March 11, 2018

In this famous encounter in John’s Gospel, Jesus urges Nicodemus to lean into the Light. We need not be afraid of the Light, because the Light comes from Love. Whatever we might be ashamed of, that we would rather keep in the dark, the Light from Love neither judges or condemns, but forgives and liberates.

Shed a Little Light arr. Greg Jaspers Chancel Choir

Qur’an 24:35
God is the Light of the heavens and the earth.
The parable of God’s Light is a niche, wherein is a lamp.
The lamp is in a glass.
The glass is as a shining star kindled from a blessed olive tree,
neither of the East or of the West.
Its oil would well-nigh shine forth,
Even if no fire had touched it.
Light upon light.
God guides unto God’s Light whomsoever God will,
and God sets for parables for humankind,
and God is knower of all things.

What we want to do is become like Jesus
–to have that still center
That nothing can disturb.
In that way
We are true peacemakers,
Persons who project peace
wherever we go.
–Mary Lou Kownacki

Thich Nhat Hanh
Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment
I know this is a wonderful moment.

Sermon Text (Via Transcription)

This is the third chapter of John and it tells the Nicodemus story.

A Pharisee named Nicodemus, the leader in the Jewish community came to Jesus during the night and he said,

‘Rabbi we know that you’ve come as a teacher from God. After all nobody can perform the signs you do unless God is with them.’

And Jesus replied to him,
‘Let me tell you this. No one can experience the empire of God without being reborn from above.’

And Nicodemus says to him,
‘Well how can an adult be reborn. Can you re-enter your mother’s womb and be born a second time?’

And Jesus replied,
‘Let me tell you this. No one can enter the empire of God without being born of water and spirit. What is born of the human realm is human. But what is born of the spiritual realm. Is spirit. So don’t be surprised that I told you every one of all y’all must be reborn from above. The Spirit blows everywhere which way like the wind you hear the sound it makes. But you can’t tell where it’s coming from or where it’s headed. That’s how it is with everyone reborn of the spirit.’

‘Well how is that possible? asked Nicodemus.

And Jesus replied,
‘You are a teacher of Israel? You don’t understand this? Let me tell you this: we tell what we know and we give evidence about what we’ve seen but none of all y’all accepts are evidence. If I tell you about what’s earthly and you don’t believe how you believe it if I tell you all about what’s heavenly. No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from there. The human one in the desert. Moses elevated the snake and in the same way the human one is destined to be elevated so everyone who believes in him can have unending life. This is how God loved the world. God gave up an only son so that everyone who believes in him will not be lost but have unending life. After all God sent the son into the world not to condemn the world but to rescue the world through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned. Those who don’t believe in him are already condemned. They haven’t believed in God’s only son. This is the verdict on them. Light came into the world but people love darkness instead of light their actions are evil weren’t they? All those who do evil things hate the light and don’t come to the light. Otherwise their deeds will be exposed but those who do what’s true come into the light. So the nature of their deeds will become evident their deeds belong to God.

And that’s the first encounter of Jesus with Nicodemus.  Nicodemus appears three times in John’s Gospel. There’s this time and then he comes in again in Chapter 7 when Jesus is being hassled and Nicodemus says,

‘Since when does our law pass judgment on someone without first letting him speak for himself and without establishing the facts?’

Then right after the crucifixion Joseph of Arimathea, a disciple of Jesus but a secret one, has permission to take Jesus’s body down from the cross and buries it in a tomb and Nicodemus comes along with 75 pounds of myrrh and anoints the body, preparing the body for burial.

That is the Nicodemus story. Those three accounts. He comes with the questions for Jesus at the beginning and he defends Jesus in the middle and then he buries Jesus at the end. That is the whole story of Nicodemus.

There is a Gospel of Nicodemus that was made in the fourth or fifth centuries. That’s an apocryphal gospel but in it again Nicodemus is shown as a hero, he’s a defender of the truth. He doesn’t like people to be smeared and that’s kind of his role here.

Nicodemus is a Pharisee. So he’s in the establishment. He is the religious establishment like clergy. And so Jesus has a confrontation with him. Now before I say that I should say a little bit about the Gospel of John. The Jesus Seminar voted almost all of it black meaning that they didn’t think any of the sayings or deeds of Jesus recorded there went back to Jesus the historical person.

Now that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It just means that it’s an imaginative text that probably was written quite a bit later and it reflects the disagreements between this Jesus community and the establishment. This is a Jewish community that has followed Jesus and then a split that’s happened. The you or “you all” in the text is a plural.

So what’s happening here is an argument between “those guys and us guys.” That’s the kind of thing that’s happening and it is placed on the lips of Jesus. So there is an argument about authority. Who are you? You punk from Nazareth nothing good comes from Nazareth and you’re coming here you know doing things and talking about God and all that stuff and over against you know the establishment.

But the story about Nicodemus is that Nicodemus is certainly within the establishment, a leader in the Jewish community. He’s of the establishment that sees some radical doing something and everybody is condemning the radical but he’s saying, ‘You know I wonder.’ And so he sneaks off at night to have a chat with him because he wants to find out if this guy really has something to say.

So Nicodemus asks Jesus,

‘You know I know you can’t do this stuff unless God’s with you or with a person who’s does that.’

Then Jesus says this really strange phrase:

“You cannot experience the empire of God without being born again.”

But the word that is translated in English as ‘again’ has an ambiguity about it. It can also mean ‘above’. So the question is, ‘is it again or is it above’ and Nicodemus hears it probably as again because he asks kind of a weird question,

‘Well how can an adult be reborn? Can you re-enter your mother’s womb and be born a second time?’

Nicodemus, don’t you get a metaphor? But that’s kind of how it is with the Gospel of John.  Jesus is often speaking on a level that’s a little bit above. And people don’t quite get him. They take him very literally or take him wrongly and he has to explain it again to them. So he says,

‘No one can enter the empire of God being born of water and spirit.  What is born of the human realm is human. What is born of the spirit realm is Spirit and so don’t be surprised when I tell you you must be born from again [or above].”

Well it makes more sense in that context if the word is translated as ‘above’– this spirit realm whatever that means you have to have some kind of– how do we say this in modern language–some kind of identity that is beyond just our simple material ego. How’s that?

Who are you? What what is your what are your values? That’s that’s the challenge of this question. It is directed not only the person Nicodemus but to Nicodemus as he represents the established religious authorities. If you really could see the truth you would. We show you this evidence, Jesus says, but you don’t look at it.

Help me out. What does it mean to be born from above? Because I have not been able to figure this out for years.

[I ask this to the congregation and three people answer].

Pat has the answer.

PAT: “I feel like the older I get the more I am simply a vessel and this spirit of God works through me more and more each day.”

That’s beautiful. That’s a part of being born from above isn’t it?  Recognizing that identity is not necessarily just my body. There’s a deeper part. Dan has answer:

DAN:  “I always hear that story in the context of a world where how you were born physically meant everything. It was your total identity as your position in society and your wealth. Here’s a wealthy guy. He’s really going to value his human birth right. So Jesus says it doesn’t mean anything. You got to do something different.”

Yeah. And here is Dick. What is born again, Dick?

DICK: I have been born again through all of the people that I’ve met through my life beginning with my parents who gave me what education they could–beginning with my teachers that involved a sense of mystery and questioning. In other words born from above means being born with other people.

All right thank you. I am thinking of a Buddhist term that talks about having a beginner’s mind and then the beginner’s mind is being able to recognize that we  think we know a lot of stuff and we do. But it isn’t everything that there is that we could know and you have to kind of clean that out. Start over, begin again. Be born again.

When Jesus is challenging Nicodemus or we read John’s community is challenging the established authorities to seek an identity with a beginner’s mind– to seek to be able to explore truths that you’re afraid to touch. And I think that’s what we find within the Gospel of John. Nicodemus represents the leadership who’s curious and who doesn’t automatically condemn or go with the crowd but instead seeks to find out for himself.  So he comes at night which is a marvelous metaphor to experience what might be the light.

Then in the second appearance of Nicodemus is in Chapter 7. The crowd is split over who Jesus is but the leadership doesn’t like him. Some were in favor of arresting him.  He’s just too much trouble but no one laid a hand on him. Then the Temple Police came back to the chief priests and the pharisees.  The Pharisees say to the police,

“Well why haven’t you brought him in?”

And the police answered,

“Well, no one ever talked quite like that before.”

And the Pharisees came back at them,

“Don’t tell us you’ve been duped too! None of the authorities or the Pharisees have believed in him, have they?”

Remember they’re coming from their authority. Hey the church doesn’t believe this guy. The church says this or whatever. So it must be right. And as for this mob they are ignorant of the law.

Then Nicodemus, who was one of their number, says,

“Since when does our law pass judgment on someone without first letting him speak for himself and without establishing the facts?”

Which is a pretty reasonable thing to say. Has anybody ever heard of a smear campaign?

The choir sang a song that mentioned Martin Luther King. You know what Martin Luther King was called most often? A communist. The implication is that you don’t have to listen to anything he says because he’s a communist. And that was the great charge in the 50s and 60s in the midst of the communism scare. No one wanted to be associated with or have any link to communism. Just call someone a communist and you don’t have to have any argument at all.

Nicodemus is the Pharisee who stood up to this.  He’s the guy who stood out from the establishment and says,

“Wait a second. Shouldn’t we hear this person out?”

And they shoot back at him and they say,

“You wouldn’t be from Galilee too? No prophet is born from Galilee.”

A smear. Remember the whole Galilee Nazareth thing. Nobody’s any good from that place. You’re from there you don’t have anything to say to us. I mean after all I went to Princeton. Where’d you go? Right? That’s the theme.

So that’s why I like Nicodemus. I  am proud of someone who stepped out of the system and said I know everybody is saying this about you. I don’t know. Tell me what you are saying yourself. And I think that is probably one of the best ethical statements one can make.

And then we move to the end and Jesus dies. Now the historical Jesus scholar, John Dominic Crossan, said that Jesus probably never really was buried. People who were executed by crucifixion were just left there. The wild dogs ate him is what Crossan said because that’s just generally what happened to all those people.

But the Gospel of John preserves a story of Jesus being buried.  Being taken from the cross and Joseph of Arimathea does that and Nicodemus goes along with him. And they are obviously fairly wealthy.  Te text says Joseph was wealthy. As for Nicodemus.  I mean buying seventy five pounds of myrrh!  How much is that? I mean that’s got to be a chunk of change. Right. So he is bringing probably the highest respect you can have for the dead for a friend for someone who’s been humiliated and murdered and executed. And so he buries him and that’s really the end. That’s all we hear of this amazing person Nicodemus.

He doesn’t appear in any other biblical account but he appears in three important times for the Christian faith. The whole story of being born again and the famous passage of ‘God so loved the world that God gave his only son’ and so forth.  That passage is all from the Nicodemus dialogue. Then Nicodemus is the one who steps out from the crowd and defends Jesus when he is attacked by simply just saying let the guy speak for himself. And then at the end he honors his life by giving him an honorable burial.

So Nicodemus gets sainthood. St. Nick O’Demus!

Going back to that middle part of the smearing thing. I experienced this over the weekend and I’ve experienced it throughout my career needing to defend those who are attacked. And they just get labeled and I don’t. And it’s like, it’s like this:  “If I’m against burning witches. That doesn’t necessarily follow that I am a witch!”

As we move into a scary time and a polarizing time and we’re getting together, actually the opposite of getting together. We’re making our own little silos. And I think it’s important for us to be able to step out of our silo and risk being condemned by our own people that we thought were our team and step out and say what is really going on. Can I hear this person’s voice? And I think that is critically important for all of us. I’m not even talking about any kind of specific thing I’m speaking in general but I’m speaking about us as a culture.

I think of our neighbors across the street in the mosque and the rising Islamophobia that has generated since well since since 9/11. But since before that and after that but especially since then and it’s very difficult for us to be able to objectively step out and hear a point of view that challenges what the establishment has been saying all along. And I’m not getting any further than that except to say that. And that’s why I’m celebrating Nicodemus today  and having his spirit be channeled into my heart. Amen.