Have you ever been sitting with your spiritual director, and been going on about something you read or learned or studied, when your director broke in with something like, “Yes, but what did that mean to you?” And then some silence as you scrambled to reassemble your thoughts which are kind of lying there like pieces of a jigsaw with no idea of what the picture is. This doesn’t just happen to newcomers to the faith. It happens to bishops. How do we get so tied up in our opinions about God (that is called systematic theology) as if we know very much about God, or at least the things we can claim through logic and persuasion.
Nicodemus is a Pharisee which means he is a follower of the Law as it came back from the Babylonian Captivity of Israel a long time before. He is learned. He is pious. And he knows all the Scripture that predicts the coming of a Messiah, a Christ. And Messiahs are suddenly popping up all over. Just as in the Monty Python movie, “Life of Brian.” Or as Paul warns his baby Christians, not to fall for any false prophets or false Messiahs. Or as they still are and we are still following them today. Nicodemus most certainly knew about John the Baptizer. And now Jesus. Of course he knew. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, that august party of powerful men who were the Jewish equivalent to the Roman Senate, with responsibility for both civil and religious law. He listened to the daily news.
Some say he was trying to make up his mind about Jesus. That this meeting was a test run. But that isn’t how I read these words. Let’s go back. Jesus has changed water into more wine than any happy household of a bride and groom could possibly drink. The abundance of God makes paying for food, drink, or salvation meaningless. Nicodemus might have heard about this, but it was just a private family wedding far from Jerusalem. Of course, all of Jesus’ signs are fraught with deep meaning, quotes from the prophets slipped in, references to the saving water of God. But even on the surface, gossip about another wonder worker might not have made much of an impression on a powerful leader of the Jews. The first few healings might have, but overthrowing the tables and kiosks of the people who exchanged money and sold sacrifices in the Temple would have been a public scandal. This act is told at the beginning of John, whereas in the Synoptic Gospels it is an act of defiance against the Temple and Rome which ultimately brings about Jesus’ trial. But here Jesus is the Lamb; no other sacrificial lamb need apply.
And so we come to John 3:1-21. I have read commentaries in which preachers have tried to categorize Nicodemus as a coward or traitor because he didn’t go far enough when he tried to see that Jesus got a fair trial (see John 7:48-52), regardless that he was mocked by other members. In terms of the U.S. Congress, he didn’t have the votes. And other commentators who protested that he was a true disciple for going with Joseph of Arimathea to claim and bury Jesus (see John 19:28-40). But there is no reason for this. All we need to know is that he is seeking Jesus. Why did he come by night, you might ask. Like a thief in the night? Not to be seen with Jesus? Create a scandal? Or maybe he simply was tied up with Temple business, and finally found time, after supper, to seek out some spiritual wisdom. A time when the crowds have left. A time for some serious talk with this Teacher who was from God, as witnessed by the signs he had performed. Maybe Jesus was even his spiritual director, to use our term. So let us take the Scripture as we received it and listen.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. Maybe, in hospitality, Jesus pours out a couple of mugs of wine, and one of the women has left out a plate of olives and some figs for them. And they start to talk. Whether to test, or question, or to impress, or simply out of his heart, Nicodemus tries to find words. “I know you are of God. Nobody who isn’t can do the things you have done. Signs from the prophets.” Maybe he even quotes some Hebrew Scripture. And Jesus turns the whole conversation around. No, it is not about theology, especially the kind of systematic theology that has boxed in God. “Nicodemus, you can’t get there until you are born anew.” Nicodemus is stopped, his very learning being the stumbling block. Unlike most of his brethren (except Joseph of Arimathea) who have preached, written, taught what they were expected to, he is still soul hungry. We, he thought, the circumcised and obedient to the Law, and our wives, children, and households, born again? So he quips, or mutters, or blurts out, “What, go back into our mother’s womb?” Maybe Jesus’ face relaxes into a smile. Now we can start talking, he thinks. Now he is ready.
And so Jesus begins to teach, “[N]o 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.” And Nicodemus must have asked something, because Jesus explains more about the nature of the Spirit, and Nicodemus responds with another question, “How can such things be?” Jesus’ reference to Moses’ bronze snake staff is not only a reference to Jesus being raised up, but also the healing power of that staff. Even a reminder of overturning the power of Snake Satan in the Garden of Eden, which started this separation from God, which Jesus will heal when he is lifted up. One commentator said that at this point Nicodemus disappears from the narrative. Hardly. He is listening, finally. And when you listen you become quiet. You let what you hear seep deeply into you. Oh, Nicodemus is there, all right. And Jesus tells him the whole story. That the Son of God came to bring eternal life, a light, one which will guide those who are not evil, who know his name, who believe in him.
Why does Jesus give this member of the Sanhedrin, this Pharisee, so much, much more than he is giving his disciples at this time. Because Nicodemus can hear it. He is educated. He knows Scripture in a more prayerful and nuanced way than the crowd who come for signs. Why doesn’t Jesus tell him to sell everything, pick up his Cross, and follow him? Because Nicodemus is already carrying his Cross. He is more important to the Kingdom serving in the world, in the dirty, messy, sinful, political, often evil world. That is his ministry. But like all scholars and theologians and church leaders, he needs to be told again and again to look up. Look toward Heaven, which is everlasting, not the treasures of the flesh, the new title, the corner office, the more affluent parish, the latest seminar. The Son of Man is not a possession of the learned or the powerful.
And what of us? We are hungry, but for what? The pleasures of earthly delight? Or do we think that we miss our church, as if that gathering will automatically switch on God, certainly not in the radical way that Jesus has just challenged Nicodemus. Perhaps we are being called to go back into the womb where God made us and knew us. Being reborn is not waving our hands in the air, singing praise songs, and making a lot of noise. It is the hard business of turning our lives around. To sit with Jesus when he teaches. “Yes, we know the basic story,” we protest. “We enact it every Lent and Holy Week.” Or do we? Are we like those important leaders in the Sanhedrin, performing our piety? Or are we incorporating that story into our lives, now, especially in this time of uncertainty. Now is the time to sit with Nicodemus and listen.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is at Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, CA. She earned her master’s degree in systematic theology from the Jesuit School of Theology/GTU and PhD in church history and spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. She is a postulant in the Episcopal religious order, The Sisters of St. Gregory. She lives with her cats, books, and garden. Soli Deo Gloria.