This Lent you will notice that we are doing something different with our Gospel readings. We are reading them in parts. There is a long standing tradition of reading the passion Gospel on Palm Sunday in parts each year, which came into practice as a way to invite the faithful to step inside that gripping narrative, and to participate in an active way. It is a long Gospel and so this sort of participation through reading parts also serves the function of keeping us focused on the flow of the story.
In this first year of the three year cycle of our lectionary, our Gospels in this season are long passages from John’s Gospel – with the exception of last week’s reading which was a long reading from Matthew. They are stories of conversations between Jesus and several different individuals and groups which naturally lend themselves to being read in parts. Coincidentally, our Deacon, Jay, is having some issues with her vision at the moment – not to worry it is part of the process of some correction to her vision that she is undergoing – but she will not easily read at arm’s length from the Gospel book until after Easter. So in the meantime, each week she will process the Gospel book and proclaim the opening words, and we will pick up from there with the Gospel text, and she will then close the Gospel for us. Our hope is that this experience of greater participation in the proclamation of the Gospel will help us each more deeply enter into the story.
Last week we enacted the account of Jesus temptations in the wilderness from Matthew’s Gospel, today we entered into the story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus under the cover of darkness. Next week we will play out Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, and the following we will offer up the story of man born blind, his parents and his community. On the fifth Sunday we will climb into the story of Jesus meeting Martha and Mary and their community at Lazarus’ grave, and on Palm Sunday we will re-enact the Passion Gospel according to Matthew. All six of these Gospel passages t revolve around the themes of Baptism and Discipleship. Listen for the connections between them as you help proclaim them, and listen for the connections to your own life.
A bit about this morning’s passage. Nicodemus was a well-respected member of the Jewish people of Jesus’ day. He was a Pharisee and while a good number of his fellow Pharisees were highly suspicious of the young rabbi named Jesus, Nicodemus felt differently. For him the young rabbi held an inexplicable attraction. True, Jesus broke with traditions Pharisees sought to protect – for instance Jesus spoke of God in the most intimate terms and Jesus healed the sick on the Sabbath day – but still, Nicodemus sensed something deeply authentic in Jesus and could not get him out of his mind.
So Nicodemus, under the cover of darkness, goes alone to see Jesus. There is an interesting progression to their conversation. At first they seem to be talking past each other. Nicodemus opens with some words to show he is not there as an enemy – “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.” I almost sense that in the next breath Nicodemus was going to say “But…” and then ask Jesus something about why he had to act in ways that were so provocative and pushed the Pharisaical boundaries so hard. But Jesus cuts him off and heads the conversation in a completely different direction, speaking about how it is not possible to see the kingdom of heaven without being born from above.
This makes me think about the fact that Jesus has experienced this birth from above both in his literal birth into the world as God’s very self in human form, but also along the way at hinge points in his human life – at his baptism when he begins his ministry and on the mount of the transfiguration when he is being preparing for the final chapter. At both those junctures the spirit descends in dove and shining cloud and his human story is transformed and transfigured.
But Nicodemus does not understand what Jesus is talking about. Jesus tells him, “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.” And so this experience of being born from above is not just for Jesus, it is for Nicodemus and the rest of us too – or so Jesus’ words seem to suggest.
Think of the wind we have had these last few weeks – some days it just seems to come up out of nowhere. The Spirit is like that Jesus suggests. Like the wind, you can try to predict and control the Spirit through all sorts of religious laws and practices, but the Spirit’s movements are determined by mortals, but from on high. So to be born from above, one must practice being open to the Spirit – being ready to be touched by it by not being too bound to or distracted by the dynamics and concerns of this world.
And so this gospel passage moves us from human perspective to divine perspective. Jesus is described by Nicodemus at the outset as being a teacher from God, but by the end of this passage we see that he is the Son of God, come not to condemn but rather to reconnect us to God. The passage starts out on the plane of story – the story of Nicodemus meeting Jesus, and as we go, Nicodemus fades and Jesus blends into the voice of the Gospel narrator, and by the end it is as if we are watching what is happening from on above. It is a story designed to draw us from thinking in terms of this human world, to thinking on the plane of the Spirit and God’s eternal realm. In that way it is not unlike the story of the mount of the transfiguration where Jesus is also revealed as the Son of God.
But in both stories, at the end, life in the human realm goes on, and what was experienced and learned by being touched by the eternal needs to be incorporated into life in this world. So we might wonder what happened to Nicodemus after that night. From the two other places he is mentioned in John’s Gospel, we see that his encounter with Jesus surely began a change in him. In Chapter 7 of John’s Gospel we meet Nicodemus again but this time it is in broad daylight. The Pharisees are questioning the Temple Guard about why they have not arrested Jesus for stirring up the people with his teachings. Nicodemus stand in the midst of this discussion and asks, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” It is a bold move. He would have been much safer to keep quiet. He is not exactly taking Jesus side, but he is speaking openly against those who would seek to silence Jesus.
And then we meet Nicodemus for the third and last time in John chapter 19. At this point Jesus has been crucified and his body is hanging lifeless on the cross. Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple of Jesus, asks for permission to take his body down for burial. But he does not do this alone. We are told:
“Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial customs of the Jews.” (John 19: 39-40)
That loving, daring and compassionate act is the last we hear of Nicodemus. How he lived out his discipleship from then on we do not know. And perhaps that leaves us right where we need to be, putting the focus back on us and asking, “Having been touched by the power of the Spirit and given new life in Christ, how am I going to live out my discipleship this week?” May we each pray for the gusts of the Spirit to move us in the right direction as we seek to answer that question, going forth… In Christ’s name. Amen+