He had waited a long, long time to be able to do something that from his earliest childhood he had been told was a rite of passage for an Italian. He is a friend of mine and was born and grew up in Canada, but of Italian parentage. His parents moved here when he was just about to be born, and all he had known was Canada. He was returning to Italy and his ancestral home for the first time in his life. He was so excited to be going back to where his family had come from. One of the rites of passage for a young Italian man is to go to a soccer game. He wanted to go to the Rome Derby between Roma and Lazio, the two great soccer clubs of Rome. So he went online and bought his ticket, and he was going to fly to Italy to watch this great game. He had even bought a red shirt to symbolize his support of the Roma football team. He was ecstatic about being able to wear this at Rome’s great cathedral of football.
Eventually, he arrived and picked up his tickets. He went up the stairs to the incredible stadium, only to realize after about a minute that he was actually sitting with all the fans of the other team from Lazio. In fact, he was the only man in a red shirt in a sea of fifteen thousand light blue shirts. He realized he had bought a seat on the wrong side of the stadium. If you don’t know Italian football, trust me when I tell you, you do not want to sit amongst Lazio fans if you belong to any other club. Lazio, of all the teams in Italy has always had a rather strange political affiliation, maybe even with the Fascists. He immediately put his black coat on to cover it up so no one would know he was a Roma fan! But, it was hard on him, because as the game went on and goals were scored either way, he felt that he couldn’t cheer when Roma scored and he couldn’t look depressed when Lazio scored. He said it was the tensest time in his life! Sometimes, you want to be incognito, don’t you, and not have anyone know where you really stand on things.
Similarly, another colleague of mine was invited to a fundraising dinner not long ago. It was advertised simply as raising money for a worthy cause, and always wanting to support a worthy cause, he said that he would go and accompany another one of his friends. The only problem was that when he got there he realized it was a fundraiser for a politician, and unfortunately, he had supported the other political party his entire life. So he finds himself in this gathering raising money for an opposing political party, and not knowing what to say. Lo and behold, three days later because of cell phones, there was a picture on Facebook of this gathering, and there he was in the background for everyone on the Internet to see! He was humiliated.
I think Nicodemus, in today’s passage, must have felt like my two friends. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do but he had to go see Jesus because he was moved and intrigued by what he had heard about him. Nicodemus went, as we are told, in the dark to see Jesus of Nazareth. In many ways, the irony is that Nicodemus wanted to be incognito, but if anyone has gone viral over two thousand years, it is Nicodemus! Here he is in the Gospel of John, read by millions if not billions of people over the years, as the one who associated closely with Jesus of Nazareth. The man who wanted to go under the cloak of darkness ended up becoming one of the most notorious and important characters with whom Jesus had a conversation. Who was this Nicodemus and what did he want to talk to Jesus about?
Well, Nicodemus only appears in the Gospel of John. What we do know about Nicodemus was that he was a religious leader and a member of the Sanhedrin. He was somebody who knew the law and clearly Jesus said, “As someone who knows so much of the law, you should understand what is going on.” Nicodemus must have been fairly well known, or else he wouldn’t have wanted to go and see Jesus under the cloak of darkness. He knew that associating himself with Jesus could be a problem for him. Nicodemus must have been a good man if he was a scholar of the law. If he was someone who was part of the religious hierarchy, he would have known The Torah, the statutes of Scripture, and informed on the things of God. But he was one of those rare figures in The New Testament who, nevertheless had an openness towards Jesus, probably along with Simeon and Gamaliel. He was one of those members of the Sanhedrin who recognized that there was something about Jesus that was really special, and that they needed to know and understand. In John’s Gospel, he says, “If he is the Son of God, let us hear what he has to say.”
Some have speculated that because he went at night, he was ashamed of Jesus. William Barclay has another view: that true scholars of The Torah and of the law always studied spiritual matters at night because the demands of the day were so great. The rabbis under candle light would read The Torah, so by going to see Jesus at night he could talk about serious matters. It is hard to know precisely what was in Nicodemus’ mind. In Christian tradition, Luther says, “A man of importance like Nicodemus should act with a degree of caution. It is understandable that he didn’t want a lot of people to see him.” Calvin, on the other hand, said that he practiced “excessive timidity.” But I love Oliver Wendell Holmes comment, “He was the right man to have a conversation with Jesus, because he was judicious.” Well, Oliver Wendell Holmes would say that, wouldn’t he?! There was a sense though that Nicodemus went to Jesus, a bit timidly – although Calvin overstates it – but definitely in a cautious and judicious way.
He wanted a serious conversation with Jesus. Now clearly, word had gone out about all the different things that Jesus had done. Already in John’s Gospel, Jesus had performed the changing of water into wine at the wedding at Cana, he turned the tables over in the Temple, and demonstrated his power. The other Gospels place that later on in Jesus’ life, but clearly Jesus had already become very well known, and Nicodemus wanted to know if this man was the Son of God. Was he doing the work of God? What did their conversation about and what did it reveal? And, why should we care?
I suggest to you, and this often is not observed enough I don’t think in commentaries or sermons on this particular text, that they were having a conversation about two kingdoms, and these two kingdoms live side-by-side. On the one hand, there is the kingdom of earth, the kingdom of this world, the kingdom that is natural and human. This is the kingdom that is ruled by our five senses. It is how we, as humans, interact with one another. It is earthly. We carry out our natural world and activities based on our senses: how we relate to one another, what values we have, what positions we take in life, what things we cherish, what things we covet, what the eye sees, what the nose smells, what the ears hear. All of these are dominated by the natural world and by our senses. Even the government that we put in place are governments of a natural kind in the kingdom of this world. They reflect, do they not, our own prejudices, self-interests, nationalities, ethnicities, cultural traditions, and norms. We create kingdoms and sovereign entities based on our natural desires and our way of looking at the world. Nicodemus understood that the world was like that.
Jesus introduces Nicodemus to another kind of kingdom. He does it knowing that Nicodemus realized that the law, The Torah, was designed to set boundaries around the earthly kingdom. The reason why Moses received the law and why God gave the law was because the natural world might operate with boundaries: not kill one another, be idolatrous, covet, steal, and cheat. All those other things that the law constrains, were designed to put borders around the earthly kingdom, and they were given by God, just as the earthly kingdom was given by God. It wasn’t as if the earthly kingdom was created by another God. On the contrary, it was the spirit of the Lord who was upon the waters when the Earth and creation was made, when we humans were made in the image of God. The kingdom of this world is still God’s kingdom, but it is a kingdom that is driven by natural forces and impulses.
The kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, is greater than that and this is what Jesus introduces to Nicodemus. This is where the conversation gets really interesting! He says to Nicodemus, “No one can see this kingdom of heaven unless they are born from above”. No one can see what God is up to in this world and what the eternal kingdom of God is like unless they have a new birth, unless are transformed. Oftentimes I hear that it is only in John that we hear about the new birth, but that is not true. We also hear about it in the writings of the Apostle Paul. In Romans 6, he talks about “our new life in Christ.” In Corinthians, he talks about “a new creation”. There is this sense of renewal and rebirth that takes place within us in order that we can actually see the things of God. Nicodemus had come to Jesus and he was still thinking about the natural kingdom. He still thought that to be born anew, and he gets really silly about this: doesn’t he then have to climb back into his mother’s womb and be reborn in a natural way? Jesus says, “No! That is not what this is about. The new life comes from the rebirth that occurs through what I am doing and what the Spirit is doing. You cannot see this kingdom at work unless you have this new life in the Spirit of Christ.
Often religion has a tendency to talk about one kingdom than the other. We seem to think that the Kingdom of God is so separate from the kingdom of this world that the two never meet, and what we find in religion is a complete immersion into the kingdom of heaven with no contact with the kingdom of Earth. Other times, religion and its ethics and values concentrate so much on the human and the natural life that it forgets about the power of God and the Holy Spirit and the eternal kingdom of heaven. In no sense in Jesus are these two kept separate. On the contrary, in Him the two come together. Nicodemus is struggling to see if the kingdom of heaven is at work in Jesus of Nazareth. What he has come to see under the cloak of darkness is whether this is the legitimate power of the Kingdom. Jesus says to him, “I am not going to give you all the evidence that you need. The Spirit blows where the Spirit blows. The Spirit moves. It is not our doing.”
There is also a sense, and this is so prevalent in John’s Gospel, that Jesus paid the price for bringing the kingdom of heaven to Earth. We say every Sunday, do we not, in our Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.” Jesus’ entire ministry is to bring the new life and evidence of the new life to earth as it is in heaven. Everything that Jesus says and does is a symbol of the presence of God alive and at work in the natural world, but it cost him greatly. He paid the price for the new life. He showed in himself the presence of the new life. He bore the stripes to show what happened when the two come together. Nicodemus must have been shaken by Jesus. He came to have a conversation of nicety and theological wisdom and he is told that the only way that he can see the kingdom of heaven is if he is born from above.
There is a sense in which it is not only a conversation about these two kingdoms; there is a conversation about becoming a new being, having a new life. For Jesus, the Spirit creates in us a new life, and this new life is where we see fully the presence and the power of God. At times, we want to run away from it. We are ashamed to talk about new life matters because we are so wound up and ground down, beaten up and frightened by the natural kingdom that we think that any talk about the kingdom of God in heaven and of the Spirit is just too beyond what our senses can muster. Nicodemus felt that way, but in an encounter with Jesus, he was changed. You see, what we often forget when we read this passage is to carry on through the rest of the Gospel. At the very end of Jesus’ life when he is placed in the tomb, we are told that it was Nicodemus who put the myrrh in the grave in the garden of Joseph of Arimathea, he was there at the end. He had been changed. He had seen in Jesus the very God that he worshipped and adored.
There were also in the time of Jesus mystery religions. Sometimes people look at Christianity and they say, “But it is nothing more than just one of the other mystery religions that were around in the day that believed in dying and rising, and new life.” This was a language that was often used in religious discourse. The thing that makes the Christian faith distinct from the mystery religions is that the mystery religions get you to create your own new life, and through a series of sacred events, prayers or activities you recreate this new life within you. But Jesus is not saying that to Nicodemus. It is the Spirit, God, He who changes us. The new life isn’t ours to create; it is ours to receive through the power of the Holy Spirit.
I shared with you before, one of the people that I have found most impressive in my life is, Tomáš Halík, who is a theologian professor at Charles University in Prague. When I was speaking in Prague some years ago, I had the privilege of meeting him and was in awe because he had been the religious adviser to Václav Havel. The whole change in the Czech Republic and the breakaway with Slovakia was motivated by Havel. Tomáš Halík was his adviser, a Roman Catholic priest who writes mainly about devotional things even now, not political things, for he knows and he reiterated to me that in the kingdom of this world there is a need for knowledge of the kingdom of God. This is a man at the highest level of world and political thought! In writing about John 3 he said these brilliant words:
Faith is not something we do. Faith is reliance. In our faith, we ought not to take ourselves too seriously or the degree of our knowledge and forms of our conviction. Instead, we ought to take the Lord very seriously. Even in religious seeking it is possible for people to go faithfully astray if they are so absorbed with their own seeking that they ignore the crucial fact that God is already seeking them.
Nicodemus went seeking Jesus, but Jesus found Nicodemus, and changed him. If you do not think that this is a radical thing, if you think that the new life and the new birth in Christ and being a child of God does not matter, let me tell you otherwise.
One of the people I met this past winter in the United Kingdom was a missiologist who had been a missionary in Rwanda during the genocide. He told me a number of stories over two lunches, but there was one that really stuck out to me. He was originally from Ghana, but had grown up during parts of his life in Rwanda. He saw the slaughter of Hutus and Tutsis. He said that after the end of the genocide there was a plebiscite or a census done, with the idea that the government would now try to find out who was left after so many had been killed. They wanted to know who people were, what their tribe was, what particular culture they came from. Of course, the fear was that if you put down your name as a Hutu or a Tutsi, you could face reprisals later on. He said he met one young woman who changed his life. She was one of the minority groups filling out this census form. When she put down her ethnicity, she simply said, “Child of God”. The authorities came back to her and insisted that she had to be either a Hutu or a Tutsi, but she could not do this. She flatly refused!
She knew that in this world, all the hatred, animosity, perversions, and deaths had occurred because we had divided ourselves up according to lines that we humans had created. She took a stand, for she saw herself above all as a child of God. She was interviewed, bullied, imprisoned, ridiculed, mocked, but she saw herself as a child of God, as one who has been born of the Spirit. That was her identity, and she was never going to disown that. Here was a woman who understood the power of the new birth. She understood the new life that was within her, and no matter the tyrannies of this world, the prejudices and hatred that come from the natural kingdoms, she was not going to bow before them. It is almost as if Jesus had had a conversation with her and said, “You need to be born from above” – and she was!
That is the power of the new life! That is the power of Christ within us! That is what Nicodemus discovered that night two thousand years ago – and we still remember his name! Amen.