March 16, 2014
“No one can see without…”
Rev. Dr. David A. Davis
Nicodemus. The Woman at the Well. The Man Born Blind. Lazarus, and his sisters Mary and Martha. Four encounters with Jesus for each of the remaining Sundays in Lent. All of them unique to John’s gospel. All of them rather robust in terms of dialogue and number of verses. These characters in John, they are too often cast as flimsy, thin pawns who simply appear so that Jesus can make a point. Too often they are set up by preachers like me as foils who don’t get it, don’t grasp it, don’t follow the teaching of Jesus. Their presence in the text is, therefore, intended only to drive doctrine as they play second fiddle to one of John’s metaphors (born again, living water, light of the world, resurrection and life). But when you string these conversations together, when you ponder how the gospel writer John uses dialogue in a way that seems to slow the pace of the narrative, the drama, then it seems the reader, that you and I, we are being invited to linger for a while, to sit with the characters as it were. Instead of rushing to figure out what it means to be born again, or trying to nail down a definition of Living Water, or falling in with the disciples who want to know who sinned, the man or his parents that he was born blind, or arguing about whether Lazarus was really dead or just sleeping, what if we just allow ourselves to listen in on the conversations, to saddle up, to weasel our way in, to stand with Nicodemus, and the woman at the well, and the man born blind, and Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.
This morning the story of Jesus and Nicodemus. It is so easy for the preacher’s eye to be drawn immediately to John 3:16. But we’re going to stop this morning at v.15. So we won’t even get to “for God so loved the world.” It is so easy for the listener to be influenced by the interpretive landscape which has been so dominated by what it means to be “born again”. When Jesus says to Nicodemus, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above”, all eyes and ears focus on “born from above.” But the term “kingdom of God”, “see the kingdom of God”, it is the only time the phrase is used in all of John’s gospel. In Mark, right off the bat Jesus is preaching: “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near.” In Luke Jesus comes right and affirms “the kingdom of God is among you.” In Matthew Jesus tells those parables about the coming kingdom of God: the wise and foolish maidens, the talents, the sheep and the goats. But not John; as for the kingdom of God in John, only here: “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above”. Nicodemus shows us that’s not a threat, that’s not an exclusion, it’s a promise. A promise that points to the movement of the Spirit and what can be seen even by those of us who don’t always understand.
Nicodemus: a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews. Nicodemus acknowledges Jesus as a teacher, as one who comes from God, and as one who has done these signs. “Signs” are key all through John’s gospel. Here so early, one sign would be the water turned to wine at the Wedding in Cana. Nicodemus, though he comes to Jesus in the cover of darkness, begins with an acknowledgement, an openness, some kind of recognition. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” What comes next is the first of a word play/open to interpretation/lost in translation exchange. Jesus answered Nicodemus, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” The phrase could be “born from above” or “born again” and Nicodemus finds himself caught there in the linguistic ambiguity and like the rest of us, skips right over the promise of the kingdom. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus takes the opportunity provided by the frailty of language and moves in a spiritual/theological direction. A fairly common move for Jesus; using the ordinary to then leap to the extraordinary: a mustard seed, a fig tree, a man who had two sons. This time the ordinary comes from his use of words; a term like “born from above”. “Very truly, I tell you, no 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 from the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘you must be born from above’. The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” And with reference to the wind and the Spirit, Jesus introduces the second word play/open to interpretation/lost in translation expression. For the same word in Greek means “wind” and “spirit”.
Now with his head spinning, Nicodemus doesn’t even try to frame a response with content. He seems to backslide a bit, no Rabbi or teacher address. He settles for something like “huh” or “what”; “how can these things be?” he says, kind of backing away. Jesus tosses the teacher label right back at Nicodemus. Just as Nicodemus addressed Jesus as teacher when the conversation started, Jesus effectively shuts down the encounter with Nicodemus by questioning the Pharisee’s educator status: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” And it all started with “no one can see the kingdom of God without…..” the Spirit blowing where it chooses.
I say Jesus ends the conversation with Nicodemus because at this point Nicodemus appears to leave the stage. He has no more lines. John’s Jesus continues the teaching about earthly things and heavenly things, but the dialogue with Nicodemus is over at v. 10. Not only does Nicodemus come to Jesus by night here in John’s gospel, his character fades to black much quicker than you think. By the time John’s Jesus gets to “For God so loved the world….”, by the time that guy with the crazy wig and sign gets to the end zone, by the time the church gets to talking about being born again and “whosoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life”, by the time all of that happens, Nicodemus has long since disappeared.
A careful reading of John’s gospel reveals that Nicodemus didn’t go away completely or forever. Later in John chapter 7, the temple police and the Pharisees were in a bit of a tizzy about whether to arrest Jesus. It is Nicodemus who offers a bit of a defense of Jesus, reminding the others that that the law does not judge people without giving them a hearing. It’s hardly a major appearance and far from a strident defense, but in John’s gospel, Nicodemus is still around. Then, when Jesus was crucified (John 19), it is Nicodemus who goes with Joseph of Arimathea to remove the body of Jesus and prepare his body for burial. According to John, Nicodemus was carrying a mixture of myrrh and aloes that weighed a hundred pounds. By any stretch, that’s a lot of embalming stuff.
Nicodemus, the one who had first come to Jesus by night, the one who so quickly faded into the night when he couldn’t understand, the one whose questions and hesitations set the table for John 3:16, the one so easily defined as the prototypical intellectual cynic and doubter and religious leader who tries but doesn’t get it, Nicodemus is the one who shows up the cross with an extraordinary and extravagant amount of ointment to care for the crucified, dead, Teacher who came from God. Maybe it’s not a big old exclamation point when it comes to the role of Nicodemus, but he’s still there. There is no Thomas like affirmation, “my Lord and my God”, but he’s still there. There is no indication in the gospel that Nicodemus was ever able to fully understand what it meant to be born from above, but there he was taking down the body of Jesus and bearing the weight of absolutely all that was needed to give Jesus the burial fit for a king. He was still there. Even there in the margins of John’s gospel, on the edges of the ministry of Jesus, Nicodemus saw something. He was there. Right there until the end.
“No one can see the kingdom of God without…..” It’s not a prescription, it’s a promise. It’s not a test, it’s an affirmation of God’s Spirit. That for those who follow Jesus, it’s less about right answers and more about glimpsing the kingdom; less about being able to figure it all out and more about finding ways to further and serve him and his kingdom. It’s less about having a doubt free life and much more about caring and anointing and working for those who suffer, knowing that in the broken-hearted you will see the very face of Christ. “No one can see the kingdom of God without…..” Jesus wasn’t seeking a following of people who thought they were right all the time. He was searching for any and all who would bear the weight of servanthood; even from the margins. Being the weight of serving him and his kingdom, and still being there until the end. Because when you are born of the Spirit, when the Spirit of God is at work, when the wind blows, you will see the kingdom of God.
Many years ago a member of the congregation was very sick and in the hospital. One of our seminarians went to visit the member and the member shared with the student that they were talking about hospice and preparing for death. Near the end of the visit the seminarian offered a prayer that included references to heaven and resurrection and life eternal. After the prayer, the member thanked the student and said, “You don’t believe that crap, do you?” I’m sure the member meant to say, “how can these things be?” A week or so later I went for a visit and the member felt badly about rocking the seminarian’s world and offered to apologize if need be. We talked for a long time about the biblical descriptions of heaven and the specifics there were bothersome. “I’m not frightened at all about the life after, but it’s not pearly gates and angel wings I want. I want some assurance that I can have some awareness of my grandchildren growing up.” “That sounds like heaven to me”, I said. The seminarian didn’t go into ministry. He went to Med School. The church member? I should have read Nicodemus at the memorial service.
A church full of those who have big questions and are still here. For the Spirit of God blows like the wind. You never know where it comes from or where it goes. It is what is means for you and I to be part of the Body of Christ. “No one can see the kingdom of God without….being born from above.”
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