Deacon Janice Bales
March 20, 2011
Here we are on the Second Sunday of Lent. Some of us have given things up, some of us have taken things on, some of us have done both. Some of us are seeking ways to deepen our relationship with God and some of us are blithely ignoring the opportunity. Four weeks to go before Palm Sunday and the holiest of weeks as we make our way to the cross and burst through it to Easter morn. Death and resurrection: that’s what life in Christ is all about. We like the resurrection part. It’s the dying part we often don’t want to deal with, letting go of little things and big things. Abraham had o let go of a lot. He was 75 years old, rich, big family, ready to retire no doubt and God comes along and says, “Leave your country, your family and your father’s home for a land that I will show you.” I might have responded, “Whoa! Wait a minute, God.” In a New Yorker cartoon, two sophisticated couples are having cocktails. One of the men says, “I’m in the market for an easier religion.” Well, I can identify with that sentiment.
Today’s gospel had been rattling around in my head for a few weeks as I was thinking about Nicodemus and what he was seeking. I thought I had the sermon worked out. But as happens so many times when I think I am in control, everything changes. The disaster in Japan these past days changed my perspective. As if the natural catastrophe caused by the earthquake and tsunami were not enough, there is the unfolding drama of potential nuclear harm. How ironic that while the Japanese had been deeply wounded by the use of atom bombs ending WWII, they saw the potential for the peaceful use of that same energy to fuel 30% of their national needs. The events in Japan have almost totally overshadowed the developments in the Middle East which have moved from a euphoric victory from oppression in Egypt to the relentless elimination of the same wave of freedom in Libya, Bahrain and elsewhere. On top of that, news from Afghanistan tells us we can’t seem to dominate a war in spite of our technology and good intentions.
Reading the Nicodemus story anew, all I could think was “it’s the old control issue.” The earthquake and tsunami are proof that we humans do not control nature. The development of nuclear fusion is something we thought we controlled since we invented it, as it were. But it seems we are not totally in control of that which we have unleashed. And as to wars, well, wars have always been about control: control of land, control of power, control of resources, control of freedom and control of ideology. Perhaps one the hardest lessons for Americans the past 60 years is that we do not control the world and our ambiguous diplomatic and military efforts since WWII have been proof of that.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the middle of the night, a seeker from the old religion looking for answers from this young rabbi called Jesus. To tell you the truth, this gospel story repelled me for many years. As chaplain at the Grant’s women’s prison this lesson often felt like a thorn in my side. The majority of my well- meaning and faithful volunteers came from religious traditions that are more literal and fundamental in scriptural understanding than mine.
I do not know how many times I was asked if I was born again. It was one too many, for sure. Probably because of my spiritual immaturity, I went on the defensive. A control issue, I suppose. The question implied that because I was baptized as an infant, I could not be saved since I could not have made a conscious decision to be baptized. And while that little voice kept telling me I was “sealed as Christ’s own forever” the constant badgering made me wish I could say something like “on 4:22 pm, December 13, 1968 I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior.” But lacking spiritual maturity (I’m not there yet, folks), I waged my own silent passive aggressive wars against the volunteers who were bent on baptizing the women inmates for the 2nd, 3rd, and maybe 4th time. Thus, every time you converted, turned back to Christ, or decided that one church might offer you more salvation than another, you needed to be baptized again. I think you see where this line of thought goes. Once you have been saved, you don’t have room for mistakes, or changing your mind. This is not a helpful outlook for inmates in a prison or anyone else as far as I can tell. But now I see aspects of anxiety as a control issue. Although I didn’t pretend to have the “right” answer to many scriptural issues, I didn’t like feeling spiritually inadequate because I wasn’t meeting someone else’s standards.
Now, of course, I realize that I have been born again and again and again and there is nothing wrong with that. It accepts the wonderful grace of God, not a cheap grace that I can abuse, but understanding that in my humanness, I will commit mistakes, I will sin and I am going to fail in attempting to pull myself up by my own bootstraps. My prayerful intent is to grow into my relationship with God. I have to let go of a lot of stuff, dying in many ways in the process. Perhaps Nicodemus was trying to do this. Grow.
But what do we know about Nicodemus? He appears three times in the Gospel of John. This is interesting. Besides those men and women in Jesus’ inner circle of disciples and historical figures of the time, few others are mentioned by name in the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But of the many who encountered Jesus in life-changing situations, few are named: Baritmeus, Zaacheus, Simon the leper, Simon the Pharisee, Simon of Cyrene, Malcus, Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicodemus. One could infer that their names survived because they became disciples of Jesus and leaders in the early church. What happened to the women? What was the name of the woman at the well? The woman with the bent back? That’s another sermon.
We first encounter Nicodemus today in Chapter 3, coming to see Jesus at night; again in Chapter 7 unsuccessfully defending Jesus at a Sanhedrin meeting; and lastly in Chapter 19 helping Joseph of Arimathea take and prepare Jesus’ body for burial.
From these passages we can derive some interesting things about Nicodemus. He is a Pharisee and on the Sanhedrin. Nicodemus is a Greek name, used by the Jews, meaning ‘conqueror’ or ‘ruler’ of the people. He belongs to the controlling religious group in Jewish circles. Of course, they are under the control of Rome and have to tread cautiously at times. Aside from the dark and light symbolism, it is possible Nicodemus comes to see Jesus at night because he likes his position and doesn’t want to be seen by others. We next encounter Nicodemus, in Chapter 7. Jesus has been teaching in the Temple and stirring up the crowds divided between those who believe Jesus is the Messiah and those who don’t. The police report to the Sanhedrin that trouble is brewing. The Pharisees retort that only the rabble believe in Jesus. Nicodemus speaks up. “Does our Law decide about a man’s guilt without first listening to him and finding out what he is doing?” But his cohorts cut him off. “Are you also campaigning for the Galilean? Examine the evidence. See if any prophet ever comes from Galilee.” Nicodemus is silenced. The text says, “Then they all went home.” So, Nicodemus may be part of a powerful group, but not in control of it. We last hear of Nicodemus in Chapter 19: Joseph of Arimathea has petitioned Pilate to take the body of Jesus from the cross. Nicodemus, who had first come to Jesus at night, comes now in broad daylight carrying a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds, to help prepare Jesus body for burial. So Nicodemus controlled of a lot of wealth because this is a lavish amount of spices.
And this time he doesn’t seem to mind being seen in broad daylight. Some speculate that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were secret disciples. Not secret now. What did Jesus say in that initial encounter that moved Nicodemus from darkness to light. Let’s go back to that first encounter. Nicodemus acknowledges that he believes Jesus to be from God because of the God-revealing acts performed by Jesus. Quoting Eugene Peterson’s version, Jesus affirms his observation saying, “You’re absolutely right. Take it from me: Unless a person is born from above, it’s not possible to see what I’m pointing to---to God’s kingdom.” “What?” Nicodemus asks, “How can anyone be born who has already been born and grown up? You can’t enter your mother’s womb and be born again. What are you saying with the ‘born-from-above’ talk?” Nicodemus has to be delivered from the literal: the things he can control, the things he can grasp. Jesus helps him along the way, saying, “You’re not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to this original creation –the wind-hovering-over-the-water creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life –it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. When you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can’t see and touch—the Spirit—and becomes a living spirit. So don’t be surprised when I tell you that you have to be ‘born from above’ –out of this world so to speak. You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by the wind of God, the Spirit of God.” Boy, I wish I had this down to earth rendition of the text before I started work in prison.
Nicodemus enjoys control over many things but has come to Jesus seeking something more. Jesus has given him images of two uncontrollable things: the experience of being born and the experience of being windswept. Jesus seems to be inviting this powerful executive to allow faith in God to enter his life, not so that Nicodemus will relinquish control, but so that he can entrust control to the source of grace, and allow the void in his life to be filled. (O’Driscoll, God with Us, p.39)
Although for some being born again may have a date and place attached, for others like me it may happen time and time again in moments of relinquishing control to God’s grace. Last week the writer in Forward Day by Day commenting on being born again said: “God has dismantled and reconstructed me and my faith several times….. Moreover, I doubt that God’s finished. For all I know, God will continue to work on me in the next life. In fact, I hope so. I wouldn’t care for a life—on earth, in heaven, or anywhere—that’s always the same, with nothing new to learn, no cutting edges, no challenges to face, no new revelations of the goodness of God.” I would add, I would care for a life with no mystery.
Indeed, the Spirit of God is beyond our control and blows where it will. It may just blow us over at times as at the death of our best friend. Or it may gently waft around us, causing us to look up to Sandia’s crest at sunset. However it comes, it will deliver us from the literal, cut the cord and like a baby we can start life anew. Are you born again? Are you ready? Bring it on! Amen.