I believe in order to understand—St. Augustine
I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand—St. Anselm of Canterbury
Today, I want to begin by talking about how to read John’s Gospel. Reading the scriptures more intentionally is part of a good self-discipline for Lent, so I hope this may be of help. Here’s the point I want to make:
There are double meanings all the way through John. You’ll find a superficial meaning and a deeper meaning. And the deeper meaning is the one John wants us to ‘get’. But the people around Jesus often see the superficial meaning first.
Today the Lectionary gives us the story of Nicodemus, who came to Jesus ‘by night’.
Nicodemus was an educated man, but also an educated clot. You see educated clots all over the place. I am one: a degree in medicine, a PhD in theology, can’t fix a tap.
Today, I’d like to ‘unpack’ a few things about this well-known story.
Firstly, and most importantly: Nicodemus just doesn’t get it. He’d be great at Advanced Moses Studies, but he can’t ‘get’ this teacher from—of all places—Nazareth. When Jesus says
I am telling you the truth: no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.
How can a grown man be born again? He certainly cannot enter his mother’s womb and be born a second time!
All Nicodemus can get is that superficial meaning. You can just see Jesus doing a face-palm.
You are a great teacher in Israel, and you don’t know this?
Jesus is of course speaking of a deeper meaning—a new birth, a birth he describes as a birth of water and the Spirit.
It’s not about tapping dear old mum on the shoulder, sitting her down with a cup of strong sweet tea and explaining an entirely novel idea to her.
Let me say it again: all the way through the Gospel of John this happens. People don’t get what Jesus says. They think he’s talking about earthly realities, but in fact he is speaking of spiritual truths.
The very deepest meanings of John reveal to us the heavenly Father, and they reveal the Father through the words and works of the Son.
As Jesus says to Nicodemus,
You do not believe me when I tell you about the things of this world; how will you ever believe me, then, when I tell you about the things of heaven? And no one has ever gone up to heaven except the Son of Man, who came down from heaven.
Here are echoes of Paul’s words in Philippians that we heard last week:
though he [Jesus] was in the form of God,
[he] did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself…
Yet in John there is a deeper meaning still in the humbling of Jesus: it is also his glorification. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is most glorified when he is most humbled.
That’s hard for us. We’re used to thinking about winners and losers. Our sportspeople and our politicians want to be winners, not losers.
You’ve got to be one or the other, right?
But that’s not the way of Jesus. He says the greatest is the one who serves. We show leadership in the Christian church by our willingness to serve and allow others to serve.
We can see this in John chapter 3. Jesus says:
As Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the desert, in the same way the Son of Man must be lifted up…
You know the story; I’m sure you’re all avid readers of the Book of Numbers. The Israelites in the wilderness complain—again!—and the Lord sends deadly snakes among them. When they admit their sin, the Lord tells Moses to place a bronze snake on a pole and lift it high. When they are bitten, they look at the bronze serpent and live.
But there’s a deeper meaning.
Jesus will be lifted up just like the bronze serpent. We can look at him by faith and live. And not just survive, but have eternal life, a share in the life of God the Holy Trinity.
And there’s an even deeper meaning still.
Jesus will be ‘lifted up’ on the cross. He will be suspended between earth and heaven.
But ‘lifted up’ also means glorified. And in John’s Gospel, Jesus is glorified on the cross.
So there’s a literal meaning—the bronze serpent.
There’s a deeper meaning—Jesus dies for us.
And there’s a deeper meaning yet—the cross is precisely how and where Jesus is glorified, the cross is where as the suffering servant he reveals God the Father more clearly than anywhere else.
There is another surface meaning that has a deeper meaning in John’s story of Nicodemus.
It’s just a detail. He had to come sometime; he came by night.
But in John 3, just beyond our Lectionary reading, we hear about darkness and light:
Those who believe in the Son are not judged; but those who do not believe have already been judged, because they have not believed in God’s only Son. This is how the judgment works: the light has come into the world, but people love the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds are evil. Those who do evil things hate the light and will not come to the light, because they do not want their evil deeds to be shown up. But those who do what is true come to the light in order that the light may show that what they did was in obedience to God.
These words remind us that Nicodemus came by night: ‘the light has come into the world, but people love the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds are evil.’
Nicodemus was not only an educated clot, but also an educated clot who loved darkness rather than light. He remained in the darkness after this face to face conversation with Jesus himself.
Did Nicodemus come into the light later? We don’t know. Maybe. Perhaps he remained someone who only got the superficial meaning of what Jesus said.
We do hear of Nicodemus again. In John 7, the Pharisees are speaking against Jesus when
Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them [the Pharisees], asked, ‘Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?’
Was he brave or half-hearted? The text says he was ‘one of them’; how much was he one of them?
The only other time we come across Nicodemus in in John 19. Joseph of Arimathea was a secret disciple of Jesus, secret through fear of the authorities. He is also an ambiguous character. He asks to have Jesus’ body to bury.
Nicodemus is with him, ‘bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds’, around 22 or 23 kilos.
Was Nicodemus honouring Jesus with this perfume? Had he come to the light? Or was he still walking in darkness? Did he want to weigh the body down so it couldn’t rise up?
We don’t know. Scripture scholars differ.
It’s not a great testimony to have, is it? We can’t say whether so-and-so is a Christian.
We only know that when Nicodemus spoke with Jesus, he was being offered an invitation to be born anew. And we can certainly hope that he did accept it sometime after coming to Jesus ‘by night’.
The invitation is extended to everyone, including us. Can people say whether you or I are Christian? If they can’t, maybe it’s because part of us loves darkness rather than light.
We need to be born anew.
We need to look upon Jesus, who was lifted up for us.
We need to come out of darkness and into the light.
God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son for us. Jesus came not to condemn the world, but to save it: the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ is always ready to accept us as we come and as we return.
(12 March 2017; Lent 2A)