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Doctor Nicodemus

Dr Fred Nye, Sunday, March 12th, 2017

Dr. Nicodemus, or perhaps more appropriately the Reverend Doctor Nicodemus, is mentioned three times in St. John’s gospel. Nicodemus was a wealthy and powerful man, one of the religious elite. As a Pharisee and an eminent theologian he was a member of the 72 strong Sanhedrin, the supreme council of the Jewish religious establishment which was based in Jerusalem. But in the story from St. John we heard this morning, Nicodemus emerges from the shadows: he meets Jesus under the cover of darkness. And it’s not difficult to work out why. Almost from day one, Jesus had fallen foul of the religious authorities – they regarded him as a  dangerous imposter and miracle worker who had somehow gained popular support from the masses, some of whom were even claiming that he was the Messiah. So they condemned him as a blasphemer and trouble maker. Small wonder then, that Nicodemus wanted to keep his clandestine visit to Jesus under wraps.

What was there about Jesus that had prompted him to make this visit, despite the risk? Nicodemus clearly recognised Jesus as a Rabbi – a teacher – and moreover a teacher who spoke with God’s authority; and he would also have been well aware that Jesus’ teaching was centred on God’s reign, on the Kingdom of Heaven. So Jesus responds to Nicodemus by answering his unspoken question – how can I ‘see’, how can I experience the Kingdom of Heaven?

You could say that Jesus’ answer is a one-line parable: to see the Kingdom of God you must be born anew, or ‘born from above’ – apparently the Greek text could mean either. Nicodemus was clearly shocked by the comparison Jesus made with physical birth and maybe he did misinterpret his mini-parable…. but I wonder. Our way out into the Kingdom really is like leaving the darkness, the comfort, the security and the confined space of the womb, and emerging into a completely new world. God’s kingdom is a place of love, of freedom, of risk and failure, of learning and growth and development. Being born anew is more a process than an event, so that as willing followers of Jesus we are drawn by him into the Kingdom. We are indeed ‘born from above’.

Reading this passage again, I came across something that I’d never noticed before. Nicodemus finds the radical transformation required by Jesus difficult to accept, and he asks him ‘How can these things be?’ ‘How can this be?’ –  the same question put by Mary to the Angel of the Annunciation. Jesus’ birth, his Incarnation, was to be the work of the Holy Spirit. Our new birth, our re-creation in Christ, is brought about by the power of the same Spirit. We are indeed ‘born from above’.

After this encounter with Jesus, Nicodemus fades back into the shadows for a while, and St. John does not tell us what effect, if any, his visit had on him. From later events it seems unlikely that Nicodemus followed Jesus openly – perhaps ‘for fear of the Jews’. Or maybe his interest in Jesus was too academic: maybe he was more interested in the theory of the Kingdom rather than putting its values into practice. If so I can recognise myself in him, and I may not be alone in this. Or perhaps the obstacles to his commitment to Christ were more personal: it just needed too much time and energy to become one of his followers. I’ve told this story before, but when Fr. Richard Capper took my dear mother’s funeral he described her as practising ‘religion without enthusiasm’. Again, I can recognise myself in what he said. And again, I may not be alone – after all we’re  Anglicans aren’t we, and we do everything in moderation.

Nicodemus next emerges in chapter 7 of St. John. Here, the Sanhedrin and the religious establishment are becoming increasingly concerned about the challenge Jesus poses to their authority. They try to get the Temple police to arrest him, but they have little stomach for the task, as Jesus seems to have the support of the crowd. So Jesus slips away, and the authorities then have a go at putting him on trial in his absence. During the debate Nicodemus raises a point of order: the law does not allow someone to be condemned without giving them a hearing. But he suffers a sneering put-down: ‘Dr. Nicodemus, you’re behaving as if you were a country lad from Galilee, just like this imposter. Surely you can’t be so ignorant – the scriptures are quite clear -  the Messiah won’t come from such a backwater as Galilee.’ And that’s it – Nicodemus’ somewhat half-hearted attempt to intervene gets nowhere.

But later on, it seems that everything changed. After the crucifixion Joseph of Arimathea, who was a secret disciple of Jesus ‘because of his fear of the Jews’, begged the body of Jesus from Pilate and prepared it for burial. And Nicodemus helped him, at great cost to himself. The myrrh and aloes he provided were worth a small fortune – but there was far more to it than that. To publicly prepare Christ’s body for burial as if he were royalty was to risk the wrath and punishment of Rome and Jerusalem alike. There is something wonderfully touching in the way that these two men, previously at best closet disciples, gave their all to their Lord and King at  the end of his life. It is almost impossible not to believe that it was the manner of Jesus’ death that had somehow touched their hearts and given them courage, and that they had themselves been there on the hill of Calvary to witness it. ‘Surely this man was the son of God.’

This Lent we could do worse than to see mirrored in the struggles of Nicodemus our own efforts to move from the comforts of religion to the risky freedoms of faith. First, we have to get our theology right. Eternal life is not a mummification, it is a new creation, a ‘birth from above’, an emergence into the universe of God’s love. Rather than a one-off event it is a journey, in which we willingly follow Christ along the Way of the Cross, the way of self-giving. Along the Way, just like Nicodemus, we have to overcome our fear of ridicule and disapproval, our inclination to remain on the side-lines of faith, our failure to keep the fire of love ablaze in our hearts. But above all we can learn from Nicodemus that to be there for Christ and with Christ even at the foot of the Cross is – at last – to share with him God’s new and eternal life; a life that on Easter morning will be revealed in all its Resurrection glory.

Yes, we owe so much to St. John for introducing us to the Reverend Dr. Nicodemus; or -  for that foot-of-the cross change of heart -  might he even be Saint Nicodemus?

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