to have faith that the words he speaks are true, no matter how difficult, preposterous, or confusing they may sound.

And Nicodemus takes a tentative step into the shallows of faith in Jesus. He asks one of the sincerest questions in the Gospel: “How can these things be?” With this question, Nicodemus allows the cognitive dissonance that has been cresting to break on him like a wave. This dissonance is the necessary distress that happens when he realizes he doesn’t know something he thought he knew. But dissonance isn’t a bad thing. In music, dissonance is the interesting part, the part that pushes the piece onward. A pleasing harmony (called “consonance”) can hang in the air indefinitely, but a dissonance begs to move forward to the next consonant chord.

So it is with Nicodemus and anyone who opens up himself or herself to the possibility of the unknown. Allowing the cognitive dissonance to enter our comfortable worldviews pushes us to grow into the next consonant chords in our lives. When Jesus confronts us, like Nicodemus, with the mysteries of the faith, we can either step backward into the comfort of what we think we know or step forward, fully expecting the boundaries of possibility to be far wider than we can perceive. This confrontation goes by another name: revelation.

Every encounter with Jesus, whether in the text or in life, promises an opportunity for revelation, which obeys no boundaries of possibility. Revelation is that thing you know, but don’t know how you know it. Revelation is visceral as well as mental because the brain alone is ill-equipped to handle it. Revelation infuses us with an odd mixture of peace and exhilaration—peace because we know God is there, exhilaration because we know God is calling us to serve. Cognitive dissonance is the birthplace of such revelation. The dissonance reminds us that what we know is far less than the whole. When we can acknowledge that we don’t, in fact, know where the wind comes from or where it goes, we are primed for receiving the revelation of God’s love that Jesus is forever revealing to the world. This is a scary proposition, for if we do, indeed, remain attentive we might actually hear God calling us to serve in a way that doesn’t fit our plans.

But revelation bursts our ability and our desire to control because it blows where it chooses on the wind of the Spirit. When Nicodemus says to Jesus, “We know,” he is seeking to control the conversation that will follow. But he immediately discovers he’s in over his head. When we acknowledge that Jesus has things to reveal to us that we couldn’t possibly imagine, we discover we’re also in over our heads. The trick is to learn to breathe in the wind of the Spirit while underwater (to grow gills and fins) and to find a new natural state submerged in the revelatory love of Christ.

When Nicodemus says to Jesus, “How can these things be,” he allows the possibility for revelation to strike him in his head and in his gut. His cognitive dissonance jettisons his need to control. He is open for Jesus to reveal new and wonderful things to him. And Jesus does — things about the Son of Man ascending to and descending from heaven, things about the Son of Man being lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, things about eternal life and self-giving love and believing and salvation.

I imagine Nicodemus left his encounter with Jesus in a daze, his heart and mind on overload attempting to process all he had seen and heard. Is he able fully to put his trust in Jesus, to allow the dissonance to resolve into a new and deeper consonance? Not quite yet. But we are lucky enough to meet Nicodemus twice more in the Gospel (check them out! John 7 & John 19). His journey towards the consonance of a life of faith following Jesus models for us our Lenten journeys of self-examination. If we open ourselves up to encounters with Christ during this season of Lent, then (as Kay says), “Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”

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