Welcome to the Gospel of John.
Sometimes I wonder if I talk too much about which text is what and when and why.
But the jump from Matthew’s Gospel to John’s is a significant shift – they’re very different texts.
And I feel like if our lectionary, our calendar of Sunday readings, is going to suddenly set us down in totally different territory, it’s at least my responsibility to give you a compass and a map.
We often hear a lot from John’s Gospel in Lent; this year we’ll have lessons from John for the rest of March. Lessons that will show us a couple of the hallmarks of John’s Gospel.
One such hallmark is a complex mix of mystery, puns and misunderstandings; we’ll see that in today’s story.
Another hallmark of John’s Gospel is the presence of many extended scenes involving Jesus and another person – or several people – in conversation. We’ll hear four of those, this month!
These are texts that invite dwelling with who Jesus was and what he meant to those he met… how he changed hearts and lives. And we start with Nicodemus.
Nicodemus was there at the beginning.
Jesus had just broken on the scene, begun to make headlines in the Jerusalem Times. In the Gospel according to Matthew and Mark and Luke, Jesus goes to Jerusalem exactly once, and dies there. But in John’s Gospel he goes to the Great City again and again, and riles up the crowds more and more each time.
John’s story of the Word that became flesh, the Light that shines in the darkness, begins with Jesus named by the Baptizer, calling his first disciples, going to a wedding and changing water into wine.
And then he visits Jerusalem for the festival of Passover – and causes a ruckus by driving the vendors and money-changers out of the Temple court. And that night, he has a visitor.
Nicodemus is a Pharisee. That means he was a member of a movement within Judaism at that time, that encouraged renewed faithfulness to the religious practices of the Torah, and resisted assimilation to the ways of the modern cosmopolitan world.
Politically, the Pharisees tended to side with the people, rather than with the Jewish elites or the Roman conquerors.
Jesus had a lot in common with the Pharisees. That’s why they argued with each other so much.
Nicodemus is also a leader of the Jews – a member of the Sanhedrin, the Council of religious leaders who made all final decisions on matters of religious law.
In the time of Jesus, their power was at its peak, as they legislated all aspects of Jewish religious and political life, apart from those held by the puppet king Herod and his Roman rulers.
Nicodemus was a man of paradoxes.
Wealthy and elite, but concerned with the welfare of his people.
A guardian of Jewish law, but a seeker too, open to the possibility that God is doing a new thing.
The stories of this Jesus catch his attention, and he goes to see him. But making contact with this rabble-rouser could damage his reputation, so he goes by night, under cover of darkness.
Nicodemus is in the dark, both literally and metaphorically. Perplexed, confused, and profoundly curious.He calls Jesus Rabbi, Teacher, granting him authority from his first words.
He tells him, “We know that you are a teacher who comes from God.”
Who’s the “we” here? Who else does Nicodemus speak for? Perhaps he has Pharisee friends who share his interest in this prophet from Galilee – who were sympathetic to Jesus’ stunt at the Temple that day.
So Nicodemus begins with affirmation, with flattery, even. What does he think will happen next? Talk of a strategic alliance? A friendly theological discussion over a cup of wine?
He gets a theological discussion, all right, but it leaves his head spinning.
Jesus says, “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.” That Greek word, Anothen, can mean “from above” or “again.”
Two thousand years of Christianity have accustomed us to the language of rebirth, but it’s brand new to poor Nicodemus. He asks, “What’s that supposed to mean? Am I supposed to crawl back into my mother’s belly?”
Jesus corrects him gently enough: “I’m talking about another kind of birth, birth by water and the Spirit into the kingdom of God. Don’t be so astonished. The wind blows where it will, and you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going. That’s how it is, for those who have been born of the Spirit.”
In this, their first and, as far as we know, only conversation, Nicodemus begins with the confident words, “We know,” and Jesus immediately challenges Nicodemus to make the journey from knowledge to uncertainty.
Hear Nicodemus’ questions, perplexed and frustrated: What do you mean? How can this be? Asking for explanations he’ll never get. Because even those who have been born of water and the Spirit, those who say Yes to the mystery and undertake the work of the Kingdom – even they, even us, the most we can hope for is to feel the wind of the Spirit blow. We’ll never know where She comes from, or where She’s going.
I imagine Nicodemus thinking, “Thanks; I’ll stick to the certainties of the religion I already have. And all this business about the Son of Man, and the Son of God – are those supposed to be the same person, and does this strange Galilean think it’s HIM? Does he think he’s the Messiah? Does he think he’s GOD? His teaching is strange and fascinating – but he’s asking me to believe a lot, and I don’t understand at all.”
John’s Gospel doesn’t tell us how the conversation ends. Nicodemus probably slipped away as he came, quiet through the dark streets, full of confusion, wonder. What else? Anger? Hope? …
Nicodemus was there at the middle.
Jesus’s reputation has grown to the point of danger.
He comes to Jerusalem again, for the Festival of Booths.
He comes in secret, walking the streets among the festive crowds, hearing himself debated: “He is a good man!” “No, he’s deceiving us!”
Then he starts showing up at the Great Temple to preach. He speaks of being sent by God; he accuses the people and their leaders of superficial piety, and calls them to a deeper, truer righteousness.
He says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me!”
Rumors are flying around the city: “Isn’t that Jesus of Nazareth? Why aren’t the authorities arresting him? Maybe he really IS the Messiah after all!”
The Temple police stand around, abashed, uncertain. They’ve been given orders to seize Jesus, but they don’t.
When the chief priests of the Temple demand an explanation, they say, sheepishly, “We’ve never heard anyone preach like that before.”
The Temple leaders sneer – only the ignorant would take this strange country preacher seriously! – But Nicodemus gathers his courage and speaks up.
He says, (Ahem.) “Aren’t we being hasty in our judgment? The Law of our faith says that we shouldn’t judge anyone without first giving them a hearing, to find out what they are doing…”
But the other leaders turn on him: “What, are you from Galilee too? Search the Scriptures, Nicodemus – there is no prophecy of a holy leader from Galilee.”
Nicodemus does not have the courage to say more. To admit that he’s met Jesus – that he is drawn to him, almost in spite of himself. He is silenced – a silence that lasts for twelve chapters.
Is he there when the chief priests decide that Jesus must die?
Is he there when Annas and Caiaphas question and abuse Jesus, late one Thursday night?
Is he there when Pilate says, Isn’t this man your king? and the chief priests answer, We have no king but Caesar!…
Is he looking on at a distance as the man he wanted to believe in, the man he wanted to save, dies on the cross under the noonday sun?
We don’t know.
This we know, from John’s Gospel: when Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy man and a secret follower of Jesus, gets permission to give Jesus an honorable burial, rather than leaving his body for the vultures, Nicodemus is there. He brings aloe balm and myrrh, a fragrant resin, for embalming Jesus’ body – a hundred pounds, an absurdly large amount. Nicodemus and Joseph tend to Jesus’ body, anointing it and wrapping it, giving the prophet from Galilee the devotion they never dared show while he was alive. And they lay his body in a nearby tomb, until the Sabbath has passed and they can find him a permanent place of rest.
Nicodemus was there at the beginning, at the middle, at the end.
Hanging around the edges of the crowd, the edges of the story.
Artists have always imagined Nicodemus as an old man, bearded and gray, forehead furrowed with age and perplexity.
Today’s lectionary brings us another story of an old man called to something new, Abram, who will be named Abraham. Abram was 75 years old, and quite wealthy, when God invites him to pull up stakes and do something entirely new.
Most people, at that age and stage of life, would say, No, thanks, I’m good. Abram is different. He says Yes.
Nicodemus? Nicodemus… says, Maybe. Maybe.
Today’s lectionary brings us, too, the words of another man firmly rooted in Judaism: the apostle Paul. In this portion of the letter to the Romans, he recalls Abram’s journey into the unknown as he argues that the foundation of human relationship with God is not any fixed doctrine or practice, but rather faith – trust – in a God who surprises us by calling into existence the things that do not yet exist.
Nicodemus is no Abraham. He’s unwilling to give up his security and his station to journey into the unknown, trusting God alone.
Nicodemus is no Paul. He’s unwilling to give up his certainties, the familiarity of the faith he practices and protects, for the tangled path of unknowing.
Nicodemus is no hero. His loyalty, his love for Jesus is always tentative, limited. And yet… here he is, part of the story.
John’s Gospel treats him with compassion.
Christian tradition has named him as a saint.
A person whose walk with God can teach us something about our own.
Commentators have called Nicodemus the patron saint of seekers. The patron saint of the curious, the confused, the conflicted. The patron saint of those who wrestle with faith for years – for a lifetime.
We don’t know how Nicodemus’s story ends – though the fact that his name and voice are preserved in John’s Gospel suggest that he did, eventually, join the Jesus movement and share his story, his testimony, with the fellowship of believers.
Nicodemus had so many reasons to steer clear, but uncertain, unwilling, fearful as he was, the wind of the Spirit had caught in his sails just enough to change his course.
There are many icons and holy images of Nicodemus. At St. Dunstan’s, among our icons, we keep this copy of Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting of the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus.
I love the play of light and dark, the colors, the way the painter gestures to both the beauty and the obscurity of this moment.
That image is usually up above the baptismal font, among our other icons, but it’s down on our prayer table this week.
I invite you – sometime today – to pause and take a look. And, if you feel so moved, to light a candle for Nicodemus, the reluctant disciple, patron saint of the perplexed.