Anna Carter Florence: Nicodemus

A yoga teacher of mine has the lovely practice of ending our class time with a quotation. The words she finds are always thoughtful, always meditative - all the more so because we're lying flat on our backs in Savasana, or "corpse" pose, which is the traditional way to close a yoga class. After an hour or so of vigorous sun salutations and tree poses and folding your body every which way, you get to rest for the last ten minutes, to lie down on your mat and be dead still and think about the quotation of the week. So, last week during Savasana, our teacher offered up these words from The Philadelphia Story: "The time to make up your mind about people is never." "Amen!" we all responded from our mats on the floor; "and Namaste!" Those were good words for us in these days, and I drove home inspired, with resolutions of perfect openness toward my fellow human beings. "The time to make up your mind about people," I told myself firmly, "is never."

And then, I went to my desk, opened my Bible to the third chapter of John to work on this sermon, and discovered that maybe I'd spoken too soon. In the gospel according to John, there is a time to make up your mind about people, as it turns out. There's a time to make up your mind about Jesus. And if you don't - well, you and Nicodemus will have a lot to talk about.

Nicodemus is best known for having asked the questions that launch Jesus's famous "born again" speech. He appears first in the third chapter of John and shows up again in the seventh, during a heated debate about what to do with the rabbi from Galilee. And in the nineteenth chapter, he brings an extravagant amount of spices to bury Jesus's body. Tradition has been kind to Nicodemus. He's held up as an example of faith, a model of generosity, the Pharisee who eventually came around.

But, to be frank, it took a while. Which is exactly what John wants us to notice, in Nicodemus's story: those of us with a lot to lose seem to take a lot longer to come around. It's not that we don't hear Jesus’s call to discipleship. We just take our time acting on it, which has real cost and consequences for those around us.

Listen, for example, to how John introduces Nicodemus, in the third chapter.

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night… (John 3:1a)

In good writing, first impressions matter. And John, who is especially careful about constructing his beginnings - "In the beginning was the Word," has got to be one of the best openings ever - John tells us two important things about Nicodemus, right off the bat. One is that Nicodemus's day job earns him considerable power and respect. The other is that he comes to Jesus not in the light of day, when everyone can see, but under cover of night. And if that strikes us as an odd series of events - that a respectable leader with power in the community would wait until dark to visit the Light of the World - then we're tracking right where John wants us to look.

He came to Jesus by night. The words evoke a sense of mystery and secrecy, a netherworld of fog and intrigue, because nighttime visiting is an out-of-the-ordinary enterprise. And "by night" is different from "at night." A person who comes at night just comes late, after hours. A person who comes by night doesn't want to be seen or caught. The phrase signals covert operations: furtive matters of the heart to pursue, or shady business dealings to conduct. Or backroom discussions that need to stay off the record - which was why Nicodemus was knocking on Jesus's door at such a late hour. The man wanted a conversation he didn't want to have in front of his esteemed colleagues, or to be seen having. And he wanted time to ask questions, too.

Are you really a teacher who comes from God? How can a person truly be born again? Is it still possible for us if we have grown old? How can these things BE?!

On the face of it, these questions hardly seem like eye-popping, head-turning, earth-shattering questions, but that's probably because we're so familiar with the language of the third chapter of John. The words "born again" don't shock us, like they did Nicodemus. We may have to clarify what we mean by those words - for some of us it's an evangelical Christian identity, for other the Holy Spirit's role in baptism, and for others maybe even a theological litmus test - we may have to clarify, but they're part of our Christian vernacular, and Nicodemus's questions are, too. Seekers and practitioners of the Christian faith have been wrestling with those very questions for centuries, seeking to shed as much light on their mysteries as the heavens might choose to lend.

But for Nicodemus, these were new and explosive lines of thought. He wanted the dialogue, but not the risk to his good name and reputation. He came to Jesus by night, for a private audience, and he left the same way - which is to say, unchanged. He wasn't ready to stand up and act on Jesus’s words. He wasn't ready to trade his life of comfort and privilege for the life of a new kind of discipleship. He wasn't ready to work for institutional change. Instead, he slipped back into the night and continued to watch Jesus from afar. He let fear, rather than hope, have the upper hand.

The seventh chapter of John picks up the narrative and reinforces it. Nicodemus the Pharisee is back with his esteemed colleagues, in what looks to be an emergency session of a closed meeting. Jesus of Nazareth is becoming a problem, and so Nicodemus and the others are conferring with chief priests and temple police about what to do. Predictably, the discussion gets heated, a number of regional stereotypes are hurled Jesus's way; arrest seems imminent, and a guilty verdict for Jesus all but assumed. Nicodemus clears his throat and cautiously raises his hand. "Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?" he asks, mildly. The answer, as everyone knows, is "Certainly not! Everyone gets a fair hearing!" But Nicodemus’s colleagues aren't in a mood for legalities. They're out to finish Jesus once and for all. "Surely you are not also from Galilee, Nicodemus, are you?" they jeer; "Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee!"

And without another word, Nicodemus goes down into silence. He won't stand up to them. He won't use his power for justice. He protects it (and his decidedly un-Galilean name) from further harm. The next we hear of him, Jesus is dead, and Nicodemus has come with a hundred pounds of spices to take away the body. That's an extravagant gesture and an expensive burial, to be sure. But, it's also too much too late. We're left wondering what might have been, if Nicodemus had acted on his first conversation with Jesus - if he'd not only recognized the light coming into the world but followed it, with his whole heart, let it change him and his world, and shared that light with his colleagues.

Nicodemus turns up in the life of every disciple, at some point. For those of us who live and work in a post-modern context, he's practically the embodiment of everything we're taught in school, these days. Nicodemus could be the post-modern poster child. Think about it. Isn't Nicodemus the man of letters who will never jump to conclusions, who resists closure on principle? Isn't he the learned Pharisee who knows better than to seek certainty and definitive absolutes? Isn't he the wise leader committed to remaining open because that is our best defense against rigid fundamentalism? And while we're at it, isn't Nicodemus the religious progressive who said things like, "There is yet more light," and "God is still speaking," and "Reformed and always being reformed - Reformata semper reformanda - so friends, the time to definitively make up our minds about others is never."

Nicodemus is certainly all that. Someone who would rather keep the channels of communication open than shut them down. Someone who honestly believes that this is the way to build bridges, and make changes, and keep the conflict to a minimum. Not making up his mind about people, ever, is what might make us vote for Nicodemus, when it comes time to choose a representative to the board; we know he'll be fair, or at least measured. Or maybe just slow to make the hard changes.

Nicodemus is certainly all that. But he turns up in other places in our lives, too. We can spot him at the council meeting, when the pressure to vote with the angry majority becomes almost more than we can bear. We can glimpse him in church, when our courage wavers and we cut the last two paragraphs of a sermon that was maybe a little too challenging. Every time we ponder hiding a piece of us to ask the questions that trouble us, Nicodemus is the one wringing his hands in vexation, worrying on our behalf about what we might say. Wouldn't it be wiser to wait? Is today really the day to step up and speak?

Nicodemus is all that. Yet, he's also the one who reminds us that change is possible, even for the most venerable teachers and preachers and believers of Israel. Coming to Jesus by night isn't the only option. Neither is paying for his funeral.

Maybe this is a story to read over and over, as we age. No matter how wise we are, no matter how respected in the community, there is always more light to see - and it may rock our worlds. It may blow our minds. We may find ourselves rethinking an idea or position we thought we'd long ago resolved. We may discover that something isn't right in the institutional framework and we're all off balance. We may have to dig down to the foundations and begin again. And how does a person find energy for that - to revise a life's work and be "born again," after having grown old!?

Do not be astonished. When the Light of the World is in the world, we must all be born again. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.