After worship last Sunday, several people inquired about the text of the sermon. I’ve posted it below with a couple of notes that were interesting to me, but seemed too complicated to include in the spoken version.
This is longer than the usual blog posting. I hope that’s not inconvenient.
Thanks to Jeff for the opportunity to preach, and thanks to the men’s group for a very helpful discussion of some of the ideas below.
Nicodemus at Night: John 3:1-17 [18-21]
Trinity Sunday, May 31, 2015
Jesus is in Jerusalem for Passover, and he is visited, at night, by a
Pharisee named Nicodemus.
A night-time visitor in the Gospel of John is unlikely to be a good
thing. One of the great contrasts in this Gospel is light vs. dark, day
vs. night: Night is a time for hiding things, for carrying out activities
that might not stand the light of day.
The fact that the night-time visitor is a Pharisee only makes matters
First, you should know that in general, the Pharisees were literate,
educated, middle class people; they were typically subordinate civil
servants, educators, and judges. We might have a lot in common
with them. They might even have better jobs than we do.
The Pharisees could be regarded as a religious reformers: people
looking for new alternatives in accordance with divine revelation.
They welcomed novel beliefs (such as resurrection of the dead)
and they had a strong interest in updating laws regarding tithing,
ritual purity, and Sabbath observance. They prized the Oral Law
over the written letter. In many respects, the Pharisees were the
liberals of their time.
In John’s gospel, however, the Pharisees are constantly
suspicious of Jesus; together with the high priests they are Jesus’
adversaries in the gospel story as John tells it.
So: When Jesus receives a visit from a Pharisee at night, we
expect the Pharisee to say something snarky.
But instead, the first words out of Nicodemus’ mouth do not appear
to be confrontational:
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.
For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not
That seems friendly enough, Nicodemus doesn’t appear to be
asking Jesus for anything, he doesn’t appear to be trying to trick
Jesus into saying something unwise.
And it comes as a shock that Jesus immediately challenges him:
“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless
they are born from above.”
In the Gospel of John, Jesus says “Very truly I tell you…” 25 times,
and three of them are in this story. This is the important part.
“…no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born from
Would you think differently about this if I had said:
“…no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
Born from above or born again? Which is it? The Greek word
[anothen (ανωΘεν)] is ambiguous, it could mean either “from
above” or “again.”
Our modern ears are sensitive to this ambiguity for a very good
reason: over the last three or four centuries, “Born again” has
acquired a very specific meaning: it has come to designate a
particular way of thinking about faith and a particular set of attitudes
and behaviors that accompany faith. In this view, the evidence of
genuine faith is an identifiable moment of conversion, a moment in
which one’s life changes decisively. For many, this moment comes
shortly after the experience of bottoming out, of having exhausted
all other options. In the decisive moment the believer has the
experience of being overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit.
If you’re comfortable with that style of faith, you probably don’t
mind hearing Jesus say “born again.” If that style makes you
nervous, you’d probably rather hear “born from above.”
Nicodemus does not hear Jesus’ words the way we do. He is not
distracted by modifiers like “again” or “from above”. He does not
know about the Reformation or John Wesley or Pentecostalism or
the evangelical movement or altar calls or any of the other things
that nudged the phrase “Born Again” toward its current meaning.
He does not know how 21st century Christians fight over the
language of faith: born again, rebirth, regeneration, new life,
spiritual renewal, conversion.
But Nicodemus does know what birth is, or at least, he has a man’s
idea of what birth is: he knows that birth is risky, traumatic, a crisis.
He knows that people die giving birth, and that no one, not the
midwife nor the mother and certainly not the infant controls the birth
And right now Nicodemus is taken aback because Jesus, whom he
respects as a teacher from God, has just said that seeing the
kingdom of God depends on something that Nicodemus cannot
“How,” he asks, “can someone be born when they are old? Surely
they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be
Some commentators have suggested that Nicodemus, because
his reply focuses on physical birth, is not too bright. He doesn’t
grasp Jesus’ metaphor.
But consider this: Nicodemus is a grown man, a member of the
ruling council in Jerusalem; he is a pious, educated man with
achievements he’s proud of; he is a Jew, a child of Abraham, and
an heir to the promise God made to Abraham so long ago. He is
not prepared to go back to square one. Metaphor or not, to be born
again is precisely to go back to the vulnerability, the dependence,
the “blank-slateness” of infancy. Nicodemus is no fool: he has an
intuitive grasp of the cost of being born again.
The second lesson this Sunday is Romans 8:12-17, which
includes this verse:
8:15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into
fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.
How different would things be if Nicodemus had been offered
adoption instead of re-birth?]
Nicodemus may not be a fool, but he is certainly misguided: he is
trying very hard to be Jesus’ secret ally, a covert sympathizer, a
closeted follower of Jesus. Nicodemus is not held back by
ignorance: he is paralyzed by fear. He knows Jesus to be from
God, but waits until night and the cover of darkness to say so.
And Jesus is having none of it: he has just challenged Nicodemus
to come out of the closet, to be delivered as a person of faith into
the world, to be authentic, to admit in public the truth he has so far
confessed only in private.
“Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless
they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but
the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my
saying, ‘You must be born from above.’
“The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you
cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with
everyone born of the Spirit.”
Born of water and the spirit. Once again, we hear Jesus words with
modern ears. Filtered through 2000 years of Christian history,
there is a very strong temptation to think that “born of water and the
spirit” means just one thing, baptism, and that the ritual of being
baptized is the instrument of our rebirth. We present ourselves for
baptism, prayers are said, water is sprinkled, and our rebirth is
Let’s resist (for just a few minutes) the temptation to identify “born
of water and the spirit” with baptism and try to think about Jesus’
words in a different way:
“…no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of
water”, that is, born of the flesh, born in the torrent of fluid that
accompanies the birth of a human baby, “and born of the Spirit.
Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”
In either case, birth is a gift we receive, we do not will ourselves to
be born: our mothers give us birth. In a messy physical process
each of us is delivered from our mother’s womb to become a child
in a family and a community. Our births (where we are born, to
whom we are born) determine a great deal about the quality of our
lives. We inherit whatever our families are able to pass along.
Some are rich, some are poor, some are strong, and others infirm.
Some are children of Abraham inheriting God’s ancient promise,
and some are not. But, of course, to claim your inheritance,
you must first be born.
The spirit, too, gives us birth: even if we present ourselves to be
baptised, we do not, cannot will ourselves to be born of the spirit.
We are delivered, pushed, from the womb of the Spirit into the
world to be children of God. Like Nicodemus, we might resist that
push. But it is only when we are born into the world that we inherit
what the spirit has to pass along: a new kind of life and the
knowledge of God’s love. The kingdom of God does not exist in
the closet, cannot be seen from behind a closed door; the
kingdom of God exists in the world.
In both cases, what we are born to, the things that are ahead of us,
mean more than what we are born from.
Nicodemus is in deep denial:
“How,” he asks, “can this be possible?”
And Jesus replies,
“You are Israel’s teacher and do you not understand these things?”
Do you think Jesus might be getting frustrated over Nicodemus’s
failure of nerve?
“Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to
what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our
“You people”: Perhaps it’s not just Nicodemus’ timidity, but ours as
well. And, indeed, in the story, Nicodemus has spoken his last line.
What becomes of Nicodemus? We are not told, but he reappears
in the Gospel of John, after Jesus’ crucifixion to prepare (with
Joseph of Arimathea, another secret disciple), Jesus’ body for
burial. John 19:38-40:
38 [ After these things,] Joseph of Arimathea, who was a
disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear
of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of
Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and
removed his body.
39 Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.
40 They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. ]
Nicodemus recedes into the background, but Jesus continues to
speak, now directly to us. The selection from the Revised
Common Lectionary that we heard this morning ends Jesus’
speech prematurely in verse 17 and stops short of the punch line.
The real conclusion comes to us in verses 19 – 21:
17 “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.
18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
19 And this is the test, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.
20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light,
so that their deeds may not be exposed.
21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be
clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
The light has come into the world. Do what is true: let
yourself be born in the light.