Sunday February 17, 2008
11:00 am - Saint Thomas Church
Nicodemus, There Is More in your Future
I couldn’t speak for you in this, but it seems to me that Nicodemus is one of the most sympathetic characters in John’s gospel, a gospel delightfully replete with vivid, lifelike characterization. Nicodemus is neither a believer nor a nonbeliever, but a sort of in-between fellow. He isn’t a money-changer in the Temple, which is to say he isn’t a target of Jesus’ wrath; he isn’t an outright opponent of Jesus. Neither, on the other hand, is he a firm believer. Rather, something about Jesus has hooked his interest; he is perhaps on the way to becoming a believer, while he isn’t there yet. I say, I find him a sympathetic character.
So he comes to Jesus by night. Nicodemus does not act in the day, he does not act in the light; in this account, he literally lives out of the light. Since John has already told us that Jesus is the light, and that Jesus’ light is human life, we sense, in this detail of Nicodemus coming in the dark, that he, Nicodemus, does not really have human life. He comes in the dark because he lives not in the light: he is not yet fully alive.
He is also—do we need to put this delicately?—not the brightest bulb there in the dark. His opening gambit is to compliment Jesus for his godly teaching. But when Jesus answers that, to see the kingdom of God, a person must be born again, born anew from above, Nicodemus protests: How can a man be born when he is old? And as it were to make sure that no question of his intelligence (lack of) remains, he adds: Can [a man] enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born? . . . Yet even this dullness of wit is not unattractive. I can think of several times when I’ve been with a group of people and everyone else seems to be getting the point—and I’m in the dark, unable to grasp anything beyond the literal meaning of the words.
Jesus says many things more to Nicodemus, but Nicodemus speaks but once more to Jesus, and that is only to repeat his bewilderment, his inability to grasp beyond the literal meaning of the words; he says, How can this be? Then Jesus goes on speaking. As a matter of fact we do not know where Jesus stopped speaking. I mean that in terms of the plain text. There are no quotation marks in the Greek of the Bible. So when you see quotation marks in the translation, they have been added; and sometimes they are unavoidably interpretive. Many people think that Jesus stopped speaking in this passage at verse 15, and that the famous verse 16 is a general comment added by the evangelist: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. But some (including the traditional Book of Common Prayer) think Jesus spoke those words also, and Jesus continued that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have eternal life and even further.
And if we don’t know when Jesus stopped speaking in this scene, we also don’t know when Nicodemus stepped out of it. How much of what Jesus said did he stay around to hear? And what difference did it make to his future life?
And may I add a third thing that we do not know? We do not know what the impact of this passage will be on us, what difference it will make to the rest of our life.
Jesus speaks to Nicodemus about the Spirit. This is the Holy Spirit of God, and whatever else you say about the Spirit you have to say this: the Spirit is the future of God. The Spirit makes God’s future present to us now, so that we can enjoy anticipations or foretastes of the heavenly kingdom even as we live on earth. And it is the Spirit who bears us into that future, which is not only God’s future but ours also. God’s Spirit makes Jesus present to us so that we may go with Jesus to the Father.
That’s very brief and sketchy, but all you need to grasp is the simple connection of the Spirit and the future. Jesus was luring Nicodemus in that direction when he said to him: unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, “You must be born anew from above.” The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.
Nicodemus needs to look to the future: that’s where he will find God, and the answers to his questions, and meaning for his life: the future is where he can come out into the light which is real human life which is Jesus. But he is afraid. He comes at night because he fears being seen. He may come at night also because he fears seeing. So when Jesus summons him forth, he draws back with a literalism that is almost pathetic: How can a man be born when he is old? Hear that pathetic note: when he is old. The simple point of the impossibility of second birth, taken literally, does not require an old man. A four month old child is already too big to fit back into its mother’s womb. But Nicodemus says: when he is old.
And Jesus is saying to him: it does not matter how old you are, or what you have done, or what kind of life you have lived; there is more in your future than there is in your past. How old was Abraham when God called him? 70 years? 75? (Do I hear 80?) And he left the town of his father and embarked upon the journey of his life. Even adjusting for the elevated lifespans of the patriarchs, it is very significant that the story of Abraham’s life does not begin until he is 75 years old. There is more in your future than there is in your past. This is I think a marvelous way to grasp the hope of the Christian calling. Since the Spirit is the future of God, when God’s Spirit comes to us bringing Jesus to us, our future is safely placed in that future.
This is true for each one of us, whether we are 15 or 35 or 55 or 75 or 95, although it is admittedly a more challenging conception the older we are. We grow weary of old arguments; we grow used to the wrong that is ongoing; we make our deals and hope to make it through life with as little pain as possible. But the seeds are planted young. I used to teach ethics to juniors at a college in Poughkeepsie. In a class discussion one of them said—in an obvious challenge to the idea of a course in ethics—that all he wanted was to get a job in which he made enough money that he could enjoy himself in the evenings and weekends. There he was, maybe 20 years old, and the horizons of his future were already closed in. Yet Abraham, Abraham started out when he was 75, and still the whole future of God’s promises—all of them were in front of him.
The whole future of God’s promises is in front of you. That’s what being born again really means: claiming God’s promises as your own, seeing your future in God’s future, which happens thanks to the Spirit who blows where God wills.
There is more in your future than there is in your past. Whatever your past is—one of accomplishment, or failure, or glory, or shame, or just muddling through—the truth is that the adventure of Christian faith is in you just beginning.