Our preacher this past Sunday morning at St. Andrew's was the Rev. Dr. Philip Wainwright. Dr. Wainwright, who retired from service as rector of St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Brentwood, Pennsylvania, in 2010, has recently been involved in a diocesan ministry initiative on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh. He also has been participating here at St. Andrew's on Sunday mornings and in our Adult Education programs. The text this Sunday was John 3: 1-17.
Food for Thought for Nicodemus
My text this morning is the one we just read from John’s gospel, describing a conversation between Jesus and a man called Nicodemus. It contains two or three famous verses, and we read it during Lent because it helps us understand Good Friday and Easter, and I want to take a few minutes to make the connection explicit. The text is in the service leaflet, and I urge you to follow along as I go through it.
John introduces Nicodemus as a Pharisee, which means he was a devoutly religious man, and as a ‘leader’. The Jewish Encyclopaedia says he may be Nicodemus ben Gurion, mentioned in the Talmud as a wealthy and popular spiritual leader of the day. Jesus refers to him in v 10 as a teacher of Israel, which is consistent with that. And clearly he is more than usually thoughtful about spiritual things, because although as a Pharisee he would have heard the disapproving comments many people were already making about Jesus—John has just referred to that in the preceding chapter of his gospel—Nicodemus was curious to know more, to find out for himself if Jesus has anything interesting to say. But Nicodemus came to see Jesus by night, which must mean a time late enough to be worth pointing out—when John refers to Nicodemus again later in the gospel he describes him as ‘Nicodemus, you know, the one who came to Jesus by night’.
Most commentators assume he comes at this odd time because of the disapproval of other Jewish leaders; Nicodemus didn’t want anyone else to know he was interested! As a result of that, Nicodemus has given his name to people who have to be, or think they have to be, secret Christians, people who can’t admit to their faith publicly. Anglican history is full of Nicodemites—people who had to keep quiet about their beliefs because the authorities disapproved of them. During the reign of Henry VIII almost everybody was a Nicodemite at some point!
Whatever the reasons for the time, it leads to a pretty deep discussion. Nicodemus begins by giving Jesus the opportunity to say more about the thing that troubled the Jewish leadership most, His lack of authority. 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. ‘You’ve turned water into wine, they say, and you created a big scene in the Temple during Passover when you drove out the people selling animals for sacrifice and upset the table of the currency exchange—I guess you’d say you’re God’s messenger or something along those lines?’
Jesus, as on many other occasions, not only ignores the question, but turns the spotlight back on the questioner. No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. Now I have to do a bit of editorialising here, because this is not the usual translation. The usual translation is born again, not born from above. What’s going on? Well, the Greek word written by John is anothen, and it can mean either, or according to my Classics teacher, both.
To use an ambiguous word in both of its senses at the same time was a popular literary device in the ancient world, and when we look closely at this passage it’s clear that both meanings are being drawn on here. We’ll begin by translating it born again, because that’s how Nicodemus understands it, but we’ll see how Jesus uses its other meaning to show Nicodemus, and the rest of us, how to be born again. But don’t let this figure of speech prevent you seeing what Jesus is doing in terms of the conversation; His reply is basically, ‘Never mind about My status, what about yours? Are you a citizen of the Kingdom of God? Have you been born again?’
I don’t think Nicodemus takes Jesus seriously at first. How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born? Perhaps it says more about me than Nicodemus, but I picture a bit of a superior expression on his face at this point. ‘What on earth can being born again mean? Come on Jesus, I’m trying to discuss serious things here.’
I am serious, says Jesus. 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 of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above’. Now I think that Jesus is now beginning to draw on the alternative meaning of the ambiguous word; ‘If you want to understand Me, if you want to know if I’m really from God or not, if you want to know whether God is at work or if I’m just a cult-leader, you need to change, you need to be born again, and this second birth needs to be God’s work, not a physical birth but a spiritual birth, a birth from above. If you haven’t experienced that, Nicodemus, my teachings will never make sense to you, you’ll never know if I’ve come from God or not.’
But Nicodemus still doesn’t get it: How can these things be? There isn’t time to look at all of Jesus’s answer, but do look at v 13: No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. Jesus is the One from above; the way to be born again is through Him. And then Jesus explains to Nicodemus exactly how this works.
He does this by using an image from the Old Testament that every devout Jew knew well, the story about the bronze serpent in the wilderness. This story comes from the time when God had answered the prayers of His people by delivering them from slavery in Egypt, and is leading them through the wilderness to a land He tells them will be wonderful, a land flowing with milk and honey. But getting there through the wilderness is hard; they suffer in all sorts of ways, and eventually they begin to criticise God for delivering them, for answering their prayer in the first place. ‘Even slavery in Egypt was better than this!’
Now Jesus tells us that to call something God is doing evil is the sin against the Holy Spirit, and that there is no escaping the consequences of that; and on this occasion the consequences come in the form of a plague of poisonous snakes, and people are dying all over the place. Moses prays to God for help, and God says Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.1 Now I know that sounds about as strange as anything could, but the point is that Moses did what God told him, and sure enough everyone who looked at the bronze serpent was healed of his snakebite.
So when Jesus says just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life, that’s the story He is referring to. He is saying ‘This time, I’m going to be the snake for you. God is going to mount me on a kind of pole too, a cross, and there I’m going to absorb everything that came from the original serpent, the one who tempted people to disobey God in the first place, and all anyone who wants to be part of God’s kingdom needs to be is to believe in me the way the ancient Israelites believed in the bronze serpent, and then he can be part of God’s kingdom now, and have eternal life next.’
Humankind needs this, because we are dying of sin as surely as the Israelites were dying of snakebites, and we cannot put that right ourselves. Without intervention from above, we are doomed. And, fortunately, God loves His creation too much to leave us to the fate we have brought on ourselves. He loves Nicodemus, and you, and me so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
We don’t know for sure what Nicodemus eventually made of all this. If he had decided to put his own faith in Christ right aftr this conversation, it’s hard to imagine that John wouldn’t have mentioned it. The probability must be that he went home not knowing what to think, but realising that Jesus had given him a lot to think about. We know he continued to hang around when Jesus was speaking in public; he pops up again in chapter 7, when some of the Pharisees tried to say that Jesus was accursed, and he reminds them that they are supposed to listen and think before jumping to any conclusions. Perhaps that’s what he was still doing. After the crucifixion, he donates the spices and ointments used to prepare Jesus’s body for burial, perhaps simply a gesture of sympathy, but perhaps because by now he was part of the Christian community. There is a tradition that says he was martyred sometime in the first century, but we cannot be sure; but I like to think that we’re not being very fair to him when we use his name to refer to a secret Christian.
But the real question for today is not about Nicodemus, but about us. Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? asked Jesus. Do we understand these things? That Jesus taught that there is no way into the kingdom of God except through faith in the crucified messiah? Is that teaching a stumbling block for us? Or is it our hope and lifeline? It is, after all, the reason why Good Friday is called Good Friday, why it is something to celebrate, even if in our culture good manners tell us to put off the celebration till Easter Day. Something to think about, until it becomes something to thank God for every day of our lives.