Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Spirit of Nicodemus

This weekend I spoke about Nicodemus. I find his story to be a very interesting subplot in John's gospel. He has only three appearances. In the first one (John 3) he appears as a curious seeker of truth. Like all seekers, he has a distinct point of view. He's a Rabbi, a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish Ruling Council.) To quote Anchonrman Ron Burgandy, he's "kind of a big deal" - at least in religious circles. Maybe that's why he comes to Jesus "at night." Under the cover of darkness, it is safer to ask the controversial unsanctioned teacher some questions.

In 15 verses, Jesus seems to confuse the doctor of theology with his statements on being born again and receiving the Kingdom via the pneumas (spirit/wind). Finally, Jesus leaves the world of metaphors and allows Nicodemus' ears to be the first in history to hear John 3:16. "God loves the world, so he sent me." John doesn't tell us how Nicodemus responds, but it appears that he leaves Jesus with more questions than answers.

Nicodemus in many ways is a subtle antihero in John's account. He ought to be against Jesus. Politically speaking, he is an enemy of Jesus. Nicodemus seems to honestly struggle with Jesus - not as quick to follow him as the blue collar fisherman and desperate "sinners." Yet not as quick to codemn him as his elitist peers. He represents something rare in the gospel accounts - the voice of the thinking theist. He's open-minded. Cautious. Careful.

This is made even clearer in his second appearance recorded in John 7:45-52:

Finally the temple guards went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked them, "Why didn't you bring him (Jesus) in?" "No one ever spoke the way this man does," the guards declared. "You mean he has deceived you also?" the Pharisees retorted. "Has any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them."

Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, "Does our law condemn anyone without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?"

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

In a black and white world, perhaps there is nothing more brave than the one person who stands up and screams, "Gray!" It is in Nicodemus that we see the courage to say, "I'm not sure that this Jesus is all that his followers claim him to be, but neither am I convinced that he is not that." He asks for what all true seekers ask for...he asks for the time to hear him for himself and to see with his own eyes what he is doing.

We hear no other words from the mouth of Nicodemus in the Bible, but we do see him again in chapter 19. At the cross:

Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. With Pilate's permission, he came and took the body away. 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. Taking Jesus' body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

Mysterious, isn't it? I wonder if John wants it to be. He takes the time in his account to note that the fence-sitting curious Pharisee buries Jesus. History has assumed that this means Nicodemus eventually became a disciple of Jesus, but John doesn't let us know. Tradition tells us that Nicodemus became a preacher and a martyr. Perhaps he did. Regardless of what he became, Nicodemus teaches us that there is room at the cross for people with questions. It was a seeker who was among the first to the cross, and for twenty centuries they've never stopped gathering there.


Sandy Maudlin said...

Thank you for sharing Nicodemus with us, and for yesterday's celebration message of God's love. HE's so REAL, so present. SO BIG. Thanks.

Cindy said...

This is incredible

"Regardless of what he became, Nicodemus teaches us that there is room at the cross for people with questions. It was a seeker who was among the first to the cross, and for twenty centuries they've never stopped gathering there."

Thank you for writing that.