Companions on the Way – Nicodemus – March 8, 2020

Companions On the Way – Nicodemus

A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes

John 3:1-17

March 8, 2020

Main Idea: Jesus is our companion.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

In this Season of Lent we are traveling with companions on the way toward the cross.  Last week our companions were Adam and Eve and from them we learned that God loves and cares for us no matter what. Today our companions are Jesus and Nicodemus as we listen in on their late night discussion which is found in the Gospel of John. Jesus, of course, is a great companion. Nicodemus is a great companion for us because his struggle to understand and to trust in Jesus, is much like our own struggles to live lives of faith.  Jesus invites Nicodemus, and all of us, to enter into a new way of living;  to let go of cut and dried perceptions of the world and to experience a life lived in companionship with God.

Nicodemus is a great companion for 21st century Christians because he is so much like us! He is smart but he misunderstands what Jesus is trying to say. He is respected by society but feels somehow adrift. He is curious about Jesus but non-committal about embracing the radical life Jesus offers. He struggles to understand the depth of God’s love. He wants to know with his rational mind but he is uncomfortable with the idea of experiencing God.  His mind races with questions at night, keeping him from sleep.  He is searching, but what he is searching for is unclear to him.

Nicodemus is a Judean Pharisee; a respected member of the elite Jewish community of Jerusalem. In the eyes of the world he is a privileged, upstanding member of society.  Under the cover of night, he comes to see Jesus, (a bumpkin from the sticks of Nazareth way out in Galilee).  Either his nighttime questions propel him out of bed or he is afraid or unwilling to be seen speaking to Jesus.  Something has drawn him to Jesus, perhaps he was at the wedding at Cana and saw Jesus turn the water into wine, perhaps he saw Jesus overturn the tables of the moneychangers in the temple or the signs Jesus performed in Jerusalem at the beginning of his ministry. Regardless of what he had seen, Nicodemus is not yet willing to publicly join Jesus, for to do so would entail throwing away his nice, respectable life.   He wants to know more before he commits to anything new.

The conversation starts out pretty well, Nicodemus respectfully calls Jesus “Rabbi” and affirms “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”(v.2)  Before he can ask any question of Jesus, Jesus answers him! “You think you know something but honestly you have no idea.  To understand you must see and experience.”  “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born … [and here the text uses a word] anothen which means from above/anew/again.”(v.3) [The author of  the Gospel of John often uses words with multiple meanings.] To begin the conversation, Nicodemus tells Jesus what he “knew” about God and Jesus responds by inviting Nicodemus to experience God by being born from above/anew/again. This new life is a gift “from above” and is an invitation to enter into the kingdom of God, the community of God.

Nicodemus does not understand the invitation.  He only registers one definition of anothen and it does not make any sense to him.  “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (v.4)  In Nicodemus’ understanding, there can be no major changes, or second chances in life.  You live the life you are given at birth. Anything else is impossible.  So Jesus tries again.  “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is Spirit.” (v.5)  To be born from above/anew/again one must be born both of water and spirit, to live both physically and spiritually.  The word for spirit pneuma also has a triple meaning, spirit/wind/breath.  Jesus says “Do not be astonished that I said to you,’ You must be born anew/from above.  The spirit/wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the spirit/wind” (v7-8).  “The word pneuma perfectly captures the essence of Jesus’ message:  the wind/spirit blows where it will; human beings can detect its presence but cannot chart its precise movements. Jesus’ offer of new birth is like the wind/spirit; a mystery beyond human knowledge and control (Gail O’Day, New Interpreter’s Bible; John p. 550) As breath, it is within us and makes our lives possible.   Jesus invites Nicodemus into the newness of life in God’s kingdom but Nicodemus answers “How can these things be?”  He is still trying to know with his mind rather than to experience with his whole being.

He is still not ready to commit to anything he does not perfectly understand.

Jesus tries one more time, and it is hard to tell if he is exasperated or having a bit of fun at Nicodemus’ expense.  “You are a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not know these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.”  If you don’t believe when we tell you of earthly things, how can you believe heavenly things?  No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man, so listen to me because I will tell you the whole plan!  Jesus continues; “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness [to save the Israelites from snake bite (Numbers 21:9)] so must the Son of Man be lifted up so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  The greek word for lifted up; hypsoo also means to be exalted.  When Jesus is lifted up on the cross, he will be exalted through his death, resurrection, and ascension.  This action of Jesus being lifted up/exalted reveals God’s will and purpose for the world and makes eternal life possible.  Eternal life does not mean pie in the sky when we die. Eternal life means life right now, lived in relationship with God.

And here is the truth Jesus wants Nicodemus to experience and understand. – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  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.” (v. 16-17)

Nicodemus has the chance to see and experience God in his encounter with Jesus.  He is invited to begin his life anew as is all of creation invited. God’s love for the world [the Kosmos] is not conditional upon people’s knowledge or even belief.  God loves the world and everyone in it, unconditionally. In freedom,  everyone is given the choice whether or not to accept this love and to choose to live accordingly.  To believe in Jesus is to trust Jesus, to choose to be in companionship with him, to choose to live in the experience of the love of God.      

This choice may sound simple, [who wouldn’t want to live in the love of God!] but it is not easy.  To be born from above/anew/again requires growth and labor. It requires courage to step out from the familiar status quo.   It is not one moment in time but a continuing, deepening relationship in which we let go of the past, we let go of our illusions of self-sufficiency, we let go of our need to know everything as fact as a condition for belief. Even as people of faith, this is difficult to do!  We are like Nicodemus, we want to know more before we commit ourselves to something that might challenge us. In fact, we like what we know. We are deeply invested in what we have done before. Newness makes us nervous!  And yet we recognize that our habits and ways of thinking can become traps, like clothes that have become too small.  They keep us from experiencing what life has to offer, what God is giving us as blessings.   But here is the great promise of this text, of the whole of the Gospel.  God’s love will never let us go, no matter what occurs, so we need not fear change or “new life”.  Jesus invites us to experience abundant life as children of God.   Let us move forward with trust in God’s grace. 

Let us pray,

Inviting God, we thank you for your gift of new life, new chances, new opportunities.  Empower us to step out of our old ways of thinking to experience the blessings of your love and companionship.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.