Nicodemus approaches Jesus in the night. He is sneaky, he is quiet, his head is bowed and he wants to ensure that no one sees him going to Jesus. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a leader of religious Jews who teaches and exemplifies Jewish law. He would have a great deal to lose if anyone caught him with Jesus. Still he comes. He has got to figure this Jesus out. Jesus is going about flouting Jewish law. He eats with unclean people, he heals on the Sabbath. He has just made a huge scene in the temple, overturning tables and yelling at money changers. He is attracting followers at an alarming rate. Friends of Nicodemus, other Pharisees are so upset that they are beginning to plot to get rid of Jesus.
So Nicodemus approaches Jesus in the night. He whispers, “Jesus, Jesus.” He is welcomed by Jesus, given a cup of wine, a seat by the low fire. Nicodemus takes a long look at Jesus and says: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do what you are doing apart from the presence of God." This sounds like a statement of faith to me. Nicodemus believed that Jesus was no ordinary Joe. Jesus has to have come from God to be able to do what he was doing.
Jesus answers: “Honestly, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” “Born from above” can also be translated as “born again.” Nicodemus answers, “Huh?” I’m old. I can’t be born again. I can’t go back into my mother’s womb. What are you talking about, Jesus?” Jesus answers; “Look, I’m telling you that one can’t enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit.” Nicodemus understands a bit better now. It’s a rebirth of the spirit that he needs!
Jesus further explains: “The spirit is like the wind, it blows and you don’t know where it is coming from or where it is going.” Nicodemus is baffled, “How can these things be?” Jesus kind of slaps him down, “You call yourself a teacher of Israel and you still don’t understand these simple things? Look, I’m just telling you what I know about. If I tell you about earthly things and you don’t believe me then how are you going to believe me when I tell you about heavenly things? Listen. Here’s my question: Do you have any idea how much God loves the world? He gave his only son so that you might have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send his son to condemn the world but to save the world.”
This story ends here but let me tell you what happened with Nicodemus. Although he sounded very perplexed during his night meeting with Jesus, perhaps the Spirit did come and bless him because he later stood up and defended Jesus before the other Pharisees. And, after the crucifixion, it was Nicodemus who came with Joseph of Arimathea, bringing one hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes to dress the body of Jesus. So in today’s story, we are witnesses to the start of a conversion. We are witnesses to the beginning of Nicodemus’ spiritual rebirth.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus with a tiny bit of faith. He knows that Jesus is special but he has many questions. By the end of our relationship with old Nicodemus, he believes in Jesus Christ. His faith grows slowly, over time, until he lovingly dresses the body of his dead savior.
Try to imagine being around during the time that Jesus was alive. Imagine being in a crowd, hearing him preach. Imagine being witness to one of his many miracles. Apparently many people had powerful, immediate conversion experiences. Many were reborn again into the Spirit in his presence. But Nicodemus was a very learned man. Perhaps he had grown skeptical and wary. It must have taken great bravery for him to not only confront Jesus but to confront his own doubt. In our story today, he doesn’t jump up and start praising God, he doesn’t have a momentous change in himself. He just walks slowly away into the night, shaking his head, overwhelmed by the enormity of his conversation with Jesus, his faith slowly building.
Faith is a funny thing. I always thought that one either had faith or not. Like an ‘on’/‘off’ switch. One either believes in Jesus or not. This Nicodemus story comforts me because it shows us a slow path to faith in Christ. Wouldn’t you like to have a conversion experience like that of Paul? Walking down the road to Emmaus, Paul is physically struck down by the light of God. He goes blind as he becomes a new man, while he is reborn into the Spirit. Wouldn’t that be great?
I’m afraid that my conversion to faith has had a very slow evolution with a great deal of back sliding and questioning. My rebirth into the Holy Spirit has occurred so slowly that I recognize it only when I look back and see that over time I have become more willing to try to forgive people, perhaps I have been better able to find compassion for others. These changes come from my relationship with the teachings of Jesus Christ and the nudgings of the Holy Spirit.
So I guess I would consider myself born again from above. But that sounds like a done deal. There, I’m born again, that’s that! But I don’t feel that way. I need to be born again and again into the Spirit. Everyday, every moment of everyday I make choices about my life that can go either way. I can be selfish or generous. I can be judgmental or forgiving. I can be cold or compassionate. Each day I fail a bit, each day I succeed a bit. I do make better choices when I allow myself to be open to the nudgings of the Holy Spirit throughout each day.
Belief, faith is brought about by the Holy Spirit. That is what ‘born from above’ means. Martin Luther wrote: “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, gathered me with other Christians, enlightened me with his gifts and helped me to grow in holiness and wholeness.”
Most of our readings today are about faith. In Genesis, Abram has such great faith that he hears God’s order to leave his homeland and just like that he packs up and goes. God tells him: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you. Abram believes what he hears from God and goes. He acts on his great faith. In the Epistle reading, Paul clarifies for the Romans that Abram was rewarded with a great family because of his faith, not because of his actions. In our Gospel we are witnesses to Nicodemus with his tentative, questioning faith in Jesus which grows into true belief.
This famous verse in our Gospel, John 3:16 goes like this: “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.” The phrase "John 3:16" can be found all over place. Our favorite hamburger chain in Southern California, In-N-Out Burger, prints it on the inside of the bottom rim of their paper cups, and the clothing chain Forever 21 prints it on the bottom of their shopping bags.
Perhaps you have heard of Tim Tebow. He is a Heisman trophy winning quarterback and I remember seeing him with “John 3:16” printed on that black stuff under his eyes. One also sees “John 3:16” on placards at protests, at sporting events, all over the place.
Why is this verse so popular? Is it about the promise that if we believe then we shall have eternal life? Is it about the profound love that God has for the world? Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever focused on the hugeness of the love that God has for us expressed in this verse. God so loved the world, the whole world, everybody in the world, not a select few, not just the church. I think people should quote the next verse as well, John 3:17: “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.”
God did not send his son to condemn the world. God does not want people who love his son to condemn the world. We must never condemn others in the name of Christ, and yet I see that happening a great deal. God loves the world and doesn’t want to condemn it. Pay attention to this. In the wake of earthquakes and tsunamis and disasters, remember this. God LOVES the world. God weeps with us as we weep for the victims of these disasters.
With all this talk of faith in our readings today I wonder where you are on your faith journey. You see, faith is a journey. It’s not, nor should it ever be done, settled into, complacent, a totally comfortable sofa. Faith should be an active verb, an ongoing experience. “I believe in God the Father Almighty” is an active statement which should shake us up every Sunday. The Holy Spirit moves us to faith and we must stay open to that experience. Be like a tree swaying in the wind, moved by the spirit. Open your mind and your soul and your actions throughout each day to the workings of the Spirit and your faith will be alive.