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United Church of Jaffrey
Good old Nicodemus!
As a Christian church, we are primarily interested in Jesus Christ, and, lucky for us, we have four gospels that offer us stories about Christ’s life.
The gospels were written almost two thousand years ago, long before anyone decided that a thing called “historical accuracy” was of any value. Each of the gospel writers – the folks that we have somewhat arbitrarily named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – had his own ax to grind – but none of them was really trying to write a biography of Jesus. That just wasn’t the project.
They weren’t recording historical data. They were chasing after hints about the nature God, and they thought that telling stories about Jesus Christ’s life would be a good way to do that.
I happen to agree with them.
When we follow Christ’s life through these gospels, we end up being a fly on the wall when he comes into contact with character’s who, for one reason or another, cause a kind of chemical reaction that proves revealing.
Nicodemus is just such a character.
I encounter this grumpy old so-and-so every year, and every year, I have to say, I am glad to see him.
He’s one of those characters who just keeps on giving.
No matter how many times I read this story about the old man’s midnight visit to Jesus, I can always find something interesting to think about.
And this week was no exception.
The first thing we are told about Nicodemus, is that he is a Pharisee and “leader of the Jews,”
Hard on the heels of this identification, we are told that he, Nicodemus “came to Jesus by night…”
The two pieces of information are clearly related. Plenty of ink has been spilled about it. Nicodemus, it is traditionally understood, didn’t want anyone to know he was going to see Jesus, because this young religious teacher and faith healer had been busily criss-crossing Galilee on an errand that seemed to call into question the very religious hierarchy that he, Nicodemus, directly benefited from.
That said, when he makes his first overture to Jesus, Nicodemus makes clear that he is willing to listen to what the young man has to say. The Pharisee addresses Jesus as “Rabbi” – which means “Teacher” —
“Rabbi, he says, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
Nicodemus’ words are not a question – they are a statement — an acknowledgement that Jesus “has come from God.” But if Nicodemus was using this gracious acknowledgment to lead up to the burning concern or question that led him to make this midnight visit, we will never know, because no sooner are these words spoken, then Jesus interjects with his own statement:
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
For you and I, who are familiar with this language of being “born again” in relation to religion – and, in particular, related to Christian expressions of salvation, Jesus’ words here do not seem all that odd.
But for one who’d never before heard the metaphor of birth used in a religious context, the notion is bound to be shocking.
Picture the actual physical act of a child being born. Today we do our best to contain it’s difficulty by making it a clean clinical experience, but we only succeed to a degree, and back in the 1st century A.D. when this story is told, it was a dangerous and frightening event in which the mother’s survival was by no means assured. Pain. Blood. Placenta. It is impossible to imagine being born happening “from above.” Taken literally, this idea is utter nonsense.
But this is precisely how Nicodemus responds.
He strikes me as a practical, somewhat unimaginative fellow. He seems constitutionally incapable of thinking metaphorically. He does not understand being “born from above” as a way of describing spiritual renewal. He envisions it literally – and so he is utterly flummoxed.
“How can anyone be born after having grown old? He asks. Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
They seem to be talking at or around each other. If we are going to learn something from this interaction – it may be in spite of their attempts to communicate with each other, because it is quite clear that Nicodemus can’t figure out what Jesus is trying to tell him. If his follow up question reveals anything, it is that he is utterly unfamiliar with Jesus Christ’s manner of teaching.
I suppose Jesus could have cleared everything up by simply telling Nicodemus that his teaching style makes liberal use of metaphor – but that would be too easy. Instead he simply piles the metaphors on thicker.
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. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 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.”
Poor old Nicodemus! None of this makes any sense to him.
At his point I picture him taking his head in his hands as he says:
“How can these things be?”
This is a profoundly religious moment.
The “How can these things be?” moment.
Looked at a certain way, this interaction between Nicodemus and Jesus, it can seem almost like Jesus is being rude and “talking at” the old man.
But it could be – and I make this suggestion this morning – it could be that Jesus was trying to get Nicodemus to this “How can these things be?” moment.
The “How can these things be?” moment is the moment when the dominion of the rational, everyday mind is broken.
The habits that control the way we think are shattered.
And this vulnerable moment, is the moment when profound change is possible.
I have not given birth to a child myself, but I have been present at three births.
Usually if I tell the story of the birth of one of my children, I tend to focus my attention on the child.
But if we turn our attention to the woman, we see that through this cataclysm of pain, she is broken, and is transformed.
She will never be the same.
Before this moment, she was a woman.
And now she is a mother.
How can these things be?
There was one heartbeat.
And now there are two.
There was one destiny.
And now there are two.
Birth is a metaphor for new life – not only for the child, but for the mother too. The mother has taken part in an act that shatters her understanding of the world, and brings her back to a new way of living. This new way of living, is a way that involves an “other” – the infant. Her top priority is no longer just herself. Now she must be aware of the well-being of a life that is not her own.
This awareness of “other” is at the core of the “How can these things be? moment.
We have lived with the habit of thinking only of ourselves.
Broken open, our rational minds step aside, and we are transformed into an awareness that there is something other than the self – something crucial that must be accounted for.
To live a full life.
To be healed.
To have integrity and strength of purpose.
We must be broken open to that presence that is both beyond us, and within us.
The presence of mystery.
The presence of love.
The presence of God.