|The Deposition, by Michaelangelo, 1550. Nicodemus, Mary Magdalene and Mary the Mother of Jesus, removing Jesus from the cross. Michaelangelo was carving it for his own tomb. His face is the face of Nicodemus. Unfinished. In frustration he destroyed part of it, and was never able to complete it.|
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There is no bible passage more recognized, memorized, beloved, despised and exhausted than John 3:16, known as “the gospel in a nutshell.”It used to be when I heard this story what I heard was John 3:16. And I had all sorts of opinions and experiences related to this bite-sized good news – from the scary teenagers that tried to evangelize me with it in a pizza place when I was 12, to the first time I saw it on the bottom of an In-and-Out Burger cup. It’s a little American shorthand instructional for how to have a good life, or at least, how not go to hell. Believe in Jesus and you’ll have eternal life! Easy-peasy!
But life changes things; it changes us. And this time what utterly stood me still was a verse I didn’t even know came from this same conversation, something that for most of a lifetime of being a Christian has meant nothing to me, but now, unexpectedly, does. It is this line: 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.’
That’s because for nearly a year and a half, a few of us, one with terminal cancer, gathered online for morning and evening prayer, and once a week we read these words aloud together as part of our evening prayer. And every Monday, when we would get to these words, they irritated me. (I even admitted this to the others once). Because I didn’t get it. And I still don’t. How are people like wind you hear but don’t know where or how or why? What does that even mean? What is this “being born of Spirit" business? Why does it all have to be vague and confusing and difficult? Why can’t it be a simple formula, pray this prayer, take these steps, be saved from death; believe in Jesus and everything will work out?
And so, I first want to say, I feel you, Nicodemus.
Nicodemus is our second guide through Lent. First we had Lazarus, who dies and comes back to life, both through no fault or accomplishment of his own, by the way. In love, the love between Lazarus, his sisters, and Jesus, they all feel their way through death and resurrection, and life after resurrection.
Now we have Nicodemus, dear Nicodemus, this wise leader, respected teacher, sneaking out of his house hoping his neighbors don’t see him slink off into the darkness, searching out a slightly suspect, intriguing and dangerous, radical street-preacher, Jesus, about whom the rumors are swirling and whose words won’t leave Nicodemus alone.
I imagine him moving through the shadows, driven by a yearning he can’t understand or articulate. Feeling his way through the darkness, with that tangled ball of question pressing in on his heart, pondering the realities of loss and death and the inexplicable places where light does not seem to shine and perishing feels imminent and real.
And when he does get to Jesus, (the one John has introduced to us as the light that shines in the darkness, the light that no darkness can extinguish), he can’t even form a question. His questions and longings built up under the surface, he says, “Some of us think that you are from God...” hoping Jesus will pick it up from there. Jesus does, but infuriatingly, by introducing more confusing concepts, when he answers, No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.
So now Nicodemus can ask outright, What does that mean?? How is that even possible?
Speaking as though God’s kingdom is so foreign it cannot be recognized by us as we are, in this world as it is, and also as though God’s kingdom is somehow happening right here and now and when something happens to us that we don’t control, we can actually glimpse it and experience it, Jesus reminds Nicodemus of a strange time way back when the people were wandering in the wilderness, waiting for God’s deliverance and they were dying from snake bites. God saved them in a weird and inexplicable way- they needed only to look on a snake God had told Moses to create from bronze and lift before them, and they would live.
And then Jesus says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish...”
But we are perishing, actually. All the time. Anxiety and hidden sadness plague us. Injustice and cruelty prevail. Marriages disintegrate; friendships break down, our dreams fall apart, our bodies fall apart. Catastrophes strike, inconveniences disrupt, sorrow and terror have their way all the time, and we feel life slipping away: in the words we cannot take back, and the choices we cannot have back, and the clock we cannot turn back. We know all about perishing. And we are quite accustomed to doing things, saying things, buying things, and sacrificing things, striving in the frantic attempt to keep from perishing. We’ve even turned the very words of Jesus in this story into one our strategies! Because what would be better than a religion that gave us a simple one, two, three steps to guaranteed eternal salvation and earthly happiness!
But instead of clarity, answers and tactics, Jesus talks of wind and water and spirit and not knowing where things come from or where they are going. He describes unpredictable, unimaginable realities that require we give up our security and control. And then he talks not of what we should do, but of what God does, what God did, what God is already and always doing. For God so deeply and fully loves this perishing world that God gave the only son…and whoever relaxes their being into the being of God will know real and abiding life.
In John, remember, believing is trusting. It’s not accepting a set of facts you can argue with or slapping an admissions-paid entrance sticker on your chest. Believing in Christ means opening up and leaning your whole self in, Trust in me and you will find life indestructible, Jesus says.
He isn’t giving Nicodemus a foolproof, comprehensible approach to cheating death. He is inviting him into a life so pervasive it encompasses even death.
God so loves this world that God came into this world and is saving it. God Is bringing life out of death, and hope from despair, and joy from sorrow, and healing from brokenness, and leading everything toward a time when perishing itself will perish. This is wind-you-hear-but-can’t-grab-hold-of, born-not-of-logic-and-understanding-but-of-water-and-spirit, mystery-and-firmament, God-breathed, word-spoken life-out-of the-void-of-nothingness, resurrection-from-death’s-finality, Holy Spirit-transformation, unquenchable-light-shining-in darkness, sit-back-and-take-it-in-because-you-didn’t-make-any-of-it-happen kind of salvation.
Being born at all was not our doing, how silly of us to toss around “born again” like it's something we achieve! How dare we use belief in Jesus as a label, a guarantee of our eternal destination that we individually acquire by following some back of the box directions?
Maybe we should let ourselves be with Nicodemus on this one. Admit we can’t grab hold of this, can’t make this make sense. Because maybe that’s Jesus’ point. The Kingdom of God is not something we grab hold of; it grabs hold of us. It’s invading the whole world, and we don’t get to decide how that happens. We can be caught up in it, swept up in the transformation of the whole cosmos, or we can be oblivious to it. We can trust in it, or we can miss it. But we don’t control it. We don’t make it happen. We don’t avoid pain or perishing by applying some eternal life conversion formula. We listen for the sound of the thing we can’t explain. We let it move through us and take us where it will.
The teacher must let go everything he thinks he knows to be brought into the world—this tired old, wounded world, this gorgeous, poignant, precious world—all over again, like a vulnerable newborn, ready to receive the mystery and be swept up like the wind. He must be born from above, born anew. And Jesus has implied back to him that the reason he’s there at all, with his questions and his longing, is because he has been. He’s glimpsing the Kingdom of God.
We are all feeling our way through the darkness, with our own tangled balls of questions pressing in on our hearts, pondering the realities of loss and death and the inexplicable places where light does not seem to shine and perishing feels imminent and real. And so, we are invited, especially during Lent, to ponder, How might I be being “born again”? What competence or sureness am I letting go of to receive God’s care, and to trust I am held like an infant? What keeps me from experiencing the uncontrollable salvation of God in the world?
Nicodemus disappears back into the shadows after this encounter, and we will briefly see him just twice more in the gospel of John and in no other gospel. The next time we see him he is subtly advocating for Jesus to the council by reminding them that the law gives people a chance to defend themselves against charges. And the last time is after Jesus has died.
John 19:39-42 says, “Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came,” (implied is in broad daylight, where he could be seen by any and all) “bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation [for the Sabbath to begin that evening], and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.”
So we never really know what Nicodemus thought about what Jesus said, where it took him or what it did inside him. But that’s not ours to know – not of him or of each other, or even, perhaps, of ourselves. God knows what God is doing – in us, in the world. God knows where it is going and how it will get there. For our part, we get to ‘assume the stance of least resistance’ to being swept up in the love and salvation of God. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. May we continue being born anew.