The theme for Lent this year is 5 Meetings with Jesus. This week, Jesus meets Nicodemus in the night. Click here for Lent II, Year A readings.
I love this story from John’s Gospel. I love the symbolism and the storytelling. I love the tentative and vulnerable way Nicodemus opens up to the teaching of the Spirit. The way he begins remembering his soul.
Scholars estimate that John wrote this Gospel around the year 90. This is about 60 years after Jesus’ death, and about 20 years after the destruction of the Temple and the death of Paul. People had been telling stories about Jesus in their communities for 60 years at this point – 3 generations. They had been telling stories about his teachings of God’s unbounded love, his ministry of healing and feeding those who were outcast by society, his demonstrations against the powers that be which resulted in his death.
And when the Temple was destroyed by the powers that be, the Roman oppressors, Jews all over Palestine were thrown into chaos. The Temple had been God’s home amongst them, the center of their life and the center of their identity. The Jewish community experienced the destruction of the Temple as a trauma – very similar to how people in the US experienced 911.
Some of these Jews had come to believe that this man Jesus was the messiah. And other Jews believed the messiah had not yet come. The religion of Judaism was going through a deep split in its response to the destruction of the Temple. People were redefining themselves, beginning to call themselves Christians, disciples of this man Jesus who they saw as the Christ, the anointed. While others remained and developed a new way to worship God without the Temple – rabbinic Judaism, which is what we know as the Jewish faith today.
The Gospel writers – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – all wrote during this time of chaos. They wrote down the stories that had been told to them for decades about this rabbi named Jesus. They wrote in ways that their people would hear, with particular techniques and language, so the people they were leading and teaching could develop and deepen their belief – a new way of thinking that helped them to understand just what a messiah came to do and how they could become disciples of this rabbi Jesus.
John wrote for a community of believers who were in open conflict with the more orthodox Jews in the area – kind of like different strains of Christianity today who have heated debates over ethics and scripture and sin. John’s community was coming to terms with this difference. And, often, John criticizes the more orthodox Jews – calling them ignorant, unrighteous, rule-bound, even evil.
It can be hard to read John’s Gospel sometimes for this reason. So, it’s incredibly important to understand the context of the Gospel writers – what they were going through, the motivations they had, the points they were trying to make, and the audience they were writing to.
Because over the centuries, this Gospel more than any other piece in Christian scripture has caused untold death and destruction. People who love to use scripture and religion against others, to vilify and condemn others, have used John’s Gospel as a rallying cry against Jews and the Jewish religion. The people who do this, we call religious extremists.
Extremism is an easy disease to catch because it plays on our fears and makes us believe that we, alone, are right. It polarizes us into camps and emboldens us to act out our fears in mobs and groups.
Extremism hijacks our faith and turns messages of God’s love into rallying cries of hate. It makes us believe in the phrase “kill or be killed” and seeks to destroy the very life that God has given to all of God’s children.
Extremism annihilates our humanity. It extinguishes hope. And most devastatingly, it makes us leave our soul behind, forgotten, in favor of false certainty, false safety, and self-survival.
What does all this have to do with Nicodemus?
In case you haven’t picked up on the theme of this Lenten season by looking at the cover of the Worship Booklet, the Gospels in Lent talk about 5 different meetings with Jesus in 5 different settings. How do we learn from these meetings? How do we see ourselves reflected in these characters who find themselves face to face with Jesus in tender and vulnerable moments?
Nicodemus is a character who represents Jewish teaching and authority in John’s Gospel – those who were opposing the revelation of Jesus. Indeed, Nicodemus was a Pharisee, the most rule-bound of the Jewish sects. They were the ones who insisted that the Law be followed to the letter because faith in God was demonstrated through adherence to the Law and the Law was only for Jews. They were they extremists, scared in the aftermath of the trauma and using religion to scapegoat others.
And Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the middle of the night – night being symbolic for “secret.” He comes to Jesus in secret because a part of him is searching. A part of his consciousness is seeking out a different teaching. He has started to wonder if there is something more than the certainty of the Law, more than his hate, more than his fear.
And Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you…” the only way to know God, the only way to see God’s reign here in this life, in this reality… is to have been formed by God’s Spirit, to have been born anew with a new way of seeing, a new way of knowing.
And our Nicodemus plays ignorant because John has written this story as a way of making fun of the more orthodox Jews: Nicodemus says that you can’t enter your mother’s womb a second time. You can’t be born again.
And Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you…” you must be washed anew, you must be formed by Spirit in order to participate in the Reign of God. Because the Reign of God is not of this world, it is not born of our fears and hate and certainty. It is of God, the very ground of our being, that which is so much bigger than our small worldview.
You must have faith in the Spirit and its ability to form us, to open us to new understandings, rather than be bound by rules or customs. Because God’s Spirit will take you wherever it wants, regardless of our rules, even if we think these rules are from God. Regardless of these customs that comfort us, especially if we are certain that we are right.
But Nicodemus still has trouble understanding. He’s befuddled by this knowledge, confused. And has asks simply, “How can these things be?”
And Jesus says, one more time, “Very truly, I tell you…” the gift from God, the Christ, the Spirit of God that came from God, will be witnessed by the souls of all, not seen with the rule-bound mind. Because it is the Spirit that speaks to the soul. God sends the Spirit to us – so that we might come to remember that part of ourselves that is beyond the law. So that we might believe in something beyond our daily rule-bound lives of fear and certainty. So that we might be truly saved by reaching out in love.
And I have to say, I feel like Nicodemus most days. I’d like to say I believe, that I’m fully formed by the Spirit and can bear witness to the Reign of God in every waking moment. But the truth is, I still get befuddled and confused. I still want to ask my teacher Jesus, “How can these things be?” How can God love us so much? How can God, who keeps loving us, who keeps offering us grace, who keeps sustaining us even when we mess things up completely… How does this work? How can it be? What does this mean?
I struggle like Nicodemus. I struggle with believing that God loves me. Believing that this world is redeemable. Believing that I am redeemable. It’s easier to believe my own opinions about how the world should be. How others should be. How I need to be in order to survive.
And so I stand up here preaching, not to you, but with you. A fellow traveler on this journey through Lent, who sees myself in Nicodemus… meeting Jesus in secret, under the cover of night, wanting to believe but not ready to believe.
Because something else is guiding me. Something else besides my mind is seeking to be formed, to be opened, to be made new. It is not the rational, studied, well-informed, certain part of myself. It is the part of myself that wants to believe, that already does believe… is my soul.
The soul – the part of ourselves that keeps hope alive in the darkness of the world. This consciousness that isn’t ours but somehow belongs to us. This consciousness that is a part of God’s consciousness waiting to be remembered by us. The soul is beyond the negativity and all the things we think we know – the judgments we carry about ourselves, judgments about others about this world.
In the reading from Genesis today, God asked Abram to leave behind what he knew. And Abram did. He became God’s servant and the ancestor of us all. And in today’s Gospel, Jesus asked Nicodemus to leave behind what he knew. And, eventually, Nicodemus did.
And here we are centuries later. A group of people sitting in St. John’s Episcopal church on a very cold March morning… and God is asking us the same question. God is asking us all to remember our souls, to go on a quest, leaving behind the things we think we know and walk the journey of Lent to become a new creation in the resurrection of Easter.
Because you and I are Nicodemus. Each one of us sitting in this church is seeking Jesus out for some reason
… wanting to believe but not quite ready to believe
…. staring at the face of Jesus with incredulity
… realizing that he’s asking us to leave behind the things that make us feel safe, the things that make us feel certain, make us think we’re in control
… and beginning to grasp that it is our soul that longs to return to God because it is our soul that already believes in boundless love.
So the question is: What is God asking you to leave behind so that you might remember your soul once again?