The past two weeks we have looked at a pair of very different stories from John’s Gospel. In the first, Jesus keeps a party going by changing water to wine at a wedding celebration in Cana. In the second, Jesus shuts a party down by creating a scene at the Temple overturning the tables of the moneychangers and driving the animals for sale out of the Temple. I think part of John’s message is that this is going to be a wild ride and we should never get too comfortable with thinking we know all about Jesus and his priorities.
This week and next week we look at stories which continue to pound away at all of our preconceived notions, not only about Jesus but about other people. Today we look at an encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus and next week an encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. Nicodemus is the classic “insider,” the establishment guy, old family, old money. He is Somebody with a capital S. The woman is the classic “outsider,” a woman to begin with, a despised Samaritan, questionable morals, we don’t even know her name. She is Nobody with a capital N. Yet Jesus invites both to fully receive and participate in the abundant life he offers. Neither story is told in any of the other Gospels.
I think today is a good day to talk about the composition of the New Testament to set John in context. None of the books are actually dated, so determining about when they were written is an inexact science. The letters of Paul are the earliest writings we have in the New Testament, probably dating from the early 50’s to early 60’s AD. As he travelled around establishing churches he wrote churches he had previously visited with advice and encouragement. His letters don’t quote any of the Gospels, nor do they quote the teachings of Jesus, so it makes sense that those were not yet in written form.
Because Mark is the shortest Gospel and is often used word for word by Matthew and Luke, it is assumed to be the first to have taken written form, and it is believed that it took final form before the Temple was destroyed in the year 70 AD. Matthew and Luke probably date from shortly after the Temple was destroyed, an event which brought such upheaval and change and relocation of Jews and Jewish Christians from Jerusalem to other locations. John’s Gospel is typically dated toward the end of the century.
After the time of Jesus, Jews and Jewish Christians had continued to be related and to worship at the Temple. The destruction of the Temple brought a crisis as to what the future of Judaism would look like. The Sadducees were the priestly group which oversaw the Temple system, so their role disappeared with the Temple. The Pharisees became the influential leadership of what came to be called “Rabbinical Judaism,” following the Temple period. It centered around local synagogues and without the sacrificial system it was very Torah centered, very law centered. These local faith communities were very susceptible to personality conflicts and power struggles, and the differences between Jews and Jewish Christians became more and more pronounced. As Judaism attempted to define itself in the post-Temple era, a council was held in Jamnia around 85 AD to make important decisions. In light of the new Christian writings of Paul and the Gospel writers which Jewish Christians were holding in very high esteem, the council announced that none of them would be added to Scripture. In fact, nothing new would ever be added to Scripture from that point forward. People who considered themselves Jews but believed Jesus was the Messiah felt more and more excluded and even discriminated against, so the separation of church from synagogue was hastened. It is against the backdrop of these events and changes that John’s Gospel must be read, and it helps explain the sections of John which are accused of being anti-Semitic.
So in today’s story, Nicodemus comes to see Jesus. Nicodemus is identified by John as a leader of the Jews, which almost certainly means he was a member of the Sanhedrin, a court of 70 who were the highest authority in Judaism. Jesus has just been to the Temple, the center of Judaism, and turned it upside down with disrupting the economy of moneychanging and sale of sacrificial birds and animals.
We Christians have been conditioned to stereotype the Pharisees as people who are always trying to trip Jesus up with trick questions and get him to say or do something for which they can punish him. But John here portrays not just any Pharisee, but a leader of the Jews, coming to Jesus to learn more.
As I said earlier, Nicodemus was Somebody, way up the ladder of standing in Jewish society. He would have expected people to come see him, to come asking for guidance or help. It was quite a step for him to choose to go visit this itinerant preacher and rabble rouser Jesus. For this reason, he went at night. Maybe he was a little embarrassed, maybe he worried about what his peers would think of him doing this. Nevertheless, he came, and he explained why in this amazing statement to Jesus: “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.” He addresses Jesus with utmost respect, calling him “Rabbi,” teacher. He indicates that it is not just him who recognizes this truth: “We know you are a teacher from God…” He acknowledges the signs as God inspired. What we don’t know is what the agenda of Nicodemus was. Was he coming to try to recruit Jesus to join them instead of fighting them? Was he going to ask him to be a little less combative in presenting his message? Was he going to ask him where he went to seminary? We don’t know, because Jesus hijacks the conversation and launches us into another dizzying back and forth.
Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus replies, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” Nicodemus was thinking literally and Jesus was thinking figuratively.
Nicodemus had devoted his life to knowing and living by the Jewish law. It was derived from the Old Testament law but went far beyond that. The Mishnah was the work of generations of scholars to define the implications of Old Testament laws. For instance, the law to keep the Sabbath day holy and do no work on it required some guidelines on what constitutes work. The Mishnah contains 24 chapters of explanation about what can and cannot be done on the Sabbath. Then the Talmud was written, which is a commentary on the commentary and adds more interpretation. This is how Nicodemus thought, the black and white world of rules and regulations, right and wrong.
Jesus was saying, “You are not going to be able to keep a foot firmly planted in that way of thinking and be able to comprehend and enter into the kingdom of God that I can show you. The kingdom is an open ended, experiential way of thinking. To move from one way of thinking to the other is radical, it is as traumatic and transformative as being born.” To move from that safe, warm sac of amniotic fluid directly connected to the human being that has given you life into a traumatic journey through a birth canal into a world of bright lights and other people handling you and having to breath on your own and having your umbilical cord snipped, your very lifeline – we ought to be able to handle anything after entering the world that way! Jesus is saying that to leave behind our well established comfort zones surrounded by people who think like us and affirm us in everything to go to a strange new world where the people are different, the language is different, the way of thinking is different, even the oxygen seems different, is every bit as traumatic a transition.
Nicodemus clearly doesn’t get it, asking Jesus, “How can these things be?” Jesus goes on, and the passage includes John 3:16: “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.” As a Christian, this is everything you need to know. Karl Barth, the preeminent theologian of the 20th century, wrote 16 volumes of Church Dogmatics to explain the Christian faith, but he said the Gospel in miniature is John 3:16 or “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” If you are used to having to read 24 chapters just to understand the implications of the law to keep the Sabbath holy, this simplicity can either be an incredible gift or an insurmountable obstacle.
The story ends without Nicodemus accepting or rejecting what Jesus has told him. John shows us two more glimpses of Nicodemus. In the first one, the Jewish leaders are ready to be judge, jury, and executioner in condemning Jesus, but Nicodemus objects, saying, “Isn’t it our practice to give a person a fair hearing before condemning them?” And after Jesus’ crucifixion, Nicodemus is with Joseph of Arimathea, also named as a member of the Sanhedrin but also as a follower of Jesus, and they bury Jesus. Nicodemus provides 100 pounds of burial spices, an enormous and costly amount. So obviously Nicodemus continued to ponder what Jesus said, continued to watch and listen and struggle with where he found himself in relation to what he had always believed versus the invitation to abundant life from Jesus. I would expect many of us can identify with that kind of back and forth struggle with faith.
What might John have been trying to communicate to his contemporaries by emphasizing this story? Maybe in the midst of Jewish-Christian tensions he wanted to remind everyone that engagement is better than exclusion – that even some people high up in the Jewish hierarchy were drawn to Jesus and his teachings, and he was willing to engage them and invite them into the kingdom of God. He may also have wanted to reassure people who had started out Jewish and had now been excluded from the synagogue that the person they were following had indeed been recognized by Jewish leaders as being from God.
For us I can envision several meanings. Each of us has, over our lifetimes, adopted a worldview and a set of norms. Some are cultural, some are political, some are religious. Those worldviews lead us to identify with particular groups of people who think like us, and we become more and more immersed in those groups. Then we tend to look around at other groups who are not like us and see them as the enemy, people who are wrong and need to be opposed.
Snoopy was sitting on his doghouse with his typewriter and Charlie Brown asked him what he was doing. Snoopy said he was writing a book on theology. Charlie Brown asked what he was going to call it and Snoopy said, “Has It Ever Occurred to You That You Might Be Wrong?” It would be good if that was an actual book and we could all read it.
It was refreshing this week to see a group of Senators from both parties make up their minds to transcend party affiliation and try to work for the good of the country. They met in Senator Collins’ office, and a lot of people didn’t want them to. And it is hard to get out of your caucuses, where everyone is expected to blindly follow the leader and vote as they are told. It is like being born again, like having to go to kindergarten again. Senator Collins got out what she called a “talking stick” and said only the person who was holding it could talk and everyone else had to listen and not interrupt. It’s humbling, like Jesus asking Nicodemus, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Being born again has to start somewhere and it is radical and it is traumatic and it is hard, but it is so, so worth it. Maybe their parties will kick them out. Maybe they will start a new one. May their tribe increase in Washington and in church.
Fred Craddock says that John’s church and our churches are always tempted to slide back into a way of being that emphasizes traditions, structures, rituals, doctrines, and moralistic and legalistic instructions rather than embracing the Spirit which blows where it wills. He sees the journey of Nicodemus as instructive for Christians, writing, “According to this Gospel, one does not decide for or against Jesus Christ once and only once. In each new situation, before each issue, in every relationship, that decision of faith is made anew. Even disciples must become disciples again and again. This presentation of the life of faith as alive, capable of growth or regression, more nearly corresponds to the experience of many of us than does the image of a once in a lifetime decision.” (Knox Preaching Guides, John, pp. 28-29)
The wind blows as it will. The Spirit blows as it will. We are not in control of it, God is. But we can choose to let it lift us and carry us and empower us, or we can choose to oppose it and do what we can to thwart it. The invitation to the abundant life of the kingdom of God is simple: you slide out the birth canal into the world and you open your eyes and start breathing. You breathe in this oxygen: God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever lives and believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. It’s simple. But that doesn’t mean it is always easy. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
January 28, 2018
Central Presbyterian Church, Anderson, SC