In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Nicodemus seems to have some pretty big issues with commitment. He’s a smart religious leader—he’s a well-respected Pharisee. And he comes to see Jesus—to check him out—and he does it in the dark.
That seems pretty significant especially when we remember that in John’s gospel light and dark play a big role in helping the hearer to identify what’s holy and good, vs. what’s hidden and ignorant or maybe even malevolent. Light and dark. So here he comes--Nick at Nite.
Now, Jesus seems to see right through him and cuts to the chase, considering Nicodemus’ comment about signs and the presence of God, and taking it up a notch in order to explore the deeper issue of what it means to be in the Kingdom of God.
And then Jesus changes the focus of the conversation with what seems at first like a non sequitur. He responds to Nicodemus, saying that in order to see God’s kingdom, one must be born from above.
Actually the passage makes a little more sense if we understand that the word Jesus uses has 2 or even 3 meanings. Jesus says you must be born from above, meaning that you must be regenerated spiritually by God. But Nicodemus thinks Jesus is saying –literally saying—that you must be born again. OR born anew. And that’s the source of the confusion between what Jesus is saying and what Nicodemus is hearing. It’s actually quite humorous, if you have the grounding in Greek to “get” it. (And now you do!)
Jesus goes on to link believing in the Son of Man (one of his favorite titles for himself) with having eternal life. He throws in a reference to a story with very ancient roots in the Old Testament.
And the point of this digression is that it shows what Jesus’ contemporaries—and we—are urged to do, to look to the one who is lifted up // for healing and for eternal life. And Jesus was certainly lifted up on the cross, and also lifted up at his Resurrection, and also at his Ascension back into the heavens.
Look to the one who is lifted up for help. “I lift up mine eyes to the hills, from where is my help to come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” Look up to Christ Jesus for protection, for salvation, for eternal peace. That’s one of the core teachings of the New Testament—it’s pure gospel.
Our reading ends with some theological reflection in verses 16 and 17. Nicodemus seems to have dropped out of the scene at this point. Perhaps the most important words of the whole passage are these: “For God so loved the world.” It’s a truth we often forget. God so loves God’s Creation that God is willing even to become a part of it, and show us the best way to live, even if it means laying down one’s life for one’s friends. Those who believe in Jesus, God’s Son, may have eternal life.
Our gospel ends with the essence of the good news: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” [3:17]
* * *
Now, I said that Nicodemus had some issues with commitment to Jesus as the Son of Man, the Son of God. He seemed to want answers but then to be unable to take the intuitive leaps necessary to follow Jesus’ thought. That’s ok. Sometimes things don’t readily make sense to us, either. Sometimes we need a lot of time before we can commit.
But Nicodemus shows up twice more in this gospel. In chapter 7 he sticks up for Jesus by advising other Jewish leaders to hear Jesus out before rushing to condemn him. And in the next-to-last chapter of the gospel he helps Joseph of Arimathea to bury Jesus after he died on the cross. He brings a huge amount of spices—pounds and pounds of myrrh and aloe—for his burial. It’s such an inordinately large amount of spices that it’s what would be appropriate for the burial of a king.
Nowhere does John make it clear that Nicodemus has made the leap of faith in Jesus, the Son of God. But his actions surely suggest his decision and his transformation.
* * *
Nick at Nite seems to be someone we might relate to. He seems to have some problems with believing and with committing to the life of faith. Do you know anyone like that?
I think of Anne Lamott, who wrote so humorously in her book Traveling Mercies about how difficult it was for her to commit to believing in Jesus. She says that for a very long time it was as if he had a hold of her psyche and followed her around like some stray cat begging to be let in and loved. And finally, with some very colorful language, she DID let him in.
My own decision for conversion was a lot more boring than that. I remember ironing one afternoon in my kitchen in Trumbull. Ironing and resisting and thinking, and finally leaping across that great logical divide—finally accepting what seemed so much like a fairy tale—for no other reason than the fact that I had to. I couldn’t hold out any longer. He wore me down.
You may have your own story of overcoming your own brand of resistance and letting him in. And this is what salvation is all about—entering into the “intimate relationship that God wants with every believer.” Letting him in and beginning a new life together. [Karoline Lewis, John, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014, p. 50] Letting Jesus in is how we are born from above. Essentially we’re saying YES to God’s desire to birth us again.
And wherever each of us is in the life of faith, now is a great time to either let him in for the first time, or for the umpteenth time. And then it’s a great time to ask ourselves if our lives line up with Jesus’ expectations of us. Have we changed and do we reflect our faith in the way we choose to live? In what we say? In how we try to forgive after we’ve been hurt? In how we raise our families? In how we use our money? In how we vote?
Because the truth is that to acknowledge God at all is to acknowledge God’s right to demand a total commitment of us. [Source: www.missionstclare.com, Morning Prayer for March 9, 2017, commentary on Gregory of Nyssa, written by James Keifer]
One of our biggest challenges in life is translating our heart’s and soul’s commitment into the real world. But it’s not all difficult. There are some thrilling paybacks.
And so I close with the words of W.H. Auden, in his great anthem about believing and adventuring with Jesus.
This is what it’s like, this life of faith.
“He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.” [W.H. Auden, “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio”]