Nicodemus: A Very Interesting Character
Who remembered that the most famous verse in all the Bible was part of this curious little story about Nicodemus? That’s a rhetorical question. I didn’t remember either.
Nicodemus is an interesting character. John tells us that he is a Pharisee, so a member of the religious elite; but more than that, he is a member of the ruling council, so he is a leader, a recognizable man with authority and power, and also a very observant follower of his faith.
We find Nicodemus only in the Gospel of John; and we see him only three times. The first time is when he seeks Jesus out and he begins so strongly with a bold statement, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do the things you do apart from God.” Nicodemus is referring to Jesus changing water into wine at the Wedding Feast in Cana and clearing out the temple with a whip in his hand.
Nicodemus has heard of or seen some of these miraculous signs. And he has come by night to visit with Jesus. John is very specific about the time of day. It is night.
There is so much detail that is left out of many Biblical stories that we wish was included, that when a unique detail like this is left in, there is a reason for it. What does this particular detail tell us?
Nicodemus might be traveling at night to avoid being seen. He might be trying to guard his reputation since he is a highly respected teacher in his own right, that Jesus should probably himself be coming to him – Nicodemus – for advice.
Also, Jesus has caused quite a stir in Jerusalem, especially with that whip business, so it is possible Nicodemus did not want to be seen associating with him. In those days the temple culture was Big Business and Jesus threw a monkey wrench in the celebrations. So Nicodemus kind of sneaks out to see Jesus under the dark of night.
Another option is that the rabbis of Jesus’s day taught that the Torah was best studied and understood at night when it was quiet and the distractions of the day had subsided.
So Nicodemus has come to Jesus and stated that he knows that Jesus is a teacher who has come from God – and the signs that Jesus performs are proof of this. Nicodemus is looking for new teaching from a new teacher. But Jesus answers him in a way he didn’t expect. Jesus answers, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above or again.”
There has been quite a lot of ink spilt about what that really means; but I think it is easiest to think of it as something out of the ordinary, something other-worldly, which Nicodemus makes clear in his question, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus let’s it be known that this “being born again, from above” is not something that we accomplish – it’s miraculous, it is out of our control. Jesus tells him, in essence, that what is needed is transformation, and not a transformation Nicodemus can achieve on his own. He must be born again, made new.
The problem with Nicodemus is that he already had a pretty settled sense of himself. He’s a Pharisee, an upright one, a leader of his people. He knows where he belongs and what he is supposed to do.
But are we really any different than Nicodemus? He’s got his life together, and sometimes we think we do too. And yet we come, as Nicodemus did, to Jesus, even this morning, for more, for something better, for answers to our questions, for truth – and what we hear from Jesus is, you don’t need to act better, or do better, or be nicer, or stop screwing up: WE need transformation, a new life, and you can’t do it by yourself.
A new life doesn’t always look perfect.
New life looks like recovering alcoholics.
New life looks like reconciliation between family members who don’t actually deserve it.
New life looks like every time I manage to humble myself and admit I was wrong and every time I manage not to mention when I’m right.
New life looks like every fresh start and every act of forgiveness and every moment of letting go of what we thought we couldn’t live without and then somehow living without it anyway.
New life is the thing we never saw coming – never even hoped for – but ends up being exactly what we needed all along.”
The transformation comes from something really very simple. Jesus sums all this up with the verse that we all like the best, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
There is a quote by Karl Barth, who is arguably one of the most famous modern theologians and the author of Church Dogmatics, whose volumes could take up an entire library shelf, which not a lot of people have completely read. His most famous quote is that he was once asked if he could sum up his entire life’s work in theology and he said: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
And it seems that Jesus gives us something like that to hold onto with these two verses: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Perhaps, like Nicodemus, we don’t entirely understand what’s all involved with being born from above or born again. But we understand love.
So, back to Nicodemus, the man who started this whole thing. He slips out of view and we wonder, did he get it? Did he understand in the end? This is what we know of Nicodemus – he shows up again in the seventh chapter of John’s gospel, when the Pharisees want to seize Jesus, Nicodemus challenges the Pharisees asking them, “Does our law condemn anyone without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?” And the Pharisees dismiss his argument and ridicule him.
We see him one last time, after Jesus has died and his body is taken down off the cross, Nicodemus comes with seventy five pounds of burial spices and wraps his body for burial. And he holds and touches Jesus and cares for him with love like a loving family member would do. He took a Man that his own people had captured, beaten, crucified and condemned, and loved him, so perhaps we could say Nicodemus got the message of Jesus after all. That’s transformation. A questioning man became a man of action and a man of love.
May the same be said of us. May people see how we have been born again by the way in which we love one another.
Lent Spirituality The Episcopal Church Clergy Homily Lent Rector's Lent & Holy Week Series The Rev. Charles C. McCoart Jr.
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The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog
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