Nicodemus thinks he knows who he is. If we could have interviewed him prior to this encounter with Jesus, he might have said something like this:
I am a Jew, raised in the Pharisee tradition/sect. All my life I have studied the holy scriptures in order to live in right relationship with God. I say my prayers. I follow the rules. I play the game. I try to be a good and just person. And as a result, I have attained a position of power and leadership in my community. I am part of the “we” that is the religious leadership. I am considered wise, a leader, one who knows things.
That’s who he thinks he is as he enters this story.
And he has some inkling of who Jesus is, which he states, right up front. “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” (John 3:2). He calls Jesus “rabbi,” or religious teacher, and then reiterates that Nicodemus and his fellow leaders know that Jesus is a teacher “who has come from God.” If Nicodemus is speaking true and not just trying to butter up Jesus, the religious leaders know that Jesus comes from God. As we know, that’s making them nervous.
What does Nicodemus expect from this midnight conversation? He has snuck out, meeting Jesus alone under cover of darkness so that he, Nicodemus, won’t be found out by his colleagues. What would drive him to do such a thing?
I suspect he sees that, for all that he himself has tried to follow all the religious rules and be a good man, there is more to this faith journey thing than that, and Jesus seems to know something about it.
There is a story of two religious men—monks, maybe. One of them comes to the other and says, “I try as best I can to say my prayers, to study scripture, to do good works. What else can I do?” The other man turns toward him and lifts up his hands. His fingers beam like torches. “If you will,” he says, “You can become pure flame.”
That seems to describe what’s going on here. Nicodemus sees that studying, prayer, and following the rules are not getting him as close to God as Jesus seems to be. Jesus is more like pure flame. And suddenly Nicodemus feels like a moth, drawn to that flame. He is a seeker. He wants to know more about how to get that close to God. It’s important enough to him—he’s intrigued enough by Jesus—that Nicodemus dares to make this midnight visit. How many people in our society today are wondering, like Nicodemus, how to draw close to God?
This being the Gospel of John, when Nicodemus says “We know you are a teacher who comes from God,” Jesus responds not only with a non sequitur but also with a metaphorical image that Nicodemus tries to take literally. Jesus says that Nicodemus must be born again, or born anew, or born from above—it can be translated all of those ways. And Nicodemus says, “How does a grown man even do that? I don’t know what you mean. Do I crawl back into my mother’s womb???” And surely his mother would have some thoughts about that, if she’s even still living.
But of course Jesus means being born of the Spirit. And we see Nicodemus, the supposedly learned religious leader, grappling with this concept. Jesus says, “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” Basically, Jesus is telling Nicodemus to start over in his whole understanding of what it means to seek relationship with God. Step away from all the rules and societal expectations that tell you who to be. Let God tell you who to be and how to be.
We had a taste of the wrestling one can do with these questions last week when we talked about Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness discerning what his ministry would look like. It’s not about personal power or comfort or standing with God. Nicodemus thinks he has all of these things. Jesus rejected all three. And now he’s inviting Nicodemus to do the same. Be born again: walk away from your life of comfort and status.
Nicodemus disappears from the narrative for the rest of this passage, but he crops up two more times in this gospel. It’s worth a look to see whether this midnight encounter with Jesus influences his behavior later. What do we see about his faith journey?
In chapter 7, the religious leaders are seeking to have Jesus arrested. They send temple police to haul him in. But the temple police come back saying, “You’ve got to hear this guy talk!” And as the other religious leaders are saying, “He’s duping the masses! None of us believes in him,” Nicodemus has the temerity to say, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” (John 4:51.) And his colleagues turn on him and say, basically, “Whose side are you on?” That’s pretty bold. He just stuck up for Jesus among the religious elites who are trying to kill Jesus.
And of course they succeed. After Jesus’ crucifixion, Joseph of Arimathea goes to Pilate and asks for Jesus’ body. The body of one who is crucified is supposed to be brought down from the cross and left for the dogs to tear to pieces. This is part of the public and complete humiliation of this form of punishment. But Joseph gets permission to bury the body, and Nicodemus goes with him to do it, bringing along 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes to anoint the body. One hundred pounds. The two men wrap Jesus’ body in linens and spices. They find a new tomb nearby and put his body in it. (A tomb in those days was a cave that could have multiple chambers. A body would be left on a bench area until only the bones were left, and then the bones would be put in a container and moved into one of the other rooms of the tomb.)
Nicodemus never joins the disciples openly or stands in the public square to proclaim Jesus’ message. Could he have done more? Maybe. But here’s what he does do, which none of the other disciples is in a position to do: he takes a stand on Jesus’ behalf against his fellow religious leaders. And he makes sure that Jesus’ body is not left for the dogs but receives a respectful burial. These are acts of faith and courage. In his own way, he is saying yes to Jesus and to God.
I want to go back to this question, “Who do you say that I am?” We’ve been exploring who Jesus says that Nicodemus is: he is one who must be born again. And we also explored who Nicodemus said that Jesus is: a rabbi, a teacher who comes from God. “Who do you say that I am?” is a question that Jesus asks of his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew. And there, Peter responds by saying, “You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).
So now we get to wrestle with that question. Who do you say that Jesus is? Smart, thoughtful, faithful people have debated this question down through the centuries and have come up with different answers. Whole councils of bishops met for weeks and weeks to discuss whether Jesus was fully human or fully divine, or somehow both at once. And if you emerged from these councils disagreeing with the majority, you could be booted out of Christianity. Standing up to the religious leaders has always come at a cost, as Nicodemus knew.
Who you say that Jesus is, is a question that each of us has to wrestle with for ourselves, just as Nicodemus did, and we may all come up with different answers—which may change over time. Was Jesus born of a virgin in a stable in Bethlehem? Some say yes. Some say that is an origin story for Jesus designed to put him toe to toe with Caesar, who was also called Son of God. (Different god.) Was Jesus the only-begotten Son of God, made incarnate in order to save the world? The Gospel of John makes that claim later in the chapter that we have been reading. Is Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, which means the Anointed One? Is Jesus our Lord and Savior?
Some people who have attended this church over the years confide to me that they don’t know what to make of Jesus, or they don’t subscribe to all the miraculous stories surrounding him. And they wonder if that means they shouldn’t come to a Christian church, or shouldn’t join the church.
So for them, I pose this question: “What if Jesus was just a guy?” What if all the stories in the gospels are not biography but more hagiography, stories that transform Jesus’ life and ministry into the stuff of legends and miracles? If Jesus was a mere human, and a mere human could lift up such a powerful voice for liberation from oppression, for Good News of God’s love and grace—such a voice of truth that it has reverberated down through time and all over the world—then what might each of us do if we gave ourselves fully to being born again through God’s Spirit? And if we think Jesus was just a human, same as you and me, how does that reflect on who we say we are? Can we call ourselves Christians, meaning followers of Christ—that rabbi, that teacher who comes from God?
I wrestle with that question and say yes.
So many questions that the Bible raises are not ones we can answer definitively. Questions about Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection, for example. How we show up to these questions and come to our own faithful answers is up to each of us, but we can do it together. I tend to let go of the questions that cannot be answered. I hold them in the mystery.
Because what I know for certain is this: Jesus’ life and ministry so radically touched the people around him that their lives were transformed. They were healed, in body or soul or both. They stopped whatever else they were doing—fishing, collecting taxes, whatever—and they devoted the rest of their lives to Jesus’ message of love and grace and Good News in God. The disciples found a path to God that turned their faith journey to pure flame, that set their souls on fire, that so overflowed from their hearts that they had to share it. I follow that Jesus. I follow that path to God. I say my prayers. I study scripture—not as fact, not as history, but as truth, as stories that tell me who I am, God’s beloved child, and how to live my life. That is my salvation. And that you all are God’s beloved children, too, and that we are to love and care for each other. And I look for how Jesus is calling me to be born anew, not just once, but daily.
Who do you say that Jesus is? And who does Jesus say that you are? In wrestling with these questions, we may find our way to a close relationship with God. We may become pure flame. May it be so. Amen.