The Holy Gospel According to St. John, the 3rd Chapter
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.
Today is Holy Trinity Sunday. Clergy around the world are, right now, either boring their congregations with the history of the doctrine of the Trinity, letting the Deacon preach or jumping into some heresy or another with both feet, trying to apply human certainty to the nature of God. Somewhere, someone is inevitably trying to use water, an egg or even apple pie to explain God… and, of course, failing miserably. We fool ourselves into thinking that having God fully understood and all wrapped up with a bow is what it means to be faithful. But today’s Gospel makes it clear that discipleship and faithfulness are much more about being honest and persistent than about being clear or certain.
Nicodemus isn’t at all clear about what Jesus is telling him and really, who can blame him? Jesus is saying some strange stuff! Born from above, with water and Spirit, and wind blowing... Huh? This was Nicodemus’s first time hearing this stuff. Many of us have grown up with it... we’ve become desensitized to the strangeness of it, but if you really look at it and imagine hearing it for the first time... It’s just WEIRD!
Now, I don’t think Jesus was TRYING to be confusing or weird. Jesus genuinely wanted to share the truth about God with Nicodemus and with all of us. Jesus knew that the deeper we allowed God’s truth and love to soak into our heads, hearts and down into the core of our beings, the more we would be able to experience the peace and meaning-filled lives God intends for us all. Jesus wanted to share that truth. That’s what Jesus came to do! And Nicodemus wanted to hear it and live it! But as Jesus began to describe the endless lengths, depths and breadth of God’s unconditional love to him it quickly became clear that God's ways are beyond human words or understanding. Neither Nicodemus NOR JESUS could wrap Nicodemus's mind around God… It was impossible. I sort of imagine it would be like you or me trying to get an unborn baby, still inside the womb, to fully understand and embrace what life will be like for them OUTSIDE the womb. THEN, convince that baby to start living like they will outside the womb before they’re actually born. Impossible!
The truth and enormity of God’s nature and love for us is impossible to fully wrap our minds around, and the life that comes with God’s love is impossible to fully describe. We have glimpses, but not the full picture. We have a glimpse that God’s love means more than just life after death but also a new life right now. We have a glimpse that it’s more than just ETERNAL life too because, as one author says, “if your life stinks and it goes on forever, how good is that?” We have a glimpse that eternal life is more about QUALITY than QUANTITY... more about DEPTH than LENGTH. We get glimpses of the truth, that as we become more aware of how deeply we are embraced in God’s love, life becomes infinitely more meaningful and we have a glimpse that even if we never understand and it never sinks in, the gift of life is still ours in Christ… but it's only a glimpse… it’s only part of the whole picture.
Jesus told Nicodemus that God was preparing him to be born into that new and infinitely meaningful life; that the place he was, right now in his faith journey was essentially in God’s womb... being nurtured, fed, loved and prepared for the new faith life that God was giving him. By the end of their conversation it was clear that Nicodemus still didn’t really understand what Jesus was trying to tell him. But in the last part of this passage Jesus lets Nicodemus, and us know that God’s love isn’t conditional on us “getting it.” It’s true that the more we let God’s love sink in, the more filled we will be with peace and meaning... but not “getting it” fully doesn’t stop God loving us completely. Jesus was determined to bring that message of God’s love to us in all he said and all he did and not even death stopped him from doing that!
I love this Gospel lesson, not because of the certainty that some find in it, but because of the UNCERTAINTY and honest, authentic, questioning and confusion we see in Nicodemus. Nicodemus is trying to be faithful. You can’t argue that. He’s a Pharisee, looking to do everything perfectly for God. He wants to live right, eat right, bathe right, and take care of his leftovers right... all so he can be closer to God. He is trying like mad to do right in his life for God. We can relate to that. We try and do the right things in our lives too... and like Nicodemus we too, inevitably come up short.
In spite of coming up short and not fully understanding, Nicodemus is faithful, and here we see that faithful isn’t at all certain or perfect. He’s seen and experienced things with Jesus that made him scratch his beard, and faithfully he looks to Jesus for deeper understanding. He’s more interested in the truth than he is worried about saying the right thing. He’s faithful enough to risk getting caught by those who don’t like questions. But what makes him the most faithful is that he simply keeps trying to understand, grow and learn in spite of the fact that he just never completely gets it! He goes to get clarity and leaves with his head spinning even more than when he came! Everything Jesus tells him is different… not just a little different, but a hundred miles past left field different! He DOESN’T grasp what Jesus is all about and he DOESN’T fully understand what God is doing in his life and he DOESN’T understand what Jesus is saying… BUT he DOESN’T ever pretend to understand when he doesn't and he DOESN’T stop searching either!
THAT is what being faithful REALLY looks like! Faith is a persistent struggle, not a certainty! The folks who say they have it all locked down in the faith department are fooling themselves. When you take your faith seriously like good ol’ Nicodemus, it’s going to be a struggle... a life long struggle. Nicodemus did just that. Later in John’s Gospel Nicodemus struggled to get his Pharisee buddies to treat Jesus justly. They didn’t. Then he helped Joseph of Arimathea to prepare Jesus’s body for burial. He continued to struggle with who Jesus was, what Jesus was all about and what Jesus’s life, death and resurrection meant for his life.
So embrace your inner Nicodemus! Struggle! Question! Be curious… be persistent and keep looking to know more about God while at the same time realizing that you will never know it all. Don’t ever be afraid to admit like Nicodemus did, that you just don’t fully understand what God is doing, and remember that God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, to catch you in a moment of uncertainty, but in order that you and the world might be saved through him!
God sent Jesus into the world to first TELL us how much we are loved by God and then to SHOW us that the power of God’s love is stronger than anything, including doubt, including a lack of understanding… including death. Real faithfulness is struggling with that improbable truth every single day and hopefully dying a bit to the old ways and being born a little more fully each day into the amazing, infinite and encompassing nature of God’s love. Amen.