Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17
Nicademus, a leader of the Jews. There it is, the narrative that will continue to take shape through our readings in Lent and particularly Palm Sunday and Good Friday. It is the narrative that pits Jesus against the Jews except that, of course, Jesus was a Jew; Jesus was a faithful, observant Jewish man and rabbi. And his followers were Jews, as were his disciples and founders of what came to be the church. Though this might sound obvious to you, I recently saw a portrait of Jesus with a silver cross hanging around his neck. Let that sink in for a moment.
To say Nicademus was a leader of the Jews sounds, to our 21st century ears, like Nicademus was one of “them”, the “other”, those bad guys out to get Jesus.
If Nicademus was an “other” to Jesus, it was in that Nicademus was a leader with power and authority who specialized in interpreting Mosaic Law, and Jesus was an intinerant preacher. They were both devout Jewish men who met under the cover of night either because Nicademus was afraid his friends might see him and question his legitimacy, or because the author of John’s gospel often used images of light and dark to signify who “got it” and who didn’t, when it came to the Kingdom of God. John has Nicodemus come in the middle of the night to tell the audience he is one who does not get it.
Over the centuries since the author of John wrote this Gospel, casting Nicodemus and his colleagues simply as “the Jews” has resulted in the erasure of Jesus’ own Jewish-ness and it spawned centuries of blame aimed at, and persecution of, the Jewish people. The Jewish people, God’s chosen ones, came to be known as Jesus-killers.
The current rise in anti-semitism and anti-semitic violence in our country and in our very community requires that we challenge this false line of thinking and remind ourselves, whenever we can, that it was the Roman political leaders of Jesus’ day who were the forces behind Jesus’ persecution and execution.
If we want to wonder who the modern day Nicodemus’ are, we should not look to our Jewish brothers and sisters. We should be looking at those in positions of authority in our church and in our government. You should be looking at me.
It is a comparison that might feel uncomfortable to make, but it is, I believe, a question Jesus hoped his followers would continue to ask, that you would continue to ask, in remembrance of him. Asking questions of the church is your birthright. Challenging the church itself to continue to wonder how God is calling it to change and grow is your responsibility and your calling as baptized members of it. You are “the priesthood of all believers.”
I know all too well the power my inner Nicodemus has over me. It is that voice that tells me that there is a right way and a wrong way to do church. It is the voice that tells me that new expressions of church or different ways of worshipping God that make me feel uncomfortable must, somehow be wrong, or less than. It is the voice in my head that struggles between keeping the peace and preaching justice. It is the voice in me that wonders what my colleagues would think if they knew what my relationship with Jesus really looked like.
Though I am a public religious figure, it would be accurate to say that there is much of my relationship with Jesus that happens under the cover of night, in both senses; both that I struggle to understand it, and that much of it happens in secret, for fear of what others might think.
And so I have my public relationship with Jesus, and the one that is just between me and Jesus.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus and makes an incredibly risky and vulnerable confession. “We believe you, Jesus,” Nicodemus says. “No matter what rhetoric you hear coming from the hierarchy, we know that what you are teaching is of God, and it terrifies us.”
Nicodemus comes to Jesus and shows his real self. This man who went on to participate in Jesus’ trial, in this one moment bared his soul to Jesus in hopes of being a recipient of the love he had heard so much about.
And he is that recipient. Jesus doesn’t deride him or call him out, Jesus does not turn him away until he makes a public confession. With grace and love Jesus tells Nicodemus what Jesus believes Nicodemus already knows – that the spirit of God is unpredictable and it doesn’t always follow the rules or look what we want/hope/need/expect it to look like. Sometimes, Jesus tells Nicodemus, we are called to set aside what the world tells us is “right” or “wrong” in order to pursue what is “right” with God.
Nicodemus is confused, and he is ambivalent. He has given his life to the interpretation of the Law of Moses for the betterment of God’s people and yet here is this person Jesus, coloring outside all of the lines, and his coloring looks more like the picture of God’s dream for the world than Nicodemus could have ever imagined.
“I know” Jesus says. “It’s as surprising and unpredictable as the wind itself. You know this, Nicodemus, trust what you know.”
Do not let the world dictate what you know, let what you know be shaped and born from above, from God. When we follow God first, the rest will follow. And sometimes following God means coloring outside the lines the world has carefully and rigidly drawn for us.
There are things that I hold onto with a firm grip, things of which I am afraid to let go; things that, for me, have been life-giving and faith-sustaining. There are rules that give my life order and set my expectations. There are practices, rites and rituals that draw me closer to God when I do them.
But sometimes in life, we must choose between what the world says is right and what we know to be right before God. Those are sometimes scary and complicated choices we would rather avoid having to make. We can, for a time, keep the questions just between us and Jesus, under the cover of night where no one will see us, or question us, or discover that our first loyalty is not to reputation, but to God; not to conformity, but the freedom of going where the spirit leads us; not to saving face, but saving the world.
Nicodemus’ friends, were they to know what he was up to, would tell him he was smarter than that. That he knew better than to listen to the itinerant preacher. They would tell him to trust his training, trust his education. The Romans would tell him they had a good thing going, that peace and order was worth the sacrifice of justice and love.
Nicodemus was not one of “them.” Nicodemus is “us,” a part of each of “us”. Nicodemus is that part of ourselves that knows that truly following God is unpredictable, often scary, and might just require us to let go of everything we hold on to as “right” and “good” to grab on to something greater, something eternal, something like the Kingdom of God.
© 2017 The Reverend Jeffrey W. Mello
[i] While all direct and indirect quotes are always cited, there are sources I read regularly in preparation for sermon writing. Chances are thoughts have been spurred by these sources and so I list the usual suspects here: David Lose, In the Meantime, The New Interpreters Bible, Sacra Pagina .