HEART TO HEART WITH NICODEMUS
During Lent, our sermon series is from the lectionary gospels texts, and we’re calling the series Heart to Heart Talks. Last week, Mark Achtemeier helped us to listen in on the conversation between Jesus and the Tempter, and to reflect on our own temptations toward power and contempt. This week, we listen in on a heart to heart talk between Jesus and Nicodemus. This passage includes some of the most famous lines of John’s gospel, “You must be born from above,” and “For God so loved the world.” Those lines are so familiar to us, it’s sometimes hard to hear them. This morning, I invite you to hear them as part of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, and part of Jesus’ response to his questions. Listen for the word of God.
Now 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.
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
This morning I’d like to talk with you about faith questions. And, if I can, I would like to say a blessing to all of us who ask questions about our faith. Especially when, maybe, we feel guilty for asking, or doubt our own integrity in asking, or who wonder if we – who have questions – are really imposters in the community of faith, where everyone else seems to be so confident.
Nicodemus is perhaps the paradigmatic seeker and questioner of the Gospels, and he only shows up in John’s account. He was a Pharisee, meaning that he was a leader in the Jewish community and a religious scholar. Nicodemus was well-versed in scripture and tradition. He could have answered many questions, but he also had his own questions. He had encountered Jesus as a rabbi sent from God, and so came to Jesus for a heart to heart talk. John often tells us the time of day in many of his stories, and I think the time of day here is telling. Nicodemus came at night, in the dark, in private… because he wanted to ask his questions in private, away from the eyes and ears of others.
I’ve met Nicodemus so many times, and so have you. After a service, someone will hang back to talk for a minute, and say, “I understand what you were saying, but I’m not sure I believe it. I wrestle with this part. What about this?” A person once asked me to come to their home for a cup of coffee because there was something he needed to share one-on-one. After we sat down and made some small talk, the conversation went like this:
“I’m afraid you’ll think I’m an imposter, but I just don’t know what I believe. I was raised a Christian; I’ve been active in the church all my life. The church reflects my values, my tradition, I love the people, the music – but I have a lot of questions about what I believe. If I had been born in Asia, I might have been a good Buddhist. I could probably be a good Reformed Jew. But I happen to be a Christian, and I feel sometimes like an imposter. I see others believe, and I admire them; but I have a lot of questions.”
Some version of that conversation has happened so many times, I wish I could get you all in the same place. Everyone thinks they’re the only one. “It’s just me.” “I’m the one who doesn’t fit.” “Everyone else sings the hymn with confidence.” “Everyone else says the creed and doesn’t trip over any lines.” “I’m the only one.” But you’re not alone. The tribe of Nicodemus is large.
Sometimes we think that having faith is the opposite of having questions, that faith provides the answers to questions. But the truth is that questions are a part of faith. Every statement of faith contains the seeds of a hundred and more questions.
“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth….” Is there really a God, and if so, what is God’s nature? Is God really a personal being, as the Jewish and Christian creeds insist? Does the world have meaning; and do our individual lives in it have meaning; or are we just perpetually spinning? Why do earthquakes decimate impoverished places? Why do good people get terrible cancers?
“I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord….” Jesus was a wise teacher, one of the best the world has ever known, but was he divine? Did he work miracles? Did he rise from the dead? Can we believe in a resurrection for ourselves, and what on earth would that look like?
“I believe in the Holy Spirit, and the holy catholic church….” And what about the church? How can an institution that calls itself the body of Christ be so fallible, be so often unloving, and sometimes do so much harm?
Every statement of faith contains within itself the seeds of a hundred and more questions.
When he was talking with Jesus, Nicodemus – who was himself a teacher – asked two questions, and Jesus pushed him into deeper both times. He began by giving the group consensus that Jesus was a good rabbi sent from God. That’s why he was there. But Jesus pressed him further, saying, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” This language, this way of talking about the kingdom, confused Nicodemus and he asked his first question: how can someone be born twice?
To that, Jesus gave an even more puzzling answer, about the Spirit and the wind blowing where it will, to which Nicodemus was clearly astonished and confused. In the firelight, alone with Jesus, astonished, Nicodemus, asked his second question, “How can these things be?” Jesus responded to him again, with more questions and more metaphors. Far from giving him answers, Jesus pushed Nicodemus deeper into what he really believed and into the mystery of God’s saving love.
The first time that I was pressed to ask my own deeper faith questions, I was a freshman at the College of William and Mary. I took religion courses thinking it would be an easy start, maybe an “easy A.” Boy was I wrong. I signed up for two courses with a senior professor named Tom Finn.
Dr. Finn had been an ordained Catholic priest before leaving the priesthood to marry the love of his life and go into teaching. In a course on early Christianity, I recall that he told us, “I’m not here to tell you whether Jesus was raised from the dead. You need to think for yourself about that. I can only tell you what the early church believed.” In a course on Jesus in the gospels, he said, “I’m not here to tell you whether Jesus did all the things recorded in this book. That’s a question you need to answer. I’m here to tell you what Mark and Matthew and Luke and John believed, and what their communities thought. You need to think for yourself about what you believe.”
He knew we were there for an easy A, and he was there to push us into deeper questions. He was there to be a professor, but he doubled as a pretty good pastor to young adults.
This past week Shannon participated in a webinar on spiritual openness. She shared some statistics with me, as part of that webinar, that I thought might be helpful for us all to hear. This is according to a survey of 2000 adults by the Barna Group, which frequently does religious polling.
Of all adults:
- 51% would say, “I believe there is a supernatural or spiritual side to life, but I don’t believe any one faith system works for me.”
- 49% say, “I’ve gone through a prolonged period of time where I significantly doubted my faith.”
- 43% say, “I am disillusioned by my experiences in Christian churches.”
- 47% say, “My experiences have led me to take apart and deconstruct the faith of my youth.”
The tribe of Nicodemus is large, maybe even the majority. The startling thing about the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus, especially given Jesus’ puzzling responses, is the clarity of the statement at the end. After speaking in what seems like riddles, Jesus says one of the clearest statements in all the Gospel of John. “For God so loved the world, he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believe in him will not perish, but will have everlasting life.”
If there is one sentence that sums of the message of this gospel more than any other, it’s this: The love of God is limitless. For God so loved the world. God’s love embraces all of us and each one of us. Just as we are. There are no questions or doubts that can be the limit of God’s love. Even those who doubt our faith. Even those who are deconstructing what we believe. Even those who are disillusioned. Especially those who have been hurt by the church. God’s love is limitless and is for you. You belong in the circle of God’s love.
No sacrifice was too great to bring home to each of us the unmeasured intensity of God’s love: God’s own well-beloved Son gave up his life that each of us and all of us might live. If there is one thing God wants us to know clearly, with no puzzles and no riddles, it is that – that is how Jesus ends his conversation with Nicodemus. That is how he ends his life at the cross. The limitless love of God.
As the fire died down, Nicodemus slipped away in the dark and we never know what Nicodemus ever believed; John doesn’t give us his statement of faith. But we do get to see what Nicodemus does. He shows up three times in the Gospel of John. Once, here, to ask his questions. Later, he stands up to defend Jesus before his friend about the time of Jesus’ arrest. And one last time, when he helps Joseph of Arimathea lay Jesus’ body in the tomb. His beliefs are hidden from us, perhaps they were hidden even from him. But his actions must speak louder than his words.
We are all friends of Nicodemus. Every statement of faith contains within itself the seed of a hundred other questions. Having faith is not the opposite of having questions, it is the beginning of having questions.
Like Nicodemus, I pray we will find that Jesus is one who so embodies the wisdom of God that we can trust him with our questions, even when the answers leave us astonished. Like Nicodemus, I pray we will find that Jesus is one who so embodies the way of God, we can walk beside him as a friend, speak up for him when possible, and serve him when we are needed.
Like Nicodemus, I pray we will trust that Jesus so embodies the limitless love of God, that we will find welling up within ourselves a childlike trust that runs deeper than all our questions. Perhaps something that feels very much like being born from above.
Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.
First Presbyterian Church
Asheville, North Carolina