Faithful Conversations #3
Jesus’ First Encounter with Nicodemus
Psalm 121 (1,2)
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17 (Below)
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with that person.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 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.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen, yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.
The origin of place names is often fascinating. Founded in 1877 by freed slaves from Kentucky, Nicodemus, Kansas was named for the biblical character in today’s Gospel. They saw the community as a “new birth,” hence the name. Nicodemus is an intriguing character. He appears in John, but not the other three Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). We meet him three times: the initial encounter with Jesus in John 3, the second time in John 7 when he defends Jesus among the Pharisees, and the third time in John 19 when he joins Joseph of Arimathea in taking Christ’s body to the tomb post crucifixion. Who was this guy and what should we know about him?
Nicodemus was a Pharisee and therefore steeped in Jewish law and tradition. He came to visit Jesus at night, perhaps for fear of being seen with him. We must respect his desire to understand all the noise surrounding Jesus. He acknowledges Christ’s divine connection, but struggles with Jesus’ discussion of being “born again.” This idea does not fit with Nicodemus’ religious understanding and you can feel the tension that he is having throughout the exchange. Perhaps this is an example of how religion itself can become a form of idolatry. In a conversation with Pastor Jen this week, she put me on to the word “religiosity” — the idea that we can become excessively devoted to the outward trappings and practices of religion, so much so that they replace our authentic faith in God and distract us from focusing on Christ. Indeed, this may be one of the most common violations of the First Commandment (“You shall have no other gods”).
Nicodemus questioned the notion of being born again, in part, because it did not fit with his logical understanding of the world and his faith practices. Jesus, however, was ushering in a new reality and breaking the bonds of conventional Judaism. We know from the later references to Nicodemus that he was dramatically changed by this encounter and came to see Jesus as the Son of God. Perhaps we can see ourselves in him.
The most famous verse in this Gospel is John 3:16, one of the most often quoted verses from scripture. It seems straightforward — believe in Jesus and be saved. As Lutherans, however, we need to remember that we are saved by grace and not our own actions — it is not “up to us.” Indeed, we need to read 3:16 and 17 together, and verse 17 challenges us mightily every day! God entered humanity through his Son, not to condemn but to save “the world” — all of humanity. Jennifer Chrien, Senior Pastor at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church in Camarillo, California, puts it this way: God so loved the whole world—loved you, sitting in the pews today. Loved your family, your friends, your neighbors. Loved the people who used to come to church but don’t anymore. Loved the people who were hurt by the church or lost their faith. Loved the people who have never darkened the door of a church. Loved the people who are hungry, and the people who feed the hungry, and the people who don’t care about the hungry as much as they should. Loved our brothers and sisters who are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or Sikh—and not on the provision that they accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. God loves all of it, all of us.
Beautiful words and Amen!
One other personal note about this week’s readings: Psalm 121 is my favorite. It is known as the “The Traveler’s Psalm” and I commend it to your reading this week. My father requested this Psalm for his funeral. He liked to say of this life, “we’re all just traveling through.” I learned after his death, that it had been read at his father’s funeral as well. It is a “tie that binds.”
PRAYER (inspired by Nicodemus)
Heavenly Father, In the story of Nicodemus you show us what it means to have a teachable spirit and open mind. We pray for that same attitude as we explore your word. Remind us that we need your guidance to achieve understanding and help us to stay the course. Amen.
The image here is “The Entombment with Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea” by Pietro Perugino, c. 1495 (source: Wikicommons).
And, a bit of Lutheran humor for you today. This comes from the book, “You Know You Are a Lutheran If . . .” by Janet Letnes Martin and Suzann (Johnson) Nelson:
“You know you are a Lutheran if . . You wholeheartedly believe in the cardinal rule: Lutherans don’t sit in the front two pews!”
“You know you are Lutheran if . . . You still, under your breath, say ‘Holy Christian Church’ when the LBW clearly states ‘holy catholic church.'”
It’s good for us to laugh at ourselves!