NICODEMUS BY NIGHT
The early communists talked of creating a new Soviet man, but Christianity got there long beforehand as those who trust in Christ become a new people in his resurrection life.
Confidentiality is a wonderful thing. To be able to share your deepest feelings with a friend and know it will remain a secret is liberating. Spare a thought then for Nicodemus who came to Jesus secretly at night to hold an off the record conversation only for it to be splashed across John’s Gospel for millions to pick over for centuries thereafter (John 3: 1-21). If only he and Jesus were present at this meeting, one of them must have posted it on Facebook. Could it really have been Jesus?
At the end of John’s Gospel we read that Nicodemus took the body of Jesus away after his death and prepared it for burial. This was the most dangerous moment of all to be known as a friend of Jesus. With the miracle worker a dead and cold body, there was every chance his opponents would come after the disciples with a vengeance. Yet it was Nicodemus, no more than a passing acquaintance in life, who had the courage to come forward and dignify his burial, paying for perhaps the most significant piece of land in human history – certainly the biggest waste of funeral money in human history. In reading the account of Jesus’ burial, it is telling that the two men who took charge – Joseph and Nicodemus – were people who had gone to elaborate lengths previously to disguise their admiration for Jesus. Meanwhile his closest friends cowered in safe houses. Who needs friends when you have acquaintances like these? So it is more likely that Nicodemus told this story about himself for posterity.
Nicodemus had come to Jesus by night because he had a public status which would have been compromised had he been seen around the man from Nazareth. He would have listened to the debates taking place about Jesus, but inwardly been distancing himself from the convenient consensus among the Jewish leadership that Jesus was a liar and a fraud. But the only way he could satisfy himself was by personal encounter. Nicodemus isn’t the only man in scripture whose public standing made it difficult for him to satisfy his spiritual curiosity. St. Paul claimed something similar of King Agrippa in Acts 26. I suspect it is just as difficult for people in the public eye today to enquire discretely about spiritual matters without someone, somewhere, gossiping to others.
It is hard enough for less well-known people to satisfy their spiritual curiosity without exposing themselves to critical opposition. This makes developments in digital technology of vital importance in the spread of the Gospel. Many people now enquire online, silently and anonymously, about the things that interest them. The way the Church presents itself digitally is therefore not an indulgence, the preserve of technophiles, but an essential tool of outreach to a culture which has changed out of all recognition in two decades.
The public sphere remains an unforgiving environment for people talking about religion and one consequence of this is the loss of a shared language to make sense of it. It is a curious paradox that we have become much better at expressing our emotions in public at the same moment that our spiritual articulacy has suffered. There is only a short litany of spiritual clichés to lay claim to and this impoverishment makes it hard to make connections with others. People struggle to find the words to express what they are feeling spiritually and in the absence of a common vocabulary, are more likely to keep such feelings to themselves. Yet by sharing them we make sense of them and help one another to find God.
The Church is aware of the difficulty people have with terms like redemption, justification and sanctification. They are rarely used in other contexts and so people find it hard to get a grip on them. For this reason we try to find new idioms which are more readily understood. It is easy to ridicule this when it appears to couch ancient mystery in street jargon, for instance, but if our terminology is out of reach for lots of people and we tolerate this, then we are guilty of a kind of Gnosticism, where a secret language is only available to an initiated elite.
The curious thing about Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus is that he seems to make little effort at all to help him understand and reproves him for his dimwittedness: ‘are you a teacher in Israel and yet you do not understand these things?’ he says. To explain something entirely is to master it and to remove the need for faith. To attempt to demystify a belief isn’t always the right step. This is a pertinent message for an insecure generation which demands transparency. Yet Jesus gave Nicodemus enough to make a serious response to him. There is a balance to be found between mystery and accessibility in the language we use.
The conversation with Nicodemus gives us two of scripture’s most famous sayings: ‘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’ and ‘do not be surprised that I say to you that you must be born again’. Born again! For some people this is a term reserved for Cliff Richard and scary American politicians. Surely the Church of England has found a way round it? Actually, no. To enter the kingdom of God we must become new people. This is a process that begins now and reaches its fulfilment in the world to come.
To trust in Jesus is to go through death with him and come out alive with him. ‘I have been crucified with Christ’ says the Apostle Paul. He believed he died with Jesus on the cross along with all who trust in their saviour. But they have died only to be born anew as people in whom God is restlessly at work, preparing them to inherit eternal life. Comrade Lenin and his brigade of early communists talked of creating a new Soviet man but Christianity got there long beforehand. All Lenin could offer was corrective education to help the massed proletariat see their enslavement by the capitalist classes. God, however, has placed his Holy Spirit in us and given us imperishable new life. Seeing this truth and living it for all it is worth is our joyful calling.
In Romans 8, St. Paul says something mysterious and glorious about the world. In the middle of an argument about personal salvation he says this: ‘the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now’ and that ‘creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God’. Even nature, Paul is saying, will be born again. The pain of this fractured yet beautiful world, with all the acute suffering it endures, is like the pain of the final moments of labour. Faith is inevitably tested, sometimes severely, by the arbitrary cruelty of creation, but the words ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’ offer sustenance and comfort to those who doubt God’s goodness. As Jesus gasped his last breath on the cross, he looked to be the pitiless victim of a random act of cruelty by the Romans, but we know differently. What we cannot see now we believe by faith.
There is a lovely balance to this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus as it speaks of two kinds of salvation: the cosmic: ‘God so loved the world’ and the personal: ‘you must be born again Nicodemus’. No need is too vast or too tiny for God to embrace. And as midwife to the new creation, he shares in the labour pains of his people and their world.
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