This is my second “blog in a time of pandemic.” And it fits also in my ongoing series of reflections on the Sunday readings. (I rely greatly in these comments on the scholarship of the late Raymond E. Brown, and I love his idea that “eternal life” that is featured so much in the Fourth Gospel is “the life that death can’t touch.” Very apropos of this time of pandemic.)
We are so used to shopping and eating out and going to shows and sports events that this Covid-19 business of locking us down comes as a huge shock. More than a shock it presents us with a crisis. Who are we? What kind of people? What shapes our identity and sense of belonging? Will we look out for ourselves, or for each other? Do we live one-dimensional lives, or full-dimensional?
The church, in its wisdom, has appointed for our Gospel readings during the Lenten season (year A in the Revised Common Lectionary), the four great dialogs of the Gospel of John. Chapter three is Nicodemus—to be read the second Sunday of Lent. Chapter four, the Samaritan Woman at the Well, is set for the third. Chapter nine, the Man Born Blind is read on the fourth. And chapter 11, the Raising of Lazarus and the dialogs with his sisters, Mary and Martha.
Though we are already coming up on Lent Four, I will reach back and deal here with Nicodemus, who could be called the patron saint of religious types. If you think of yourself as a regular at church, synagogue, or mosque services, you should think on Nicodemus. He comes to Jesus impressed. If you are a BIG FAN of any celebrity, you might approach them declaring yourself as such in the belief that a little of the celebrity’s sparkle might rub off on you. You might think of yourself as possessing a nice chunk of inside knowledge. If you think of yourself as a faithful worshipper, you might think you are all of the above when it comes to God.
But Nicodemus comes to Jesus at this time by night. The entirety of the Fourth Gospel has been handed down to us from an author and a community that are under pressure. Their friends and family look at them with anything from suspicion to contempt because they trust in Jesus Christ. Nicodemus stands in this story as a kind of a patron saint of the religious, but also of the religious who prefer shadows to the light of day.
Sometimes you and I would rather not be believers out loud. It’s not cool to be out in front. In private we may feel inspired by Christ, but sticking our necks out in public may be dangerous. We might lose friends and find ourselves REALLY socially isolated.
So, when Nicodemus, speaking in the “we,” to show that he represents here the religious establishment, declares that he and others are impressed with Jesus’ signs, or miracles, Jesus draws him further up and further in. And at the same time he addresses the fear and reticence that Nicodemus has about being an outlier because of his nascent faith. He does this by challenging Nicodemus: To see the kingdom of God one must be born from above. In John, Jesus rarely speaks of the kingdom of God. John probably knew of other gospel traditions that did use that term, just as Jesus must have. But John remembers Jesus using a term that is much more challenging: eternal life—the life that death can’t touch.
The Greek word that John uses to translate Jesus’ thought here is anothen, which is perfect for his purpose, because it can either mean “from above,” or “again.” And John wants to show that this Life Jesus gives is much more powerful and wonderful than we will ever fully understand. And so, ordinary people, like Nicodemus and you and me, no matter how religious we might be, are from below—and we have a long way to go before we actually see things in full dimension. Jesus, however, is from above, and he is challenging us to go there. This is the Lenten journey that begins when we trust Jesus, and which continues as eternal Life.
The reason this is good news for Nicodemus, and for all of us religious people who are too cowardly to move decisively and come into the light and shout our faith out loud, is that Jesus assures us that we belong not by blood and physical birth, but by virtue of birth from above—a new kind of thing. The risk of being shunned or hated by family and friends is a spiritual prison. Jesus may inspire us, but we are afraid to speak and live fully out of that inspiration. We can break out of this prison only when we realize our belonging or identity is not determined by family background or race or popularity, or by anything “from below.” In the next chapter Jesus will talk to a Samaritan woman who is not only socially isolated by her blood, but by her past, and especially by place. No, Jesus says, the validity and power of our worship is not determined by sacred place, but by the Spirit and Truth.
There is hope for all of us religious and reticent people because chapter three is only the beginning of the saga of Jesus and Nicodemus in the Fourth Gospel. We will see this man in chapter seven begin to take risks for his trust in Jesus as the Christ and the Giver of Life. When the Pharisees declare that no real Pharisee has or can turn to Jesus, Nicodemus pokes his head up and his nose into the debate by saying the law of Moses doesn’t condemn people who are backed up by good actions. And finally, in chapter 19, after Jesus is lifted up once again to God and glory in the crucifixion, Nicodemus joins another shadow dwelling Joseph of Arimathea, They both act decisively now and come out into the light, despite the risk. Nicodemus brings a wheel-barrow full of myrrh and aloes to give Christ a proper, royal burial.
Just so, Nicodemus is exemplary for all of us. We cannot hide in the shadows and still see, and know, and understand. We must undergo the full treatment that is only signified by Jesus’ miracles and by the Baptism of the church. To experience the fullness of Baptism–to be born of water and the Spirit–is a life-long process, marked by those times of crisis—times, perhaps much like this time of global pandemic—when we must come out of the night and into the day of eternal Life. It is a life-long process in which the Christ keeps beckoning us further up and further in.
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