“Melton residence, may I ask who’s calling?” I was taught to ask as a child in Phone Etiquette 101 in the Melton household. The second thing my parents taught my brothers and me was not to indicate whether or not we were alone in the house. Good common sense. But the third instruction came with such visceral intensity it was as if anyone would be a fool not to know it already: “...and for goodness’ sake,” they’d say, “don’t call anyone after 10 PM.” Any fool, they said, knows better than that.
In John’s gospel, Nicodemus comes at night. He shows up post-10 PM, after which everyone knows not to bother one another. But Nicodemus does - walks up to the door and ventures a knock as lights are being extinguished, children have long since been settled, and lovers are grasping to take hold of one another as they drift off to sleep. For goodness’ sake, don’t call that late. Night belongs to shadows and fears and secrets and peace and the kind of privacy that makes a man’s home his castle. But this is when Nicodemus comes. Nicodemus comes at night.
Certainly, there’s a metaphor going on here: Nicodemus, when he starts talking, doesn’t come across as all that bright. He’s slow to understand. Dim-witted, even. “Jesus, I don’t get it,” he says. He’s left, as it were, in the dark. Literally understood, night seems to fit Nicodemus.
But Nicodemus’ being dense isn’t the only reason night seems to fit him. He’s coming to Jesus in secret. Nicodemus needs the cover of darkness because Nicodemus is leading two lives.
Now, you don’t have to like the night to be leading two lives, but it can help. Still, there are some obvious exceptions: you remember the woman at the well. The woman at the well was hiding because she had gone through five husbands. Her tawdry lifestyle had tarnished her reputation, so she traveled to the well at midday - high noon - because nobody would have the poor sense to fetch water in the heat of the day, and so she would be left alone.
Sometimes you can do this - you can hide in the spotlight; the light so bright that others divert their eyes. Sometimes the best place to hide is out in the middle of things - where everyone figures you’d have to be a fool to be.
But Nicodemus isn’t taking the risk that the woman at the well is willing to take. Darkness it is. You don’t have to like the night to be leading two lives, but it can help. And darkness is where we find him.
To be fair, it was a scandal for the woman at the well to be talking with Jesus, but no more of a scandal than was already established about her by virtue of her lifestyle. The scandal was really for Jesus, in his talking to her. After all, he was the one in good standing. For Nicodemus, on the other hand, Jesus is the scandal. Nicodemus is an impeccably good man, a Pharisee, a religious leader. He stands to lose everything in anything resembling a sympathetic encounter with this man the religious leaders will, before too long, arrange to have crucified.
Thus the darkness: because Jesus is the scandal.
And we can relate to Nicodemus, I think, because this has become true in our own day as well. Once upon a time, it was a scandal not to know Jesus; a scandal to go shopping on Sunday. Indeed, to profess anything other than “Jesus is Lord” when it came to religion was a betrayal of grandma and all that was good. Incredibly, sometimes the profession of Jesus as Lord was forcibly coerced.
But no longer. Ours is the time of Nicodemus, when good men and good women stand to stain their reputations by association with the scandal called Jesus. “I thought you were a learned man; you can’t really believe all that nonsense.” “Just how religious are you? You’re not one of those Jesus-people? Ugh. What a disappointment.”
So it’s after 10 PM, now as then. The cover of darkness. Because Jesus is a thing you keep to yourself. Nicodemus is knocking. Hiding himself from the high standards of his religious office and wondering about this Jesus. “We know,” he tells Jesus, “that you’re in touch with God’s presence. No one could do what you do otherwise.” Jesus intercepts this mix of honest confession and flattery, cutting straight to the chase, saying: “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above - without being born of the Spirit.” That is, Nicodemus, you can’t understand this Kingdom abstractly, from a perch, from a point, as it were, outside of the Kingdom. But if you’re looking for the Kingdom, if you want to see the Kingdom, the light to your darkness, you have to jump in, Nicodemus, you have to jump in, where the Spirit will remake you from the top.
Nicodemus, you can’t see the Kingdom with one life tied behind your back.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Kingdom requires not a double but a single life. “Born from above,” and the Greek for “from above” is the same word used later to describe Jesus’ garment, the one for which the soldiers cast lots at his trial. Seamless. Woven in one piece, from the top. His garment is a picture of the lives of all those who would follow him and come to see the Kingdom: woven in one piece.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that such a rebirth, from above, of one piece, is a birth by water and the Spirit. It is the Spirit who weaves the life of a child in the Kingdom. And the Spirit’s work of making one life out of two is what the Church has traditionally called “sanctification”: making holy, making whole. Two lives turned into one; a seamless garment; woven from the top; this is what the Spirit is about.
In my own spiritual journey, I have found the desire to be made into a seamless garment an amazing and compelling hope; to be made all of one piece.
Nicodemus wanted Jesus, but he wanted to want him when he wanted him, if you follow. After work. After hours. In many ways, Nicodemus prefigures the post-Enlightenment idea that faith is a private matter with no bearing on the “real world” out there; no truth of consequence beyond an hour kept each Sunday morning around an altar in a dimly lit sanctuary.
But what do we make, then, of the verse from Psalm 139: “the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee”?
A friend of mine had another way of naming the challenge of Nicodemus: he wore a colored bracelet with the numbers 2, 4, and 7 on it. As in, 24/7. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week: this is when we are to follow the call and direction and leading of the Holy Spirit who comes at Pentecost.
So we’re talking about the Spirit who wants to bring all of us, with Christ, into the full light of day. We are considering Christianity without the on/off switch or dimmer. We are perhaps especially feeling Nicodemus’ pinch: that living with Christ in the light of day might threaten our day jobs, literally. To be sure, Nicodemus’ job as a Pharisee would look very different as a public follower of Christ.
And this how the Holy Spirit means to set the world on fire, I think: by lighting you here and burning with you, within you, as you go back out there: wherever “there” is for you.
So Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, a missionary of the Church of Scotland - who himself spent 40 years as a missionary in India - writes about how vital, how imperative, it is that the Church become a place that “enables (her) members to think out the problems that face them in their secular work in the light of their Christian faith.”
Here Newbigin speaks of the need for “‘frontier-groups,’ groups of Christians working in the same sectors of public life, meeting to thrash out the controversial issues of their business or profession in the light of their faith.” I know a group of you - teachers - who find great strength in just such a group of mutual support, as you seek to live out your calling to teach within your understanding of what it means to do so as a Christian.
And Newbigin writes about the help your clergy (that’s me) will need in this process because your clergy by and large were trained for the “pastoral care of the existing congregation,” and less for “the missionary calling to claim the whole of public life for Christ and his Kingdom.”
The whole of public life - the whole of your public life - for Christ and his Kingdom. That’s the vision Jesus gives to Nicodemus and to us.
We aren’t told much else about Nicodemus in John’s gospel. After this encounter with Jesus, Nicodemus makes only two other appearances. The first is an ambiguous one-line cameo as the Pharisees wrestle over what to do about Jesus - “has he broken the law or not?” kind of talk. The second is after Jesus is put to death. He accompanies Joseph of Arimethea, when Joseph asks for and receives permission from Pilate to lay Jesus’ body in a new tomb in a garden. Joseph, who is described as “a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one, for fear of the Jews.” Like Nicodemus, who came by at night, when everyone knows better than to call. They were afraid of the scandal. But now they come out. Hardly courageous, but public nonetheless. And together they bear on their bodies, for all honest eyes to see, the body of the crucified Lord. And somewhere in the mystery of these three great, holy days, we learn to love the miracle that - by the Spirit of the living God - we may do the same.
Sermon preached Trinity Sunday, June 3, 2012.
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