Let us pray.
God of second chances, who is patient with our confusion and who leads us into deeper faith if only we have ears to hear and eyes to see, grant that we may be born anew each day into hope, born anew each day into joy, born anew into your Kingdom. Lord Jesus Christ, when we become legalistic in our living, teach us the language of forgiveness. When we become concrete in our thinking, lift us into the ways of your Spirit. When we become stuck in religious patterns that lead us away from you, bring us back to living faith. May your grace become the context of our days. Amen.
(Adapted from a prayer by Sarah M. Foulger)
I like Nicodemus. I relate to Nicodemus. He is one of my favorite characters in all the Gospels. In him, I see so many people I have known – religion and philosophy majors, seminary classmates. In him, I see myself at times. In him, I see large numbers of well-educated Episcopalians who have never found a way to turn their spiritual curiosity and honest questioning into a living faith. Because Nicodemus is the perfect example of the religious seeker who is trapped by his own intellect. He is the faith seeker who can’t seem to get past the academic. His spiritual life is not faith seeking understanding as Anselm put it, rather, it is understanding seeking faith.
Nicodemus was part of the religious and intellectual elite of first century Judaism. Think of him in modern terms as a cross between a Biblical scholar and a theoretical physicist. As a Pharisee, he was among the most educated group of people in all Judaism. What the gospels don’t tell us is that in spite of Jesus’ on going arguments with the Pharisees, they were in fact considered to be the liberal thinkers and reformers among Jewish scholars.
In our lesson for today, Nicodemus comes to see Jesus by night. He has heard Jesus speak; he may have even witnessed one of Jesus’ miraculous healings. He realizes that in this unknown man from Nazareth there is something special, something holy. And even though he calls Jesus Rabbi, Nicodemus knows that Jesus has not been professionally trained, Jesus is just a street preacher with a small band of followers. So, rather than risk his reputation by visiting Jesus during the day when everyone would see him, he visits Jesus by night. This way he can protect his place in society and satisfy his own curiosity at the same time.
Nicodemus is a good man, an honest man, a religiously earnest man, and what he wants to do is make sense of Jesus. He wants to understand how Jesus fits into what he already knows. Nicodemus understands the law and the prophets; he understands what the promised Messiah is supposed to be like. Jesus is obviously special, blessed by God, but he doesn’t fit any of Nicodemus’ paradigms. So he comes to Jesus to deepen his understanding and Jesus tells him it is not understanding that he needs but personal transformation.
I imagine Nicodemus sitting on the floor across from Jesus hoping for a good theological conversation. Like a seminary student sitting in a professor’s office wanting to talk about Tillich, Barth, Augustine or Niebuhr – Nicodemus wants to theologically interview Jesus. But Jesus will have none of it. He doesn’t talk theology with Nicodemus; rather he points him toward spirituality. Nicodemus doesn’t need more knowledge, he needs to be touched by the Spirit, he needs to surrender his life to God, he needs to be transformed in such a way that he is reborn by water and the Spirit. Because, what the Kingdom of God requires is not just right thinking, but the giving of one’s heart and soul. Having knowledge is important but it isn’t enough, faith requires deep personal commitment.
One of my spiritual mentor’s has always been an old German immigrant I knew during my days in Savannah. His name was Helmut. He came to the United States in the early 1930’s and spent most of his life working in a steel mill. He had little formal education but he was one of the wisest people I have ever known. To be around him was to be in the presence of humble holiness. He exuded a peacefulness and a joy that only comes from a deep and abiding faith. He loved easily, he laughed easily, and he gave freely. He was whole and authentic and deep. I could run theological rings around him but I couldn’t touch the depths of his faith. He was a spiritual giant. He was literally full of Christ.
The wonderful author Robert Fulghum who wrote, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, once poked fun at theological pursuits by saying, “Arguing whether or not a God exists is like fleas (on a dog) arguing whether the dog exists. Arguing over the correct name of God is like fleas arguing over the name of the dog. And arguing over whose notion of God is correct is like fleas arguing over who owns the dog.” Seeking to understand our faith is important, but some of us confuse that pursuit with having faith. Nicodemus wanted to better understand God but Jesus wanted him to be touched by God. And that is what all of us should want as well.
The mystics say that God is closer to us than our breath. God is closer than we are to ourselves. St. John of the Cross says, “We are in God like a stone is in the earth…” You don’t have to search for God. In fact, there is no way to get any closer to God than we already are. The religious life, then, is not just seeking to understand God but rather the realization of the closeness, the union that already exists between each of us and our God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Good old Nicodemus was changed after his encounter with Jesus. He may not have fully understood all the things Jesus said to him, but he was changed none-the-less. Later in John’s Gospel, Nicodemus defends Jesus when his Pharisee colleagues search for a way to have Jesus killed. And it is Nicodemus, along with Joseph of Arimathea, who cares for the Jesus after the crucifixion, bringing 100 pounds of spices to anoint Jesus’ body as it is laid in the tomb. Christian tradition has it that Nicodemus became a devoted follower of the resurrected Christ, teaching and spreading the gospel throughout the land. He was eventually martyred for his faith and his is considered a Saint of the Church.
Yes friends, faith is more than belief. It is more than the quest for the right ideas about God. Faith means inviting Jesus Christ into your life. It means falling on your knees and asking Christ to draw nearer to you than you are to yourself. It isn’t only Nicodemus; all of us must be born of water and Spirit. God wants to touch us, transform us, fill the empty spaces inside our souls. But first we have to invite him in. Amen