Isaiah 6:1-8; John 3:1-17
In today’s story we read about Nicodemus the seeker, drawn to Jesus, talking with him late into the night, yet held back by all his old beliefs and customs and commitments. I wonder how many people here feel a bit like Nicodemus? Unsure if we want to get too involved in the church.
A few years ago, when I led a Bible Study, we shared our faith journey along with our life-stories. As each person shared their stories, I kept nodding my head and saying “Amen” silently, because I was touched by their honest sharing. And as each person shared, I realized every story they were telling fell right into today’s Gospel lesson. It seems that we all are like Nicodemus. We all try to find out meanings of life. We all try to see good things out of bad things. I said “Amen” when I heard that they are searching for God’s Will when they are going through the hardest moments of life.
I was glad to hear Knud Hansen who was one of the senior members of that group said that “I am a seeker. I am still searching.” He was in his 80’s, but he was deeply involved in all church activities, especially the Youth Group. He was known as the “grandpa” of the Youth Group. I admire for his knowledge of Christian tradition and faith and for his practice of faith. Both Jonathan and Elizabeth still call him and his wife, Gladys, “grandpa” and “grandma” of Woodstock.
When this wise and faithful Christian said, “I am still searching,” the rest of us said that “I am still searching, too,” to which one of the junior members of that group said later (when he had a chance to talk) “I am just glad to be here today, because when I come, I thought you guys had all the answers.”
Yes, that’s right. Even many of us who seem to be settled and grown-up Christians are seekers. We too come back again and again as seekers, trying to rethink our faith, to hang on to it, or to rediscover it after facing some devastating crisis in our own lives. Yes, we all are like Nicodemus. We are still seeking, full of questions about God and Jesus and wondering if we dare to make the leap of faith.
We celebrated our Confirmation Sunday last week. As you know, one of the major requirements of the confirmation was writing a personal Affirmation of Faith. Each confirmand did very well and when I was helping them developing a Confirmation Class Affirmation in their own words, I said many times that it should not be the finalized version. You should revise it over and over again as you become more mature intellectually and spiritually.
It is true for all of us as well. No matter how long you have been a Christian, or no matter how mature you are in terms of spiritual matters, to publicly say that you are still searching, I believe, is a positive sign rather than negative sign of being a good Christian.
Traditionally, the image we have about Nicodemus was not positive. Why? I think it is not positive because he represents the old guard, the traditional Pharisees who were so often criticized in the gospels, or because he seems like a coward, sneaking in to visit Jesus at night when nobody would see him, or because he seems stupid, not understanding what Jesus meant by being “Born again,” or because we have the impression that he left without becoming a believer.
But, today I want to re-claim Nicodemus as a believer who never stopped seeking for truth. I also want to claim that it is a wonderful thing to be seeking Jesus, seeking to understand his teachings, his call, and the love which he offers to the world.
Why do I want to pro-claim Nicodemus as a believer who never stopped seeking? According to the Gospel of John, he was “A Pharisee and a leader of the Jews.” That implies that he was deeply religious, highly educated, well trained in Jewish law and traditions, and perhaps active in the top levels of the Jerusalem establishment.
This powerful and respected man came to Jesus at night and began – not with question or a challenge. He began by declaring his faith. He said he knew that Jesus really was a rabbi, a teacher who had come from God. And more than that, he recognized the presence of God in Jesus because of the miracles that Jesus had done. Already we see Nicodemus beginning to believe in Jesus and yet he came as a seeker, wanting to know more, to understand more, to believe more deeply and truly.
Jesus must have seen the longing in Nicodemus’ heart, and he responded with compassion and challenge. Jesus didn’t say he was wrong, but he challenged Nicodemus to a totally new approach, radically portrayed as starting life all over again. Not just to believe in Jesus because of the miracles he could do. But to believe in Jesus himself as Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus as the source of new life, new hope, new meaning. He said,“Unless you are born again (or born from above) you cannot see the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Nicodemus didn’t seem to understand. And so we can imagine their conversation going on into the night. Jesus telling him about the living water, the life-giving Holy Spirit and the promise of eternal life. And we hear Jesus sharing with him some of the most beloved and perhaps the most often quoted words of the New Testament, that …he had not come into the world to condemn … but to save …
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.
Then what happened? Did he become a believer? We don’t know.
Could Nicodemus make the radical new start that Jesus was calling for?
Was he ever “born again?” We don’t know. But I want to suggest that we should be much more sympathetic to Nicodemus, appreciating the struggle he faced and the extent to which he was already on a journey of faith when he came to Jesus that night.
I believe that being “born again” is not necessarily an once-a-lifetime event, a single moment of conversion after which you are a good faithful Christian forever. It doesn’t mean you must make a total break from everything you have ever done before. Rather, I believe that to be “born again” is the beginning of a process, turning in a new direction, setting forth on a lifelong journey of faith.
Nicodemus was on that journey. Maybe he was actually “born again” that night when he talked with Jesus. I think hints of this appear in the two brief glimpses we have of Nicodemus later in the Gospel of John.
Look at John 7:50 where Nicodemus reappears and courageously comes to Jesus’ defense at a moment of crisis. Jesus had been preaching in the temple and stirred up such violent controversy that some people wanted to arrest him. Nicodemus had the courage to stand up and say Stop! “Our law doesn’t judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”
And we meet Nicodemus again in John 19:38-42 on the day that Jesus was crucified. It was Nicodemus, together with Joseph of Aramathea, who had the courage and the love and the connections to ask Pilate for permission to take the body of Jesus down from the cross, wrap it for burial, and place it in the tomb.
In John 19:38, Joseph is described as a “disciple of Jesus, although a secret one because of his fear of the Jews” and Nicodemus is mentioned as “the one who came to Jesus by night” (19:39). Probably he too had become a secret disciple of Jesus. Think of the faith it must have taken for those two respectable Jewish leaders to publicly go out and take the broken body of Christ in their arms and carry him to the tomb.
I think that many of us here today are like Nicodemus: seekers, travelers, each on our unique journey of faith (maybe) with one foot still in our old lives and one foot about to take the next hesitant step into a new and richer level of relationship with God.
For sure, all of us need to keep trying to deepen our faith. To deepen our faith or to have a closer relationship with God, understanding the Scripture or seeking deeper knowledge of God is very important. But, my brothers and sisters in Christ, sometimes, all you need to do is just say “yes” to the Lord. Just say “Here I am Lord, send me.” Or, just say, “Amen” to the Lord. May God continue to bless your faith journey wherever you are on right now! Amen.
Photo: Statue of the burial of Jesus with Nicodemus St Michael Church Vienna