Poor old Nicodemus. He was a supporter of those who followed the Way of Jesus. Though Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin religious council, instead of piling on with the rest of the Hebrew religious establishment in their efforts to shut Jesus up, he used his influence to help ensure that Jesus message got a fair hearing (cf. John 7:50). And it was Nicodemus who, along with another Pharisee named Joseph of Arimathea, anointed and buried Jesus’ body after his crucifixion (John 19:39). So, Nicodemus was more than just a smart, well-connected supporter of the Jesus movement, he was a friend. And yet, in our Gospel passage today, Jesus schools him as if he was a dunce sitting at the back of the class… finally asking him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Is that any sort of way to treat a friend?
And it’s not as if Jesus had been speaking all that plainly: “You must be born from above… the wind blows where it chooses,” he told Nicodemus, somewhat opaquely. Which seems to me to be pretty esoteric stuff, even for those of us with “20/20 hindsight,” and two-thousand years of Biblical commentary at our disposal. But Jesus was always hardest on those he was closest to. Just ask Peter. Nicodemus had come to Jesus by night—so he wouldn’t be seen by his friends and colleagues—so that he could pick Jesus’ brain in private about all of the “supernatural” stuff he was able to do. Nicodemus was a supporter, but he wasn’t yet a follower… and his un-spoken question was whether or not Jesus was the Messiah. I’m thinking that a simple “yes” or “no” would have suited Nicodemus just fine, but that wasn’t Jesus’ style. Jesus knew that folks are always looking for easy answers—but he also knew that it was better for people to first see and understand what was happening right in front of them… so that they could figure out the answers to their questions on their own. It’s a little like the time John the Baptizer sent messengers to Jesus asking if he was “the one…”or should he and his followers be waiting for someone else? To which Jesus responded, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matt 11:2-6). Reading between the lines, Jesus was telling John, “So, I’m not precisely the sort of Messiah you expected? Keep thinking on it… it’ll come to you.”
Nicodemus wanted to know if Jesus was the Messiah… and Jesus redirected him, telling him that he needed to be “born again.” What? And like the good Pharisee that he was, Nicodemus began to parse words with Jesus, “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” The writer of the Fourth Gospel doesn’t mention it in our passage today, but I suspect Jesus fixed Nicodemus with a steely gaze, and paused a minute before saying, “That’s not what I’m talking about, Nicodemus, and you know it. Or, at least, you should know it. You Children of Abraham get so wrapped up in the day-to-day drama of temporal, “fleshly” living, that you forget that you were made for much more. You forget that you were meant to be born of the Spirit… and to live your lives in – that – same – Spirit. You forget that your purpose on Earth is to learn how to rise above mundane things… to be born anew to life in the Father. That’s the way to eternal life, Nicodemus! You’re a teacher! You should know these things! Don’t get wrapped around the axle worrying about whether or not I’m the Messiah… you’ll figure that out soon enough. What you should be focused on is the fact that your time on earth is finite. And the past is prologue. Just as our ancestors got lost in the day-to-day exigencies of their forty-year wilderness sojourn and needed a reminder of God’s Providence to see them through (cf. Num 21:4-9), so too will God give the people of this age what they need to attain salvation… even if it is the life of his only Son.”
And then, after the end of our Gospel passage today, after the beautiful and comforting words from John 3:16 that folks like to put on bumper stickers and fridge magnets, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son… not to condemn but to save…” Jesus provides a hard caveat in verses 18-21. Here’s what he said: “Those who believe… are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the Son of God. And this is the judgment: that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” Isn’t it funny how we often like to focus on the warm, fuzzy stuff Jesus said and keep the difficult, more challenging things at arm’s length? It seems to me that what Jesus is telling us is that belief and action are intertwined. James, the brother of Jesus would later say, “Faith without works is dead! (James 2:17) Talk is cheap. We’ve got to walk the talk! We can’t say one thing and do another—or do nothing. That’s not the way of Jesus Messiah. Believing in Jesus means following the Way he has set before us. And it’s hard… at least it is a lot of the time. Perhaps you’ve heard it said that, “freedom is not free.” And salvation doesn’t come cheap either. Salvation only comes when we truly give in to God’s movement and purpose in our lives. Paying “lip service” won’t suffice. And when we give in, boom! Off we are sent to work in God’s vineyard. And Lord knows, there’s work to be done.
Talk should lead to action! Bishop Rob Wright once noted:
“You can talk about God, Jesus says, without actually seeing God’s movement. That’s sad. The word ‘movement’ is the best translation of the word ‘kingdom’ in Scripture. Movement… like the way Jesus described Spirit. A wind blowing. A wind growing – and causing growth. The temptation here is to think that by thinking a new thought, we’ll get a new life. WRONG. New thoughts… are the consequence… of new living. Jesus’ friend [Nicodemus] struggled to get this. The rut of his life… [was becoming his] grave. Born again is what Jesus prescribed. Born again can happen if we are willing to endure the labor pains.”
Wise words from your Bishop.
My brothers and sisters, God is in your corner… through the Spirit, God’s grace will lead you home to eternal life, but you must first believe… and then act. That’s what James, the brother of Jesus means when he calls us to be “doers of the Word” (James 1:22). Give in to the Jesus movement… which is God’s movement and purpose in the world. Give in to the coming Kingdom… and you will be born again.