Sunday June 7, 2009
11:00 am - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: The Reverend F. Washington (Tony) Jarvis, Headmaster Emeritus of the Roxbury Latin School
This is a sermon about Nicodemus: Nicodemus, who, in today’s Gospel, has his famous encounter with Jesus.
I grew up in a small town in Ohio. As a small boy, I was very fond of a devilish old lady who lived across the street from us. Mrs. Dougherty was a Catholic and made a point of telling me things that she knew would get back to my parents – and that would irritate my parents. One day she said to me, “I bet your mother and father don’t know who is the most prominent Irishman in the Bible.” “Who is it?” I naturally asked. “The most prominent Irishman in the Bible,” she replied, “is Nick O’Demus.”
Mrs. Dougherty was actually half right. Nicodemus may not have been Irish, but he was prominent. He was a Pharisee, member of that select elitist group. He was therefore privileged with the equivalent of an Ivy League education. He was a highly placed leader, one of the 70 members of the Sanhedrin, the supreme council of the Jewish people. And he was rich, a man of substantial wealth. In short, Nicodemus was a prominent, privileged, powerful plutocrat.
John’s Gospel notes that Nicodemus came to Jesus privately at night. Of course he did. He had a lot to lose if he were seen hob-knobbing with this itinerant preacher. Nicodemus was a distinguished community figure, a VIP. He had an image to maintain: it would not have looked good for him to be seen in public, during the day, consorting with Jesus, seeking answers from Jesus. Naturally he came at night.
The miracle is that he came at all. But Nicodemus was longing for Something More, he yearned unrequitedly for Something Beyond. And amazingly he risked his image and reputation in order to meet Jesus.
As we might expect from someone with Nicodemus’ aristocratic background, he addresses Jesus with flawless good manners and respectful courtesy. This “ruler of the Jews” greets Jesus as “Rabbi (Teacher),” acknowledging that this unofficial, itinerant preacher might actually have something to teach him.
Since I retired as a headmaster, I have been teaching at Yale. At Yale, I have met quite a few smart and privileged Nicodemuses. I have observed, for the umpteenth time in my teaching career, that there are essentially two types of questions that such people ask. The first type of question is the show-off question. Graduate students are particularly adept at the show-off question. Some graduate students are like peacocks; they enjoy parading their knowledge. A graduate student show-off question goes something like this: “Does it not seem to you, professor, that the possible Aramaic origins of this paradigm are suggestive of a reinterpretation of the Greek – nuanced, of course, by the synergies that the writer of the codex might experience having studied, as he appears to have done, the early Ugaritic manuscripts?” Right! Once the student has paraded his knowledge, it is the professor’s turn to show off his vast wisdom. The questioner and the instructor are both engaged in trivial pursuits, and the class learns nothing of the least importance.
The other type of question is the sincere, truth-seeking question. It’s often called the dumb question. The courageous person who asks this simple question is often asking a basic question that others would ask if they had the guts to look simple-minded.
Given Nicodemus’s aristocratic background and vaunted education, we might well expect that he would ask Jesus a show-off question. Surprisingly, he does not try to impress Jesus by parading his considerable knowledge. He sets out to ask a simple sincere question.
“Rabbi,” he begins respectfully, “we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one does the signs that you do, unless God is with him.” Jesus, however, cuts Nicodemus off before he can ask his question. Jesus was always uneasy when people were attracted to him by signs and wonders, so Jesus interrupts Nicodemus to tell him that the important thing is not flashy miracles; the important thing is changing your life. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Unless a person is born all over again from above, he cannot experience God ruling in his heart.”
Nicodemus responds – again, not with a show-off question, but – with a simple – some would say dumb – question: “How can a man be born again when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born? You just told me I have to be born again. That sounds good, but, please, tell me what it means. I know you’re not talking about a physical rebirth, because that’s physiologically impossible.”
Jesus responds, “Yes, of course I am talking about a spiritual kind of birth. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, but that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Don’t be surprised that I am telling you that you must be born again from above.”
Jesus’ words push Nicodemus to an even simpler question: “How can this be?” he asks.
Jesus responds, “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet do not understand this?” This question is often taken as a put down by Jesus. But Jesus is, in fact, complimenting Nicodemus. Jesus is amazed that a leader of Israel – a man of Nicodemus’s age and distinction -- would be asking rather than telling, that a leader of Israel would be listening rather than speaking.
Jesus then rewards Nicodemus’s sincere and simple question with an answer that is the most often quoted verse in the entire New Testament, everything Jesus taught in a nutshell: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Man cannot be reborn on his own, but with God all things are possible. God the Father, the world’s creator, has taken the initiative: God so loved the world that he has acted decisively by becoming one of us and entering our human experience. God so loved the world that he gave his Son that whoever believes in him could be born again from above to a new relationship with God – could be born of the Spirit and enjoy a whole new quality of life -- eternal life now -- in his presence.
But to receive this gift of love, we have to respond. God so loved the world, but God’s love requires a response. Will we accept this gift of love? Lots of people prefer to go on endlessly asking questions rather than committing themselves to something. But God has acted, and Jesus calls for a response: “Whoever believes in him, entrusts his life to him, shall not perish but have eternal life.” Will we believe in him – will we trust our lives to him? he asks.
What will be our response? In the last analysis, Christianity is not something to be discussed; Christianity is something to be lived. Do we have the courage to start all over again, to be born all over again from above?
Let me close with a story about my father – who grew up in an intellectual family which was scornful of religion. When my father and mother fell in love, my mother said she would not marry him unless he was baptised and confirmed. He was in love, so he agreed to meet with the local rector, a man named Louis Hirschon, for instruction. Dr. Hirschon started by telling my father about Jesus Christ. My father repeatedly interrupted him with objections and questions. After about 15 minutes of this, Louis Hirschon banged his hand on the desktop and said, “Frank, I am offering you Jesus Christ, the best and most beautiful thing in the world. Now do you want Jesus Christ or not? Make up your mind. Yes or no?” My father was stunned and said, “Okay. Yes.” Louis Hirschon said, “Come with me,” and they went into the church – and with the janitor as witness, he baptised my father. It was all done within five minutes. My father went on to become a more zealous Christian than my mother, he was a businessman much given to good works. Eventually, you have to stop asking questions – you have to stop dithering – and make a commitment to a new life. You must decide either to accept the invitation to be born again from above – or not.
Nicodemus said yes. He made the leap. He stopped clinging to all the many securities of his present life and risked starting all over again. John’s Gospel tells us that Nicodemus followed Jesus to the very end; it is he who brings rich spices to anoint Christ’s body at the tomb.
What will be our response? Will we insist on asking more sophisticated questions, will we equivocate once again (once again saying “I’m not quite ready”) as we slink away? Or will we sign on for the Greatest of All Adventures – the Greatest of All Adventures in which the Spirit – the Wind -- of God could take us just about anywhere?