Lent 2: For God so loved the world

Sunday 20 March 2011

10.30 am Woodchurch

Text: John 3:1-17

“For God so loved the World that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have everlasting life.”

 These words, from the 16th verse of the gospel reading we have just heard, summarise for many Christians the gospel message – When you see “John 3:16” on a Christian bumper sticker or poster it is this verse to which you are being referred.

 And it is of course a beautiful verse that is packed with meaning and about which much has been written and preached and, as someone called to preach this week, you may think that this is a gift for me.  Well, at the risk of being thought contrarian (perish the thought I know), I want to take a slightly different approach.  I am aware that in the last several weeks I have been looking at some pretty big subjects such as why bad things happen to good people, the relationship between law and faith and so on and, given the readings both from Romans and this gospel, it would be easy to adopt the same approach this week.

But, instead of tackling these big issues head on, I want us to reflect on the life and journey of a seemingly minor character in our story in the hope that this may shed some oblique light not only on the big issues, but, perhaps more importantly, upon our own journeys of faith.

 The person I want to think about this morning is Nicodemus and I want to think about Nicodemus because he is a person on a journey.  He is not a prominent person in the story of Jesus, he is mentioned only in the gospel of John and only a few times as we shall see, but his is a story of change and growth and developing discipleship, but perhaps not in an obvious way.  Much of his change and growth and discipleship take place off stage left, behind the scenes, away from the main action and out of sight and it is therefore up to us to put together the story from the few fleeting glimpses that we have.

The first time Nicodemus is mentioned in the gospels is at the start of this morning’s reading:

“There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  He came to Jesus by night…”

Nicodemus was an important man – he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish parliament, and he was a member of the Pharisee party who are so often portrayed as being opposed to Jesus and his teaching of grace.  This was an establishment man who, to all intents and purposes, was assured of his place in the world.

However, something prompted Nicodemus to seek out Jesus.  In the preceding two chapters of the gospel we are told that Jesus had been baptised by John, he had called the first disciples to follow him, changed the water into wine at Cana and cleared the money changers out of the temple in Jerusalem.   Word of these events quickly reached the rulers and whilst we know from stories elsewhere in the gospels that other Pharisees and Sadducees and lawyers sought to try and catch Jesus out by asking him tricky questions in public Nicodemus went to see him in private, under cover of darkness.

Some say that in visiting Jesus while it was dark Nicodemus was being very cowardly, but I disagree.  The truly cowardly thing to have done is either not to have gone anywhere near Jesus at all, to have rested on his establishment laurels in the hope that all this furore about Jesus would blow over in due course, or he could have done what his peers did by posing his questions in public, not as a learner but as a defender of Pharisee truth.

But Nicodemus found himself unable either to ignore the Jesus phenomena or to play the role of establishment man.  Nicodemus wanted to know the truth about this man Jesus, who was he, where did he come from and what was he doing?  In order to learn the truth Nicodemus knew that despite his own position of importance that he had to approach Jesus as someone willing to learn at the feet of a teacher.  His first words to Jesus are:

“Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who comes from God, For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

So Nicodemus recognises, at the very least, that Jesus is a teacher blessed by God and Jesus uses that starting point for a dialogue and a word play which leads us further into who Jesus really is.

“Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

In Greek the word which means “born from above” is very similar to one which means to be “born again” and Nicodemus interprets that a bit too literally and asks Jesus how an old man can be given birth to a second time and this leads Jesus onto to explain that, of course, he does not mean a second physical birth but, rather, a new birth of the spirit:

“What is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

And so our position in the kingdom of heaven is not from our position of birth, unlike perhaps, being in the Sanhedrin or the Palace of Westminster, but comes from being born from above or being born again.  And Nicodemus asks the question that is on everyone’s lips at this point:

“How can these things be?”

It is a simple question but the most profound.  If we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven without being born from above, having a second spiritual birth, then how does this happen, how can this happen, what do I have to do?

The answer to that question, comes at least in part, from John 3:16 – our second spiritual birth comes not from ourselves and our own actions so much as from God’s actions towards the world which he loves and into which he sent Jesus in order to give us eternal life – the only thing required of us is belief in Jesus as the Son of God.

Now it would make a great evangelistic story if Nicodemus had responded that he believed that Jesus was indeed the Son of God, if he had left his position as a leader of the Jewish people and become another one of the first disciples.  It would have been a neater ending in some ways and his name would be more well known, but the truth is sometimes a bit messier than neat stories and Nicodemus does not respond to Jesus at this point and he fades into the background of the gospel for a few chapters, off stage left.  It should be a sobering reminder that when even Jesus himself evangelised on a one to one basis that immediate and obvious conversion were not always the result.

The next time we meet Nicodemus is in Chapter 7 of John from verse 45 onwards.  At this point the whole of Jerusalem is talking about Jesus and wondering whether Jesus is simply another prophet or whether he is the promised Christ and the Sanhedrin, of which Nicodemus is still a member, have tried to have Jesus arrested. But the guards have come back empty handed, the Sanhedrin are not best pleased and they question the guards:

45 Finally the temple guards went back to the chief priests and the Pharisees, who asked them, “Why didn’t you bring him in?”

46 “No one ever spoke the way this man does,” the guards replied.

47 “You mean he has deceived you also?” the Pharisees retorted. 48 “Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? 49 No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them.”

50 Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, 51 “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?”

52 They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.”

And so it seems on the one hand that Nicodemus was still not a public follower of Jesus, because they said that none of the rulers or Pharisees believed in him, but on the other it is clear that Nicodemus was prepared to try and defend Jesus’ right to a fair trial in front of his peers, so much so that they think he may too have become a Galilean.

Again it would be nice from the preachers point of view if that exchange ended with Nicodemus proclaiming that he is indeed now a follower of Jesus, with all the messy consequences which may have flown from that.  But that does not happen and, again, Nicodemus exits stage left as everyone goes home.

But he does make one final appearance – does anyone know when?

Nicodemus appears on the stage of the Gospel for the final time in Chapter 19.  This is after the crucifixion, when most of the disciples had fled the scene for fear of the Romans.  Starting at verse 38 it reads:

38 Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. 39 He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds.[a] 40 Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen.

We are told that Joseph of Arimathea was a secret disciple of Jesus, although at this stage he is being a lot less secret than most of the other disciples, but nothing is said about Nicodemus’ status as a disciple.  We are not told explicitly that he ever became a follower, we are not told that he ever had the new birth from above that Jesus spoke of, and yet here he is bringing myrrh and aloes and wrapping Jesus body ready for burial.   It is actually a very touching scene to imagine – two men who had never been public followers of Jesus being the ones with the ultimate bravery and love of this man to pay their respect to him in this way.  St Thomas may have been a lot less doubting of the reality of Jesus’ death had he stood and wrapped Jesus’ body with Joseph and Nicodemus in this way.

So Nicodemus was an establishment man but he sought the truth at Jesus’ feet, he sought to defend him from human injustice and, in the face of danger and ridicule Nicodemus offered his love to Jesus in a practical way.  Do we know if he was born again from above?  No we don’t because, if he was, that happened away from our view and was a matter between him and God.  Although that does not give us a neat a tidy ending it does seem like a very real story – it is very rare for us to get a glimpse into the interior spiritual life of another person and we should be very slow to judge them because of that.  Sometimes people are unable or unwilling to put their experience of God into the language or the neat categories that suit us and our preconceptions.  But actions often speak louder than words and although Jesus’ words to Nicodemus did not produce an instant conversion experience they did produce someone who stood and wrapped Jesus body in linen with another secret disciple when all the more vocal disciples were hiding.

It sometimes feels that Christianity is becoming increasingly dominated by those who shout loudest and are the most dogmatic – I am therefore hugely comforted that our gospel has room for those who may be more reticent or whose journey of faith may be less centre stage.  When Jesus spoke these words he was speaking to Nicodemus:

“For God so loved the World that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have everlasting life.”




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