Sermon for Sunday, March 12, 2017 || Lent 2A || John 3:1-17; 7:45-52; 19:38-42
The Pharisee Nicodemus is not a member of the main cast of the Gospel according to John. In the parlance of television, he would be known as a recurring character. If each chapter of John’s Gospel were an episode of a TV series, it would fill one standard network season, and Nicodemus would guest star in episodes 3, 7, and 19. We meet him at the beginning, middle, and end of Jesus’ ministry, and each time we drop in on him, Nicodemus is somewhere new in his own journey towards an active faith in Christ.
The Gospel writer makes clear that the intention of the Gospel is to help the reader believe by telling the story of Jesus in a certain way. The writer uses Nicodemus’s three-part journey as a stand-in for our own, as we, too, journey towards more active faith in Christ. The world of Nicodemus and our own world share some striking similarities. Nicodemus lived in a world that had yet to be steeped in Christian tradition; people around him were either confused by the message of Jesus, hostile to it, or ignorant of it. Today’s world is similar; the Christian worldview no longer permeates Western culture, while confusion, hostility, and ignorance to the message of Jesus are in long supply. Today, we’re going to go on the journey of our guest star Nicodemus to see what his participation in the story of Jesus has to tell us about our own.
It is a journey that begins in the dark of night. Nicodemus is both curious and practical. He wants to see this disruptive teacher and take Jesus’ measure. But he doesn’t want his fellow council members knowing what he’s up to. They won’t understand. There is something magnetic about this itinerant preacher; this Jesus from the backwater of Nazareth speaks with both authority and kindness, a pair of qualities not usually associated one with the other. Nicodemus finds him and they have a chat. Our guest star begins from a position of strength: “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” We know.
Right away, Jesus understands what this man needs more than anything else. Nicodemus needs to discover that he does not, in fact, know. So Jesus starts the Pharisee on a new journey, guided by the wild wind of the Holy Spirit, a journey through the uncertainty of the life of faith, but always lived within the gift of God’s everlasting love. I’ve always assumed Nicodemus leaves that first encounter in a daze. Spiritual vertigo takes hold. His narrow worldview has suddenly expanded to include so much he never before thought possible. He is still the same Nicodemus he was when he arrived at Jesus’ door. He’s still a Pharisee, still a member of the ruling council. But a seed has been planted.
This story may sound familiar, especially to folks of my generation, which is the least religious generation of all time. But it doesn’t have to be. Despite the general movement of society away from the Christian worldview, a flickering candle of curiosity might burn inside you. You know it’s not the popular thing to do; your friends might shun you, tell you you’re going a bit daft. Your Google searches on Christianity don’t come up with anything compelling; if anything, such searches remind you why your friends object. But the curiosity persists: this is something you’ll have to experience yourself. So you go to a church service one Sunday; you sit in the back and keep your sunglasses on the whole time, lest someone recognize you. You don’t know whether you should go up for communion, but the candle flames brighter at the thought and so you do. You put out your hands and a mystery wrapped in bread and community is placed in your open palm. You’re used to being filled with the stuff of the world, but this mystery fills you in a different way. You’re still the same person; same friends, same job. But a seed has been planted.
Nicodemus returns in Chapter 7, and again his journey mirrors that of so many people today, myself included. Jesus has caused a stir at a festival in Jerusalem, and the temple police have come back empty handed, awestruck as they were by Jesus’ words. The Pharisees reply: “Surely you have not been deceived too, have you? Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him?” Our guest star is there, and he pipes up. Nicodemus doesn’t declare his seedling belief, but he does attempt to get his fellow Pharisees to follow their own rules, saying: “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” His colleagues do not take kindly for being called out in this way, and the scene ends without a second response from Nicodemus. But at least he spoke up. He tested the waters.
How many of us have been in this situation? Our colleagues or dining companions or extended family think faith in Jesus is antiquated or dangerous or, worst of all, quaint. How could people still believe that stuff? Aren’t Christians just crazy, homophobic, anti-science reactionaries? What was it that Karl Marx said about religion? You sit there clenching your fists and biting your lip. These are people you like and respect. But they don’t know about the seedling belief inside you, the one planted when you put out your hands at the communion rail. What would they say if you told them? You make an innocuous comment – not all Christians are like that, you say. After that you let it go. But at least you spoke up. You tested the waters.
Nicodemus returns again in Chapter 19, and now his journey becomes our inspiration rather than our mirror. The bloody spectacle has finished, and Jesus hangs dead on the cross. Joseph of Arimathea receives permission to bury Jesus’ body. And who should help him, now in the broad light of day, than none other than our guest star. Nicodemus brings an incredibly costly sum of materials and helps Joseph prepare the body. Jesus’ death does not stop him from stepping out from the crowd and claiming his spot as a servant of Christ. His action must have astonished his fellow Pharisees, who would have avoided ritual defilement that came from touching a dead body. His action must have cost him – his standing among his fellows, certainly; perhaps his position on the council. But Nicodemus had found something more important than anything else. The seedling now had roots growing deep and a trunk growing tall and branches growing wide and leaves soaking up the love of his dead savior and breathing the wild wind of the Holy Spirit back out into the world.
At the end of the Gospel, in the moment of decision, Nicodemus proclaims his new identity through his actions. He has been on a long journey from the first furtive nighttime visit through his tentative defense, finally to arrive at the foot of the cross, standing not with those who jeered but with those who wept. He is a servant of Christ, now a daylight member of the Jesus Movement. This guest star, this recurring character in the Gospel, this Pharisee Nicodemus is you and me and everyone who has ever felt the light of Christ, even as a flickering candle of curiosity. The life of faith rarely captures us in a single momentous, mountaintop experience. For most, our journey is like that of Nicodemus: cautious, tentative, measured. My prayer for myself and for each of you is to find inspiration in Nicodemus’s last appearance when, in the moment of decision, he declared himself, regardless of the consequence.
In a world where the Christian worldview no longer permeates Western culture, and confusion, hostility, and ignorance to the message of Jesus are in long supply, such a public declaration can be ever so difficult – even for people like me, who can’t easily hide it. This is why Nicodemus is my hero. He embodies my prayer for myself and for each of you – that we act as servants of Christ, not just in the dark of night, but in the broad light of day.