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Nicodemus - A Profile in Courage

. Posted in Sermons

John 3:1-17

The title of this sermon coming from me, I would not have imagined even a week ago. As a matter of fact, even as I was pondering early last week this passage of scripture that we just heard, the words came to mind and repeated themselves in my head: “He (Nicodemus) came to Jesus by night…” Nicodemus seemed to come to Jesus surreptitiously because he was afraid of what others might think; because he didn’t want anyone else to know that he, a Jewish leader and a member of a religious order that opposed Jesus, was actually engaging in conversation with this controversial figure.

I pictured Nicodemus as he has been portrayed many times before by Christian interpreters such as myself. Far from being a profile in courage, I saw him as a member of a religious group that opposed Jesus—even schemed to have him arrested and put to death. I saw him as a member of a religious group that opposed the early followers of Jesus, who schemed to have them arrested too and gotten out of the way. And yet, here is this seemingly hypocritical, fearful man sneaking around under the cover of dark to talk to Jesus, appearing to butter him up at first: “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.”

But Jesus is not susceptible to buttering up. He tells this Nicodemus that he can’t understand anything about what God is up to without first being born from above, without the Spirit of God blowing into his life and capturing him for the purposes of God. Of course Jesus is speaking spiritually and metaphorically. Nicodemus is thinking and speaking literally. For example, when Jesus talks about being born from above, Nicodemus thinks of being born again, of entering a mother’s womb and being birthed a second time. “How can these things be?” he asks Jesus. To which Jesus answers, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”

So, at least in my mind, Nicodemus appears to be this cowardly sort of religious leader who comes to Jesus under cover of night (worried about what others might think); who understands the beliefs and teachings of his religion, but not its heart; who is religious in the worst sense of the word; who is a fearful hypocrite. So Nicodemus: a profile in courage? I wouldn’t have thought so up until a few days ago.

And then I started noticing a few things about Nicodemus that I hadn’t paid much attention to before. He does come to Jesus, and, yes, he comes to him at night. The biblical scholar Raymond Brown suggested that to the gospel of John’s community, seeking to live out their faith at the end of the first century, Nicodemus very well may represent or symbolize secret disciples of Jesus at a time when it was not a popular, or even safe, thing to be a disciple of Jesus. Perhaps so. But the reality that stands out to me is that at least Nicodemus came to Jesus.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, we are told—a leader of the Jews, a member of the Sanhedrin. These were people who had a pretty clear idea about things. Things were pretty well set for them. They knew what was right and what was wrong, what was approved and what was not, what was proper belief and what was heresy.

In other words, they were a lot like us. They had their beliefs and their views about things—at least the things that they considered most important. And they weren’t about to change. Conservatives and Republicans watch Fox News; liberals and Democrats get their news from MSNBC. Fundamentalists and evangelicals go to Southern Baptist churches or the like; people who like their religion more progressive go somewhere else. People are the way they are. We are the way we are. And we are not about to budge.

But Nicodemus took a chance. He stepped out of his comfort zone. There was a big stir about Jesus. And, instead of writing him off, instead of looking for all the things that were wrong with him, instead of believing all the things that people like himself were saying were wrong with him, Nicodemus decided he would go to Jesus himself. He decided to step out of his comfort zone, even if at night, to hear from someone who would challenge him at his core.

And that’s what Jesus did. He talked to Nicodemus about the importance of being born from above if one is to see the kingdom of God. Never mind all the signs that Jesus did that seemed to speak of the presence of God—the signs that captured Nicodemus’ attention. If anyone was to see the working of God they needed a rebirth. They needed spiritual renewal. They needed to be born of the Spirit. And the Spirit was like the wind, Jesus said. You can’t control it. You can’t make it happen. You can only be open to it. “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,” Jesus said to Nicodemus

What in the world was Jesus talking about? Nicodemus wondered. “How can these things be?” he said to Jesus. Reading these words again this past week, it became clear to me that here was a man who was willing to put himself in a place where he was disoriented, where the truths he had accepted in the past could be challenged. And challenged they were. Such takes courage, I thought.

There is a movement being spearheaded among some religious leaders, including Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry who preached so eloquently of the power of love at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle a week ago Saturday. The movement is championing for Christians a statement that is being called “Reclaiming Jesus.” And a part of that statement says, “It is time to be followers of Jesus before anything else—nationality, political party, race, ethnicity, gender, geography—our identity in Christ precedes every other identity. We pray that our nation will see Jesus’ words in us. ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’” (John 13:35). If you would like to read the entire statement when you get home, just Google “Reclaiming Jesus,” and you will find it in its entirety.

As I see it, the statement is confronting Christians with the gospel, and more specifically with Jesus. It is inviting us to step into the shoes of Nicodemus and come to Jesus to hear what he has to say, to be confronted with his words and presence. And, in these troubling times, that’s not easy. It takes courage to hear words that are not easy to hear, to be confronted with the fact that we have bought into the values of our culture and we need a transformation by the Spirit, that it is time for us to be reborn by the wind of the Spirit that is seeking each one of us out. It takes courage to be disoriented and thrown off our game for a while. But that is the way to salvation and life for us, as it was for Nicodemus.

Who here has not wandered around in the wilderness of our own inadequacy and guilt on the way to finding grace? Who here has not struggled with the meaning of life in general and our lives in particular on the way to finding the truth that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life (that is, have life in relationship with our God)?

It takes courage for a Nicodemus to come to Jesus. It takes courage for people like ourselves to reclaim Jesus. It may mean disorientation. It may mean our values and commitments being challenged. It will mean being invited to yield ourselves to the Spirit, which, like the wind, we cannot control. We can only be open to that Spirit’s presence and power in our lives.

Well, after the passage before us, Nicodemus disappears in John’s gospel for a while. We don’t know what became of him, or what he did as a result of his encounter with Jesus. Then, in the 7thchapter of John, Nicodemus shows up again. This time he is with his fellow religious leaders who are out to get Jesus, who are trying to engineer his arrest and spewing insults at those were attracted to Jesus. But this time there is no sneaking around under the cover of the night for Nicodemus. He speaks up to his fellow religious leaders, presumably his friends. He defends Jesus. “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” (7:51). Nicodemus says to his fellowship of religious leaders. It was a courageous thing for him to say, for he faced criticism from his colleagues. He faced put-downs from them. But that didn’t seem to matter to him. Not anymore.

Then again Nicodemus shows up in the gospel of John. This time towards the end, in the 19thchapter, verses 38-40. Jesus has been crucified. He is dead. And Nicodemus joined Joseph of Arimathea, a disciple of Jesus, in taking the body of Jesus to the tomb. Nicodemus brought the spices with which the body of Jesus was wrapped with linen cloths, according to the burial custom of that time.

Something had happened to that man who came to Jesus at night. His carefully structured life as a religious leader was disoriented by his encounter with Jesus. He dared to step out of his comfort zone and to be confronted by Jesus. He heard of things like being born from above and the movement of the Spirit being like that of the wind, and it confused him. That language and those insights were not a part of his world.

But Nicodemus stepped out to meet Jesus and be confronted by his strange world nonetheless. And it changed him. It was as if he, the religious leader who seemed to many to know it all, was reborn. In the process it made him a man who was not afraid to stand up for what was right, even if it meant criticism. And it made of him a man who stood with Jesus even to the end, when his body was taken from the cross and to what many assumed was its final resting place.

That’s what I call courage. That’s what I call a profile in courage. In this time, it is surely the kind of courage that we, who are followers of the One who came to the world and died on the cross because of God’s love for the world, are called to have. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

—William E. Warren, Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Germantown, May 27, 2018

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