“Now when he was in Jerusalem at the passover, in the feast day, many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did. But Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men, And needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man.” John 2:23-25
“There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” John 3:1-8
According to John’s account this famous event occurred early in the public ministry of our Lord. Nicodemus’ visit took place, as you can see, when Jesus was in Jerusalem and after he had attracted the attention of the ruling class by eliminating ritual purification before and after meals, as well as the dust up that we call the sign of “cleansing of the Temple;” as well as the sign of working miracles in Jerusalem, all of which to some degree made Jesus the talk of the town. In a way this is the richest section of any Gospel when it comes to Jesus speaking clearly and directly about his own mission and so it will take us a least a couple of weeks to work through it all. I want to begin by reminding you of some basic information concerning this little story that I have covered in the past.
First of all then, let us take a look at the man named Nicodemus. There have always been those who thought that Nicodemus was not a real person, but a foil invented by the Evangelist to contrast the Pharisees with Jesus; just as there has always been that type of person who, against all good sense, said that the story of Jesus turning the water into wine was inspired by the Roman mythology of Dionysus, the god of the grape harvest. Such reductionism is a good example of how a scholar making assumptions based upon his personal prejudices, bends the narrative to fit his assumptions rather than the evidence. Unbelief is sometimes staggeringly ham-fisted.
It is reasonable to accept that Nicodemus was in fact exactly as he is presented by John in his Gospel: a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews, a member of the 70 — the Sanhedrin — as well as a member to a wealthy, aristocratic and very well known family. All of that, his material wealth, his privilege family with powerful connections, as well as his membership in the ruling elite in the City of David, puts Nicodemus in sharp contrast to the itinerant, working-class preacher from Nazareth. When we consider how Jesus behaved and how he taught his disciples to behave vis-à-vis the Law — Jesus’ spurning of ritual washing and his behavior in the Temple only a few day prior to this visit, the fact that Nicodemus came to Jesus under the cover of darkness has the ring of truth to it:
“Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him…”
As we move through this passage, indeed as we move through the Gospel be attentive to the imagery of light. Let me give you an example of what I mean by contrast. We already know from the Prologue that the Logos, the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity, is the natural home of Life — “In him was Life…” — Life naturally dwells the Word of the Father. And we know also from the Prologue that the Life that dwells in the Word of the Father is also the Light of God’s creature man. The Prologue also makes it very clear that John the Baptist, though he was sent by God, absolutely is not that Light, but rather he came to bear witness of that Light. The Word of the Father made Flesh is the Light of the world. Here is my example: Note the movement in this little narrative. Nicodemus, leaves the body of the Pharisees, and walks through the dark streets of Jerusalem and he comes to the Light of the world. Darkness and night are menacing words in the Gospel of John. Nicodemus is in peril and he does not know it, but for a moment he has come out of darkness into the Light. Contrast that with this scene in John 13: Jesus was in the well lighted upper room with his disciple. In this chapter we have the account of Jesus washing the feet of his men and Judas would have been in that company of Apostles. Jesus tells his little band that one of them will betray him and then he took the center cut of the Lamb they were eating and he gave it to Judas. Then Jesus said to Judas, “What you do, do quickly.” And the we are told:
“He (Judas) then having received the morsel went immediately out: and it was night.” John 13:30
Judas left the well-lighted upper room where the Light of the World is teaching his inner circle the true meaning of life and he walks into the darkness of Jerusalem right to the gathered Pharisees and betrayed the Son of God — “The Light that lightens every man that cometh into the world.” Let’s get back to chapter 3 of John.
“We know that thou are a teacher come from God…”
So much hangs on the “We.” There were others, certainly in the Sanhedrin and of Nicodemus’ own class, the theologians and teachers of Israel, who recognizes in Jesus’ teaching and his works that he was a man from God. But beginning right here you see how Nicodemus is all about what is here below, not what is from above. Here once again is the theme I mentioned last week that is constantly appearing in the Gospel of John: the people in John’s narrative world are prisoners of the literal, historical level of things. For these people all you have to do to know the truth is to take a real good look at what is there and you have the truth. And because the characters in this narrative are captives to the literal, historical, they are always missing what Thomas Aquinas and other doctors and Fathers of the Church called the “mystical” meaning of the event. As I said last week, the mystical meaning is not obscure and hidden, but it is frequently overlooked by those who think the only real meaning is the literal, historical event. Like others characters that we have encounter in the Gospel so far, Nicodemus is a prisoner of the temporal and literal — he is a complete materialist like the other Pharisees – and he cannot even see that he has any need whatsoever and certainly he believes himself to be a free man, a son of the Torah. But Nicodemus had not one clue that he was having a conversation with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That is not all Nicodemus didn’t know.
“That which is born of flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”
The weather, the origin and destiny of wind, remains as baffling for us today as it was for people in antiquity. Nicodemus was as unequipped to recognize the origin and character of the children of the Kingdom as he was to gauge the origin and destiny of the wind blowing through the streets that dark night. Trees sway one way now and then another way. And yet even here we are not describing the wind, but evidence of the wind made visible or made audible through rustling leaves –- “thou hearest the sound thereof.” The wind itself remains invisible, mysterious and untamable and so is the Kingdom of God. Nicodemus thought that the children of the Kingdom were the Jews – pure and simple. But Jesus said that the children of Kingdom, the children of Abraham, like the wind, are mysteriously, invisibly born from above, born of God, and born again, born of water and of the Spirit — and the world cannot tame them.As I have said before, Jesus is not saying that the children of God are impulsive and flighty. The children of God are those who are born of God from above — miraculously birthed into his family the Church. The new beginning required of Nicodemus and every other human being, Jew and Greek, is not a new beginning on the mere empirical, human plane. Let me underline this point: this is not a matter circumcision, not a matter of second chances nor self improvement, nor is it a matter of gaining more and more theological knowledge which is what Nicodemus wanted. A miraculous birth into God’s family is required for one to participate in the Kingdom of God. That, as the liturgy of Baptism proclaims, cannot be accomplished by nature. Thus, as I have said before, your God-given destiny, indeed the natural finality of every human being requires a supernatural means that he provides. But always remember, grace perfects nature, grace does not annihilate nature. Our destiny to be children of God, is not metaphorical, but real; but being a child of God, achieving theosis, does not obliterate our true human nature.
This is something that the intended readers of the Gospel of John already knew because they knew that the Holy Spirit descended from Heaven. John’s intended audience brought this information to the story of Nicodemus and so if you pass over to their point-of-view you can see that Nicodemus, the wealthy, privileged, powerful, teacher of Israel is made the sport of a joke. John is bringing this big shot Pharisee down several notches and exposing his powerlessness and foolishness in comparison to the humblest Christian in John’s audience who possess true knowledge and understanding as well as the power of God. Even little Christian children understood that they had been born again and made children of God through baptism. The formidable, well-fed and well-dressed Pharisee was no match for little, Christian children when it came to the wisdom of God. They understood all this, but they also understood that the world, and that includes Nicodemus’ world, is utterly unequipped to register, to know either the presence of the Kingdom of God or the Children of God. That is where we will stop today.
“Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”