Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 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 apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 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?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 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.”
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “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. “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 story of Jesus is the story of the poor and the oppressed, it is the story of the marginalised and the outcast, the story of the lepers and misfits.
This morning’s reading introduces Nicodemus. And Nicodemus just doesn’t fit in.
Nicodemus must have been wealthy: after Jesus died he brought expensive balms to anoint Jesus body, so he was financially secure. The name Nicodemus appears in secular histories of the age. In the year 63, when there was open war between the Jews and Romans, the Jews sent a man called Nicodemus as their ambassador to plead before the Roman Emperor. In the last days of the war history records that a man called Gorion, the son of Nicodemus negotiated the Jewish surrender. It’s just about possible that all these Nicodemuses were the same; it’s very possible that they all belonged to the same influential and wealthy family.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee. Pharisee has come to be synonymous with hypocrite – but the Pharisees were the clergy of Jesus’ day and like the clergy of today they were a mixed bunch – the holy and the hypocritical, the gentle and the unforgiving, and most a mixture of qualities good and bad.
But Nicodemus was not just described as the equivalent of a first century Jewish Vicar – he was described as ‘a ruler of he Jews’ – he was a member of the Sanhedrin – the ruling council of seventy people that were the supreme court of the Jews.
Nicodemus does not fit in with the profile of Jesus first followers: he is wealthy, influential, respected…
He doesn’t summon Jesus to his house – Some Pharisees did this – Luke records Simon the Pharisee inviting Jesus into his house – that dinner didn’t go too well – a woman (who was a notorious sinner) burst in and anointed Jesus’ feet.
Nicodemus has a very different approach – he comes to Jesus by night.
It’s possible that he came to Jesus by night because he wanted peace and quiet to talk to Jesus without the crowds that constantly surrounded Jesus by Day. However, I think the obvious reason, is the most likely: Nicodemus, this distinguished V.I.P., didn’t want anyone to see that he was interested in the disreputable teaching of the scruffy upstart, Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus presents Nicodemus with a puzzle that, if we are honest, is still puzzling today. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born from above – or, in some translations, he just be “born again.” This passage has been so influential that it has inspired a whole tradition of “born again Christianity.”
In this tradition the moment of conversion is important – there is a moment at which you are “saved” before which you are “lost.”
Just as there is a fixed moment of birth, so in the life of faith there is a fixed moment of “second birth.”
For born again Christians this moment is typified with the word “Repentance.”
The Christian idea of repentance has a bad press. Christianity is often seen as ‘peddling guilt’ and preachers stereotyped as rabid bible-bashers, foaming at the mouth and screaming “repent or burn!”
Repentance has come to mean “being sorry for your sins.” But the word literally means to “turn around.” Repentance is not about listing our sins to God (or a priest) and saying “I’m really, really sorry.” Repentance is about turning our lives towards God.
Interestingly the Jesus doesn’t talk about the “saved” and the “lost” he does talk about those who are “being saved” and those who are “being lost.” That’s isn’t a quibble about Greek grammar tenses – it is an important distinction. “Salvation” is not a “club” that you are either in or out of. “Salvation” is the journey that we care called to join in. It is not a fixed event, it is a direction of travel. It is not about arriving anywhere, it is about embarking on a journey.
Returning to Nicodemus, Jesus does not tell everyone who wants to follow him to be “born again” nor does he call everyone to “repent.” Some people, especially the poor and the outcast and simply welcomed with open arms. Jesus approach to Nicodemus is similar to his approach to a rich young ruler who was told to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. Strangely that instruction never caught on in quite the same way as Nicodemus’ more esoteric command to be ‘born again.’
Nicodemus had a full and interesting life, he was respected and admired, he had reached the top of the ladder. But Jesus tells him that in matters of faith he needs to become like a new-born and start all over again. His fine clothes and finer position are the things of the flesh that Jesus compares to the things of the Spirit – which are love and joy and peace.
Nicodemus had it all – he even had a little element of danger coming to hear Jesus by night – but Jesus said that was not enough – he had to start over again.
It is not enough to ‘be interested’ in Jesus, it is not enough to read a few books and say a few prayers and do it all behind closed doors. It is not enough to ‘come to Jesus by night’ only risking being seen coming to church by the early morning joggers
Just like it’s not enough to be interested in poverty, and watch “Comic Relief” on telly when it comes round again. We have to dip our hands into our pockets to raise money and raise awareness.
Its not enough to be interested in human rights, read the Guardian and the Amnesty International website – we have to act, to write letters and campaign.
If we keep our religion in our heads it will be an interesting academic exercise, but that’s not the religion of Jesus. Jesus calls us to new life, he calls us to action, to change the world, beginning with ourselves.
Some are called to totally change their selfish lives, to be born again, some are called to accept themselves and recognise that they are already “close to the Kingdom.” One of the great challenges of being a Christian is to work out where our lives are and what is the Good News that we need to hear…?
The tragedy of Nicodemus is that he does overcome his need for secrecy, but too late! Only after Jesus has been arrested, tried (tried in front of the Sanhedrin, in front of Nicodemus’ eyes), only after he has seen Jesus tortured and executed does Nicodemus stand up and make himself visible. Only when it is too late, does he act.
Nicodemus works out Jesus’ message to him; let us pray for the grace to work it out in our lives, today.