Lent 2a, March 16, 2014

March 17, 2014

Just Call Me Nicodemus
John 3:1-17

3:1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 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.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

I think I’ve had a number of different opinions about Nicodemus over the years. And one of my earliest impressions of him was that he was an incredibly dense religious bureaucrat. It used to be easy for me to think of Nicodemus as a man who was in the religious business but who had no sense of the mystery of spirituality. The way he responded to Jesus made me think of him as someone who was devoid of an inner life. I’ve thought of some preachers as being like that. I’ve been around religious professionals who go about their business with the efficiency of an engineer without seeming to have any consciousness of the intangible nature of their work.

Perhaps one of my earliest fears was that I might become such a person and that’s why I thought of Nicodemus in this way. It’s easy to place a lot of different characteristics and motivations on Nicodemus. He suddenly shows up at night, he didn’t say that much, and what he did say made him sound like a dolt, so we can sort of turn him in to whatever we want him to be. I have used him as an example of the type of minister I don’t want to be – a person who goes about the business of religion with great authority and efficiency without a hint of what lies behind the holy words and rituals.

I no longer fear becoming a person of great authority and efficiency. I think I lost that fear when I went in to campus ministry. In the early years of my ministry I had this sense of having more authority than I deserved. When you live in a small town and you are the pastor of a church – even a United Methodist Church there’s an element of respect that you are automatically granted. And along with that respect comes a package of expectations. People assume they know who you are and what you believe because of your title.

It’s wasn’t all bad, but I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the authority that was placed upon me. And then I became the Director of the UALR Wesley Foundation which was a title and a position that meant nothing to anybody. I had to figure out what my job was and how to do something that would somehow impact somebody. And that’s when I discovered the value of cookies. That’s also when I got over my fear of becoming a pompous religious authority. I did, however, became a kitchen control freak. There are a number of people who can testify to the highly particular way I expected my cooking area to be maintained, but there wasn’t anyone at UALR who was put-off by my overbearing pastoral authority.

We all know that religious activity can become a routine business that is divorced from the mystery of spirituality, and you don’t have to be in the religion business to commit this violation. You don’t have to be a preacher to wear your religion badly and in-authentically. I think Nicodemus can be a representative of this possibility, and in that way I think we can all see in him the type of person we don’t want to be – someone who has not been born again, but who drains the life out of others.

But I no longer see Nicodemus as being such an uninspired character. Had he been void of any spiritual curiosity he would not have sought out an opportunity to speak to Jesus – even in the dark. So there’s another type of religious person that I can imagine Nicodemus being. This is the type of person who has really strong convictions and who is moved to get everybody in line with what they know to be true. I can see Nicodemus as being such a true believer in his own cause that he wanted to try to bring Jesus on board with his way of thinking.

The Pharisees were misguided in many ways, but they didn’t fail to reform their faith community because they lacked effort. They had a strong vision of what needed to happen and they were out to make it happen. I can imagine that there were some Pharisees who were somewhat impressed by Jesus, but he wasn’t in line with their agenda. They defined the faith very rigidly and demanded specific behavior. I’m sure there were some well-motivated Pharisees, but they didn’t have a very redeeming plan. They couldn’t accept what Jesus was teaching, but I’m thinking there were some Pharisees who wanted him on to be on their team. Maybe Nicodemus went to Jesus in hope of turning him to their way of thinking.

Shane Claiborne comes to mind. Shane Claiborne is a young man who grew up in a United Methodist Church in East Tennessee. If you don’t know anything about Shane Claiborne you should Google him. He is currently very influential among young people who have been turned off by the way Christianity is generally portrayed and embodied and who are inspired by the way in which he lives the faith. Shane Claiborne doesn’t fit the church mold in any way. He is a founding member of a Christian movement that he calls: The Simple Way, and while it’s hard to argue that it’s in any way at odds with Biblical teachings, it doesn’t look much like what we think of as church.

With dreadlocks and homemade clothes Shane Claiborne doesn’t look anything like a typical United Methodist. I don’t think he is United Methodist anymore, but he was shaped by what he learned in the UMC. He has done his homework in regard to who John Wesley was, but he doesn’t come out thinking about him in the same way that most historians have portrayed Wesley. In an interview that was published in the Interpreter Magazine, which is a publication of the United Methodist Church, Claiborne stated: The more I studied my own tradition in the Methodist church, I saw what a wild guy John Wesley was. John Wesley capped his income off at a very poor, very simple wage and then gave the rest away. When he started generating tons of money, he still lived off this little sum of money and gave what is the equivalent of millions of dollars away. He had such compassion and zeal for social justice and for seeing our faith interact with the world that we live in.

I don’t know that much about Shane Claiborne, but what I do know is that he has taken Christian faith to a whole new level of interaction with the world. He’s helping shape a new type of community that is known as new monasticism – and that doesn’t really fit with the institutional model of Christianity that most of us are familiar with.

I can imagine there are some bishops and other church leaders in the United Methodist Church who wish they could harness the enthusiasm and the commitment of a person like Shane Claiborne, but who aren’t quite ready to let go of all the real estate in order to serve the poor. I can think of Nicodemus as being the type of character who was impressed with what Jesus was doing, but who wasn’t quite ready to throw himself all the way in to his arms.

And I’m guessing this describes a lot of us. I’m not as hard on Nicodemus as I once was. I think I get where he was coming from. Nicodemus recognized that Jesus was connected to God in a profound way, and I think he wanted to be a part of what he sensed to be the real deal, but this born again business is rough stuff.

The concept of being born again has been wildly distorted in recent history. I think it’s been turned in to more of an emotional experience than a reorientation of life experience, and I’m convinced that what Jesus was talking about has more to do with how we live than what we believe. I don’t believe that the “born again” experience is strictly a religious experience that provides us with a home in the afterlife. I think it’s a reorientation experience that has bearing on how we make our way through this life.

I don’t think this reorientation is disconnected from our emotions, but I believe the new birth that Jesus was trying to explain to Nicodemus provides us with a whole new set of priorities. It’s not just a rush of affection for Jesus, it’s a new understanding of what life is all about.

Nicodemus was largely silent after Jesus began speaking of this new birth. We don’t really know what he was thinking, but what Jesus said about this new birth is that it is empowered by the love of God for the world.

Being born again is not really a choice that we make – it’s a gift that comes to us from God. And while it may happen in an instant for some people, I think a lot of us are more like Nicodemus. We are drawn to the possibility of new life, we take cautious steps to investigate what it might be all about, and we ponder what it all means. It doesn’t always happen quickly, but by the grace of God it continues to happen.

Nicodemus appears two more times in the Gospel of John. We hear about him for the second time when he offers some technical resistance to the arrest of Jesus, and he appears the third time after Jesus was crucified. It’s on this third appearance that he comes out in the open with clear affection for Jesus. We’re told that he helped Joseph of Arimathea take care of the crucified body of Christ.

I think I understand this character named Nicodemus. I think you could replace his name with my name, and maybe your name. He’s no hero, but he’s looking in the right direction for the source of true life, and by the grace of God his faith grew and he was eventually transformed.

Thanks be to God that new birth can and does continue to happen.
And it can happen for any of us anytime now!


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