Reflecting on Nicodemus and his strange visit with Jesus: John 3:1-17
You have to like Nicodemus; or at least, you have to admire his pluck. For starters, this business about coming to Jesus by night. You know he’s eager to meet this odd teacher, this mystic who’s been turning water into wine at wedding parties. Just the same, Nicodemus’s not at all interested in being seen with Jesus. Not by his friends. Not by colleagues. He knows, he knows because he’s smart, that his little visit with Jesus could be the end of his own apparently notable religious career. Pharisees know the rules. Pharisees keep their distance. Because Jesus, you see, has built quite a reputation for himself: hanging out with questionable characters and staying up late at night with prostitutes and Roman collaborators and breaking bread with immigrants from all over the Mediterranean world. Whether or not they know the rules. So Nicodemus is curious, but he’s not stupid. And he slides through city streets after dark. Anxiously. Carefully.
I don’t get you, he seems to say. To Jesus. Who are you? Another teacher? A wonder worker? Some kind of universal messiah? These questions matter to Nicodemus; his whole career’s riding on these questions. He’s built the whole thing on tradition, on meaningful biblical tradition, tradition that stands the test of time. Is Jesus really serious about starting over, about new rules, about a ‘passing over’ that liberates not just some, but all? This stuff matters to Nicodemus. It matters a lot.
So he slips into the house that night; he closes the door quickly behind him, and Nicodemus brings all of this vulnerability, all of this ambivalence, all of this uncertainty with him. This is an anxious man. His faith is suddenly fragile. So give Nicodemus some credit for his chutzpah, for his pluck. It’s not an easy trip. I don’t get you, he seems to say. To Jesus. I don’t get what you’re up to.
And Jesus—how about Jesus and his little wink here—Jesus doesn’t let Nicodemus off the hook. I mean, seriously. Here’s this anxious, curious, fragile Pharisee—sneaking out at night, braving his way through city streets. Nicodemus is looking for some reassurance here, a little peace of mind. The world still works, right? Everything I’m doing—it still makes sense, right? God still loves our people, right? The translation doesn’t do justice to the tension in the room, to Nicodemus’ angst. The translation has Jesus coming off as stiff and pedantic.
But there’s so much more here. Because Jesus recognizes angst when he sees it. Jesus gets it. And Jesus appreciates Nicodemus well enough to play with him a little bit, enough to challenge him and push him and see how far he might go. The translation’s pedantic, but Jesus is playing around.
So he kind of winks at Nicodemus, here, with this: “Am-ên, am-ên! No one can see the kingdom of God—or the mystery of God—or the deep presence of God—without being born again, and again and again!” Can’t you hear Jesus laughing here, laughing and winking and loving every minute of this. Nicodemus squirming in his seat. “Just can’t see the kingdom,” Jesus beams, “without being born again, and again and again!” In other words, it’s not automatic. You don’t inherit this God-stuff like your daddy’s money or your mama’s religion. You don’t come into the kingdom of God simply because you graduated college or you go to church every week or you love the red-white-and-blue. “Just can’t see the kingdom,” Jesus chuckles, “without being born again, and again and again!” You gotta go through the birth canal, you gotta be pressed and pulled and delivered, over and over and over again. It’s just not automatic.
And this, this has Nicodemus completely befuddled, totally tied up in knots! “But, but, but.” Now he’s really worried. Nothing makes sense anymore. And it’s dark outside.
What do you do when things don’t make sense anymore? When that order you depend on breaks down? When hard questions keep you up at night? What do you do when the good earth itself seems to turn violently—as it did in Japan—on an entire nation? When waves become something like weapons—rushing ashore at 500 miles-per-hour and wiping out villages? This earthquake-tsunami-nuclear reactor stuff is hard to live with, hard to hold in your heart. And there’s more. What do you do when neighbors—good neighbors, honest neighbors—are losing their homes to foreclosure, toppled by somebody else’s greedy ways, and nobody’s sure who’s next?
I guess I want to name some of our anxieties this morning. I guess I want to acknowledge that we can be faithful and fearful at the same time, in the same moment; and a good many of us are. This week, watching reports out of Japan—some of the video of cars and people and entire towns washed away, the eerie overhead shots of crippled nuclear reactors—I find myself, strangely enough, reliving those first few days after 9/11. Ten years ago. Similar questions. Unnerving questions. Is it safe to fly? Is it safe to go to the beach? Is it safe to live on a fault-line? And just as unsettling: Can I trust the folks I’m flying with? Can I trust the scientists who say the reactors in my state are safe? Can I trust the God who put the whole cosmic puzzle together in the first place?
I hope we all agree that this—this place, this community—should be a safe place for asking all of these questions. We’re all feeling a little vulnerable these days. Vulnerable to an economy we don’t understand. Vulnerable to seismic and meteorological forces we don’t control. And a good bit of the time, our faith simply can’t keep up. Where is God in the midst of all this? Can I still trust the universe? Our life together—in worship, in friendship, over soup this afternoon—carves a holy space where you and I can question and wonder and hurt and hope. Without easy answers. Without comfortable certainties. What we have here is Spirit and love. What we have here is friendship. What have here is grace. There are days—like most of them this week—when these things hardly seem enough. But somehow, somehow, this fragile body proves strong enough and wise enough for all of us. Stay for soup today—and find out for yourself.
So Nicodemus goes looking for reassurance. We’re all looking for a little reassurance. Hey, I’m looking for a sack of it. Can’t blame Nicodemus for that. But what he gets, in return, is this provocative little teaching. Jesus with a wink. “Am-ên, am-ên!” he says. “No one can see the kingdom of God—or the mystery of God—or the deep presence of God—there is no spiritual transformation (in other words)—without being born again, and again and again!” You gotta do that whole birth canal thing: you gotta be pressed and pulled, delivered and wiped clean, over and over and over again.
Now this is not the way Christians usually read this text. You know how it goes. They read it as a test: Believe in the Son, or else. Call on the name of Jesus, or else. Our guy’s the only guy, so there. But don’t you think that’s missing the point? “Am-ên, am-ên!” he says. “There’s no spiritual transformation, there’s no maturing of the human spirit, there’s no wholeness at all—without being born again, and again and again!”
I came across the writings of a Greek Orthodox woman recently, Frederica Mathewes-Green, teacher and founder of an innovative Orthodox church in Baltimore. She’s talking about some of the differences between western and eastern spirituality—within the big umbrella of the Christian tradition. It’s really, really interesting.
She starts by describing the traditional western hermeneutic of atonement: that idea that human beings are fallen creatures, depraved, in need of radical intervention and salvation. So Jesus comes—in this hermeneutic of atonement—to offer his life as payment for our sin and to reconcile our depraved humanity to God’s perfect divinity. I may have glossed this up a bit; but I think you know what I’m talking about. It’s pretty much the Christianity most of us, in the west, grew up with. In one form or another.
But Frederica Mathewes-Green says Christians in the east—in the Eastern Orthodox tradition—have a different take. Instead of diving headlong into the whole atonement thing, Easterners have this concept they call ‘theosis.’ And ‘theosis’ is really the process of becoming, the journey of transformation. ‘Theosis’ means that God dwells within us from the very beginning, from the beginning of beginnings. And over the span of our lives, as we look to the example of Jesus, as we immerse ourselves in God’s grace, we are constantly evolving, constantly re-forming, constantly becoming the full expression of God’s light in us.
I hope this isn’t too geeky, as far as the theology goes. But I think it’s tremendously important for us, particularly for us. And I think it’s hugely important for little William Tomlinson and the Christian journey he begins today. What we’re extending to William is companionship on his journey of transformation. God has been with William and within William and over William from the beginning of beginnings. You see that in his eyes. You see that in his holy little fingers. You see it in the way his mom and dad and little sister glow when they’re around him.
We want to make Jesus come alive for William here. We want to make Jesus’ love come alive, make his stories come alive. Not because Jesus has to atone for William’s depravity; but because there’s a journey of transformation waiting here. William begins this amazing journey this morning into the light, into the truth of his soul, into the fullest expression of his humanity and spirit. Frederica Mathewes-Green calls it ‘theosis.’ And I like it. Let’s you and I be sure that little William Tomlinson learns to delight in his journey of transformation, discovery and homecoming. Because that’s what we’ve promised this morning. God is ready. And so are we.
There’s this piece of Nicodemus, I think, in every one of us and, undoubtedly, in every congregation too. And it makes sense. We want to be reassured. We want to know there are rules that work, rules we can rely on, and promises worth believing in. It’s hard to get up in the morning without some of these assurances.
But make no mistake about today’s text, about this teaching and being born again and again and again. This is not about timeless rules that work. And this is not about promises we can believe in without thinking, and without wrestling, and without praying. I daresay this is not about atonement, a one-time theological fix. This teaching is about the wind. There’s a saying that goes: “You can’t change the wind; you can, however, adjust your sails.” This teaching is about that.
It’s about our being open to where the wind might lead us. And trimming our sails to follow its lead. It’s about your developing the kind of spiritual life that lays itself bare to gusts of grace and whispers of spirit. It’s about praying and studying and learning and wondering; and it’s about trusting, yes, that the wind knows your name.
In other words, it’s not, it’s never been automatic. You don’t inherit this God-stuff like your daddy’s money or your mama’s religion. You don’t come into the kingdom of God simply because you graduated phi beta kappa or you go to church every week. “You just can’t see the kingdom,” Jesus says, “without being born again, and again and again!” You gotta go through the birth canal, you gotta be pressed and pulled and delivered, over and over and over again.
I’m not saying—I will never say—all this trauma (Japan, Libya, war, recession) is good for us: that it’s God’s way of testing and teaching us. I kind of think that’s simpleminded foolishness. But I do think we’ve got a choice in these stormy days of 2011. Especially now. We can fall back on old rules, on shattered certainties, on the grim hermeneutic of atonement. Make Jesus a formula.
Or. Or you can listen for the wind, watch for the spirit, and trust that it speaks your name. You can surrender to the mystery of the kingdom, the rigors of the birth canal, the journey of transformation. I think that’s your choice. I think that’s the church’s choice. That's what we’re doing for William today. Who knows about tsunamis and earthquakes, about the Pacific Rim of Fire and whether we should be building nuclear reactors on fault-lines or anywhere at all?
Jesus says, in all this uncertainty, in all our vulnerability, we can and we will taste the kingdom of God. That kingdom is always at hand. That kingdom is always with us. Ours to taste. Ours to cherish. If we’re willing. If we’re willing to be born again, and again and again. This journey is not for the faint of heart. But this journey is ours. Amen.