Our Bible reading today includes one of the most well-known bible verses – John 3:16
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. It is often referred to as the Gospel in a nutshell. It contains everything necessary for salvation.
The verse is in response to a dialogue between Nicodemus and Jesus where they are talking about being born again.
It seems that Jesus is critical of Nicodemus because as a Pharisee he doesn’t seem to know too much about living a Spirit filled life with God.
It intrigues Jesus – Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? (John 3:10) But what we often forget or fail to realise is that this is not the only time that we hear about Nicodemus. We hear about him on 2 more occasions and what we see in him is growth in his faith because of his dialogue with Jesus. So it seems that Nicodemus has taken to heart what Jesus has said and as we look at his progress in faith it also shows us that people take time in their faith journey. In his first encounter Nicodemus is seemingly unsure and frightened. He is a Pharisee so he may fear being associated with Jesus in a similar way that Peter let his fear deny Jesus 3 times. He knows about Jesus and what he’s done and acknowledges that he has come from God. But he’s afraid to admit it and comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness. Nicodemus here seems to be a seeker but he is conflicted. He’s seen what Jesus is doing and he wants to believe. But maybe he’s worried about what the cost of that would be if others found out.
There may be people like Nicodemus all around us. They know what Jesus offers but maybe they’re afraid of what it might mean. Will others make fun of them? Are they afraid of walking into a church and not knowing anyone? Will they feel like everyone’s looking at them because they don’t know what to do – they don’t know the language of church and what things mean?
I remember my own experience when I started going to church; standing in the corner because no one would talk to me because they were in their own groups. I had no idea what this thing was that they were all going down to the front to do.
I found out it was called Holy Communion but I wasn’t allowed to attend because I wasn’t a member. I can see why Nicodemus came under darkness and I don’t find his responses about entering your mother’s womb a 2nd time funny or strange.
We know what Jesus means when he uses language like born again, redemption, salvation, sanctification – but would a person coming in off the street understand? Jesus speaks with Nicodemus and relates his coming death to what he would be familiar with – the lifting up of the bronze snake to provide healing for the Israelites. Maybe we too need to look at how we relate our faith at times to the experiences of the people we are trying to link with, even our own family. We know today that to many people the church and its message seems irrelevant but they are looking for what the church offers in different places. They are happy to speak to a psychic or clairvoyant to find out their future when Jesus says he is the one who was, and is and is to come – he makes the unknown future known. They are happy to seek out anything that will prolong their life or make them look younger while Jesus offers eternal life. They will spend a fortune on counselling when Jesus says come to me all you who are weary and burdened. Maybe we need to look at what and how we are communicating.
Because when we next see Nicodemus we see a change in him.
In Chapter 7 of John’s Gospel we see Nicodemus actually defending Jesus. The temple police went to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked them, “Why did you not arrest him?” After giving their reason, Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them, asked, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” Something has changed in Nicodemus. He’s no longer needing the cover of darkness but is willing to defend Jesus publicly even though he is still a Pharisee.
We come across many people who may fit this description – people who support the church but may not identify as part of it. We might called them lapsed members. We might call them people who bring their children to be baptised and we never see them again. We might call them people who want a Lutheran funeral for their parents who are good Lutherans but we’ve never met them before. We might call them people who want a Christian wedding but we might not see them again until they come looking for baptism for their first child. We might call them people who come to our Community Meal and Soup and singing and are happy for us to say grace and sometimes insist on it but don’t go to church. We might call them the Christmas and Easter members. They are the ones who ask us to pray for them when difficulties strike them even if they never pray themselves. These are the ones we become cynical about and question why we bother. But here we see why we bother. They might not fit our understanding of a Christian but as Jesus once said to the disciples who were complaining to him: Master,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.” “Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.” Nicodemus has become one who is not against us, as are many around us.
I love that line in John Kleinig’s song, because we bear your name that says: “Let us acknowledge those as friends who use your name to right a wrong but have not joined us yet”. Just like Nicodemus – who is still a Pharisee but has come out to defend Jesus. Let us look for ways that we can encourage and interact with those who have not joined us yet to encourage them to continue their journey in faith.
The final appearance of Nicodemus is at Jesus’ death in chapter 19. He is with Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews. So different to the chosen disciples who were locked away for fear of the Jews. He asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. (John 19:38) Nicodemus comes to join Joseph to take away Jesus’ body for burial. Nicodemus has done more for Jesus than Jesus’ own disciples have done. They all fled but here is Nicodemus with Joseph, a secret disciple, who is also frightened but prepared to let everyone know that they are followers of Jesus. Peter, who declared he would stand by Jesus to the end, was too afraid to say he even knew him. Here is a person we could have written off at the beginning of his search. Coming under the safety of darkness now in view of everyone carrying Jesus’ body to be buried.
The Christian life is a journey. And we are all at different stages on the journey with Jesus and may take different ways with him. It’s easy to cut people off during the journey because their journey is different to ours. They have taken a different route to salvation that we think is the normal path. Paul’s journey was different to that of the other disciples and they were afraid at the start of his journey: Annanias had grave doubts about God’s choice: Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.” But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument.
We don’t know who God has chosen. They may not look like us and how we have come to faith. Will we prevent them baptism because we doubt they will return? Will we doubt them a Christian burial because we’ve never seen them in church before and deny an opportunity to bring a message of hope to the mourners? Will we refuse them Holy Communion because we don’t know what’s in their heart and what they believe? It’s difficult because we don’t want to cheapen the holy things of God. But maybe among them is a Nicodemus or Paul and if they are presenting themselves to the church whether it be baptism, marriage, burial or the Lord’s Supper, then perhaps this is the beginning of their journey. We may not see them the following week, we may not seem them next Christmas or Easter. But maybe we will see them in Heaven – the smouldering wick that God did not snuff out (Matthew 12:20). That smouldering wick of belief, that bruised reed (Matthew 12:20) that mustard seed (Matthew 13:31-32) is all that God is looking for; 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.