Somewhere along the way, I learned to be suspicious of Nicodemus the Pharisee. To think of him as surreptitious and sneaky. He comes to Jesus when no one can see him. He seeks Jesus out when everyone has turned in for the night and headed off to dreamland.
Now I extend Nicodemus more kindness. Maybe because I myself have been Nicodemus a time or two over the years. And certainly because I’ve known and served plenty of people like him.
Nicodemus is anyone who is well versed in the faith and yet finds him or herself wondering if the spiritual life might not involve more than previously imagined. Anyone who dares inquire about the unfamiliar and the unseen and then waits for the answer, that person might be a Nicodemus.
Here is our story. Nicodemus knocks on Jesus’ door one night. When Jesus answers, Nicodemus takes a deep breath and then says this: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs apart from the presence of God.”
This is not a test, not a trial. Nicodemus is not setting Jesus up as other Pharisees have done or will do. Nicodemus is sincere. He senses something about Jesus and the God-life that he can’t shake or fathom.
“Illumine me,” Nicodemus says to the one who will later be called The Light of the World. “Speak to me,” he says to the one who is God’s living, breathing Word.
And Jesus does. At least he tries.
What Jesus doesn’t know about Nicodemus, and maybe what Nicodemus doesn’t even know about himself, is that while the Pharisee possesses considerable religious knowledge, while he is deeply committed to his faith, he lacks what we might call spiritual imagination.
Nicodemus has little aptitude for anything that is not literal. Toss him a metaphor like “born from above” and it is as if you have turned off the lights and left him to stumble around in the dark. Say something nuanced like Jesus does to Nicodemus and it’s as if you’ve spoken to him in a dialect from a distant land.
Which explains why when Jesus begins talking about how seeing God’s kingdom and being part of that kingdom requires a second birth, Nicodemus is genuinely confused.
To a concrete thinker like Nick, Jesus’ remark makes no sense. No grown man can re-enter the womb. That is a ridiculous proposition. “How can these things be,” Nicodemus sputters.
The more Jesus elaborates, the more befuddled Nicodemus becomes. And by the time Jesus has finished speaking, Nicodemus is gone. He has slipped back into the night and returned home, left to wrestle with the ambiguity of Jesus’ reply and to grapple with the spiritual hunger that compelled Nicodemus to seek out Jesus to begin with.
Certainly it was spiritual hunger that spurred Nicodemus to go looking for Jesus—and not just benign curiosity. Spiritual hunger and not just a need to get acquainted with the Rabbi from Nazareth. Or maybe this is just me remembering my experience in a church that was wonderfully, expansively intellectual.
A new pastor came, one who was as capable as any we had ever called. From where I sat in the pews, he had an uncanny knack for opening himself up to the Spirit when he was leading worship. Witnessing this was at once utterly new and oddly familiar, in the same way I suspect it was for Nicodemus when experienced Jesus doing what he did.
On Sundays just as worship was beginning, I swear I could see Jim reach under his white alb and pull out an electrical cord and plug in to Source. Whenever Jim did this, then what he did, what he said, how he moved about the sanctuary he was filled with light, love, and a Presence (capital P) that he did not otherwise possess.
“I’ll have what he’s having,” I thought to myself every Sunday as I observed Jim. Trouble was, no one seemed to see what I saw, let alone understand how this filled me with a yearning to be plugged in too.
I would say this made me like Nicodemus. And there are plenty of us out there. We aren’t sure how to frame our questions or express our longings but we find ourselves knocking on doors all the same, hoping and praying for something we cannot supply on our own.
When Nicodemus comes to Jesus, I have a hunch he expects Jesus will send him home with clear answers and a path forward. But in the spiritual life, rarely are things so cut and dried. We don’t typically travel in a straight line.
Just ask Mary Hoch whose deeply faithful journey is full of curves and circles and 180s. Or just take a note from Nicodemus who, when Jesus is too nuanced for him, heads home again to pray, ponder, and continue on.
And continue on he does. He quietly advocates for Jesus when the Sanhedrin is deciding exactly how to handle him. And then after Jesus’ crucifixion, Nicodemus is there with Joseph of Arimathea providing embalming spices and gently preparing Jesus for burial.
The life we seek in God rarely takes a direct, logical route. Like a river moved by an unseen current, our journeys may have rapids—moments of excitement and thrill—but often they meander, fold back on themselves, and inevitably push on.
Someone this week told me that they have given up using words like “progressive” and “conservative.” Instead, they have taken to simply saying “I’m progressing.”
I couldn’t help but think of the language Jesus uses today about being born again and be reminded of how little the church has understood him over the years. Because being born again isn’t a final destination, a one and done. A stamp in a spiritual passport that gets us where we hope to go.
Being born of the Spirit is an ongoing, round about process. If we are willing, we can count on progressing.
This morning across Christendom, preachers are doing their level best to unpack our gospel lesson in light of the fact that it is Trinity Sunday. These faithful women and men of God are straining for concrete images from the natural world to explain how the Holy One can simultaneously be three: Creator, Christ, and Spirit.
Some preachers are referencing water—which can take the form of ice, liquid, and vapor. Others are speaking of shamrocks and sharing how St. Patrick used them as a Christian teaching tool in pagan Ireland—three leaves come together as one.
One colleague posted madly on Facebook yesterday. “Help! I’m looking for a children’s message to explain the Trinity. Who has creative ideas?”
What an irony that on a Sunday when Jesus speaks of the mystery of the Spirit’s doings that we who bear responsibility for crafting sermons and children’s messages feel obliged to indulge concrete thought when, if Jesus means what he says to Nicodemus, our faith calls to surrender to something greater than our intellects alone can comprehend.
This seems to be what Jesus was so willing and able to do. Surrender to the wild sweeps and swoops of the Spirit. To let its holy wind caress his face or push at his back but a Spirit ready, willing, and able to open the doors of his whole being, filling him with its creative capacities, all in joyful service to the human family.
Nicodemus would learn from Jesus that knowledge only gets a person so far. That there is something bigger and better waiting for us—new birth—Jesus called it. And that this bigger, better defies our ability to pin it down. All we can do, in the end, is let ourselves experience it—and of course be blessed and changed by it.
Friend of and co-conspirator with Fr. Richard Rohr, James Finley says—and I leave this with you to ponder—”God desires you to pass beyond the frontier of all that you can grasp, all that you can feel, all that you can see or touch and let God carry you into this depth of infinite love—that is your ultimate destiny.”
Like brother Nicodemus, may we give ourselves permission to knock on Jesus’ door and scratch our heads without apology when we don’t quite understand.
And may we not stop there. May we come to surrender the hope that we can understand everything there is to understand about the God-life and simply let the Spirit move us, as she is wont to do, into new spiritual terrain. Held always and forever
in the depth of infinite love. For surely this is the destiny of every beloved, God-begotten soul.
Let us pray:
Move us from the safe shores of our own minds into the buoyant mystery of your love, O God. Let us not fear what we do not yet understand but keep circling around until what is plain to you becomes more real and more reliable to us. We seek your love in countless ways and are born anew in you endless times. We are your grateful people. Amen.