This Changes Everything!
This Changes Everything!
October 22, 2017
This morning, I want to build a foundation for considering our text. In Jesus’ day, Israel had a ruling council which was called the Sanhedrin. That ruling council had 70 seats. The majority of those seats were filled by Sadducees, the wealthiest and most political members of the society. These were the old guard rich and powerful—the elite. They were not particularly religious but were very political. They wanted stability in their society and peace with Rome. Why? They wanted to keep their power and wealth, plain and simple.
The minority of the seats on the Sanhedrin were filled by Pharisees. The Pharisees were middle class businessmen. Most people would never have spent any time in conversation with a Sadducee. Almost everyone knew a Pharisee and he knew you! The people trusted the Pharisees in a way that they never would have trusted the Sadducees. So, the ruling aristocrats had a vested interest in keeping the Pharisees on the Sanhedrin: this was how they had any credibility. Interestingly, the Pharisees were as religious as the Sadducees were political. They believed in an ongoing relationship with God. They believed in resurrection (before Jesus was resurrected). They believed in an afterlife with rewards and punishments.
As you might imagine, the Sadducees and the Pharisees were nearly constantly in conflict, every time the politics or the religion of the day came up. In fact, some people would say that the only time when they agreed was in the last week of Jesus’ life, when the Sadducees thought Jesus was going to draw the ire of Rome and the Pharisees thought Jesus was a threat to the faith. What they agreed on was that Jesus had to die.
The most famous Pharisee of all time was Saul, who hunted Christians down and then had his own conversion and became a Christian himself. He brought the mind and the business experience and the conflict resolution skills of a Pharisee with him and became, perhaps, the most important leader in the early Christian church.
The second most famous Pharisee was Nicodemus. We meet him in our text for this morning in the middle of the night. In the wee hours of the night there is a knock at the door where Jesus is staying. Jesus opens the door and finds this Pharisee on the other side. At which point, we have to assume that every human bone in Jesus’ body had to recoil. After all, it was no secret that those with power had nothing but contempt for Jesus. There had to be fear in that moment, even for Jesus: “This guy hates me!”
(Who among us hasn’t taken the metaphorical “dive into the bushes” to avoid “that guy” ourselves when we saw them coming. You head into the next aisle at the grocery store. You cross the street. You drop your hat down over your eyes and keep walking.)
The thing about Jesus is that he doesn’t see people as examples. Instead, he just sees a person. (This might be one of the most challenging aspects of Jesus’ way of being in the world for us to match. We are so programed to categorize, to tribalize, to quickly find the right bin in which we can put someone. We label them and then we can move on. We think we know what we need to know.) Jesus is awake and aware and present. However, it is up to the person to be who they are and find the words for what they want. Christ is here. Christ is listening. The question is, “What do you have to say?”
Nicodemus says something very interesting: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs apart from the presence of God.” You have been sent from God. The things you do are proof of that. Is he lying? Is he just fluffing Jesus ego? I don’t think so. While it is true that accusing someone of being a Pharisee today usually is tantamount to saying that they are a self-righteous, hypocrite, I don’t think we get to dismiss Nicodemus out of hand. He may not be ready for anyone to know what he thinks of Jesus. (Hence, he comes under the cover of darkness.) That doesn’t make him a hypocrite. That probably just makes him like most of us who don’t want people to think we are one of those people who is full of crazy religious ideas. (I am aware of this every time I meet someone new and they ask me, “What do you do?”)
I think Nicodemus is sincere in seeking out Jesus. I think he is sincere in what he says about Jesus being a teacher sent by God who does powerful things: “No one can do what you do apart from God.” I think Nicodemus is a man to whom faith matters a great deal who believes that God didn’t stop being connected to the world when Moses left it and who is convinced that Jesus is the latest expression of that relationship.
Jesus says something very interesting back to Nicodemus: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Now, when I hear this, I think Jesus is saying to Nicodemus: “For you to say what you have just said, for you to see what you see in me, you are right on the cusp of this spiritual birth.” You are so close, Nicodemus. Are you ready for everything to change?
Instead, Nicodemus begins to parse what Jesus is saying and totally misses the point. Nicodemus gets caught up in literalism: “How can anyone as crusty and old as me be born again? Am I supposed to crawl back into my mother’s womb? I just don’t understand!” Nicodemus wants the security that would come if we could understand what’s next in terms of what’s already happened.
Part of me wants to believe that Jesus might have given him a playful knock on the forehead and said, “Nicodemus, you’re missing the point!” It is not a stretch to imagine just how mind-blowingly crazy the birth that all of us have undergone at the beginning of our lives was. We were safe and secure and fed. We were warm and comfortable. The sound of our mother’s heartbeat was our constant companion. And then, in an instant (or perhaps, in 30 hours) that all changed. The world is loud and bright and cold and overwhelming. It makes no sense. We feel helpless—until we feel cared for when we are held close and what we hear is that familiar heartbeat—more distant but there nevertheless. “Nicodemus…if you can understand the difference between being in the womb and being born, maybe you can begin to imagine the difference between being oblivious to God’s presence and becoming immersed in that presence. It changes everything!” Nicodemus hears all this but continues to struggle anyway.
We hear all this and struggle, too. I think one of the really unfortunate things that has happened in my lifetime is that non-evangelical Christians (like us) have essentially disowned large parts of our theological tradition so that people will not think we are “like them.” We distance ourselves from the language of redemption and salvation because someone made us uncomfortable by asking us if we were saved. We walk away from the whole notion of forgiveness because we don’t want to be associated with a tradition that seems to broker guilt and shame. The problem is that because we have handed off the language to those who use it in ways that offend us, we miss out on the chance to wrestle with that language until it speaks to our own lives. What if salvation matters—but matters in a way totally different than just quizzing people about whether they are “in” or “out?” What if forgiveness remains a central human task and has nothing to do with loading anyone up with guilt and shame? What if we really do have to be born again?
Let me be clear. I’m not talking about the altar call, come to Jesus, conversion on demand experience. I don’t think Jesus was talking about that either. What I’m talking about is opening ourselves up to the possibility that faith might change us irrevocably, that the Holy Spirit is a powerful presence, that it truly is possible for God to make all things new, including crusty old people like Nicodemus or like me. Faith is a renewing and transforming thing. Faith changes everything.
This is not some otherworldly claim. There are a host of things in this life that change everything. The first time you fall in love—that changes everything. When you get married, that changes everything. When you have a child, that changes everything. When someone you love dies, that changes everything. When you first realize that you are mortal, that there will come a time when you will no longer be here, that changes everything. Things happen that change us forever. Insights arise that change us forever. On that list should be the moment when God’s unconditional love comes to life for us. I don’t have to prove anything. I just have to take it in and then allow it to change my whole way of being in this world. I have to allow that love to make me more loving, more gracious, more forgiving, more kind. Maybe that’s the rebirth that unfolds over the course of the rest of my life. Maybe, in truth, we are born again and again.
Nicodemus always makes me think of Thomas, the one called the Doubter. History has not been kind to either man, labeling them as the examples of something less than perfect faith (which, of course, means they are just like us!) Just know this, although Nicodemus wandered back into the night after his encounter with Jesus, more unsure than ever, he will appear again. You can find him in John 19:39 if you want. Jesus has been crucified and has died. Joseph of Arimathea pleads with Pilate to release Jesus’ body to be buried—an incredibly risky, brave thing to do. The man next to Joseph in that moment is the man who came to Jesus under the cover of the night. Nicodemus and Joseph take Jesus’ body to the tomb and lay it there in a final act of compassion and faith.
Sooner or later, if you are not careful, if you don’t hedge your bets very carefully, faith changes everything: the way we think, the choices we make, the way we treat others. May we all be born again and again and again.