March 8, 2020
The Rev. Cn. Michelle I Walker
Associate Staff Officer, The United Thank Offering
Missioner for Administration and Communication, Diocese of Northern Indiana
There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He 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.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 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.”
Theme: Gratitude as a way of being in relationship, of understanding
In the Gospel reading for this second Sunday of Lent (Jn 3:1-17) we encounter Nicodemus, an interesting character mentioned only in John. We don’t know much about Nicodemus, but we do know the following:
- He was a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews.
- He comes to Jesus at night.
- Later in John, during Jesus’ trial in front of the chief priests and Pharisees, Nicodemus briefly defends Jesus. (Jn 7:50)
- Nicodemus, with Joseph of Arimathea (known to be a ‘secret disciple of Jesus’), retrieve Jesus’ body after the crucifixion, prepare him with myrrh and aloes, and bury him in the tomb. (Jn 19:39)
Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, speaking to Jesus with respect and courtesy. He addresses 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.” (Jn 3:2). Nicodemus has already decided Jesus was a Godly presence. He wanted to know more, to understand.
When Jesus replies “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (Jn 3:3), what Nicodemus hears is that he must be physically born again in order to see the kingdom of God. That’s not possible, even with modern medicine! The path from his ears to understanding can’t comprehend what Jesus said. We can’t blame him. And with this misunderstanding, Nicodemus and Jesus continue in a rather uncomfortable conversation where Nicodemus continues to not recognize what Jesus means.
Granted, “being born from above” was not a phrase in daily usage for a Pharisee. Jesus was referring to a different way of being in relationship with God than simple observance of the laws. He was referring to a way of life that includes: being a servant; being filled with the Holy Spirit; and being filled with a grace that gifts us our salvation rather than demands we earn it through observance of the law. How could Nicodemus, someone likely unwilling to be seen with Jesus in the light of day, possibly consider Jesus’ response and know what to do with it? How could he reconcile Jesus’ seemingly obscure response with his call as a Pharisee to ‘earn’ favor with God through a strict adherence to the rules? He couldn’t, at least in that moment.
We don’t know exactly what Nicodemus does with this conversation. Jesus turns his speaking from a direct interaction with Nicodemus to a speech for all to hear. Nicodemus clearly doesn’t give up on Jesus, however, as he’s still in the story of salvation even after Jesus’ death.
Often times in my life I have felt like I was on the “Nicodemus end” of a conversation in that I was simply hearing but not understanding. It might be a conversation with my spouse, work or ministry colleague, spiritual director, friend, or even with God himself in prayer. In those moments, all I can do is cling to the fragments of what I do understand and appreciate whatever I can in the moment. I can be grateful for the conversation, the relationship, and the opportunity – even while not seeing the entire picture. I can be thankful for the ability to recognize my unknowing. And I can use gratitude, that stance of appreciating what is before me, to be more open and receptive to the words of the human speaker or the divine God. For me, especially when I am tired, I need a stance of gratitude and appreciation to reframe the scene.
Perhaps it is the same for you? I wonder if it was the same for Nicodemus. How can we take the courage of Nicodemus to seek Jesus out, couple it with a stance of gratitude, and leverage that to dive deeper into relationship? To live more fully into our Lenten disciplines? To be fearless in a world that seems to thrive on fear? I don’t know, exactly. I do know, however, when my days are filled with appreciation, a belief in life abundant, and gratitude I am able to be the best version of me. That is an excellent first step in being the Light of Christ!
For the remainder of this Lent, I’d like to issue you this challenge: when in conversation with others, especially difficult conversations, step back in your mind for moment and be grateful. Be appreciative of some characteristic of the other and allow that gratitude to shift how you see the person, the interaction, as a whole. You might find that, like Nicodemus, you walk away still wondering enough to be a part of the story later on! Amen