“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.’
Nicodemus has impressive credentials. He is a leader in the community, a Pharisee, a respected intellectual and theologian. He speaks with authority. He speaks on behalf of others. He speaks using the “royal we”:
“We know that you are a teacher who has come from God.”
That has an air of certainty about it, doesn’t it? Why shouldn’t it? Nicodemus and his people have done their homework. They’ve been watching Jesus. They’ve seen the signs, they’ve seen the acts of power that Jesus has been doing. And so now Nicodemus has come to pronounce their conclusion.
“We know that you are a teacher who has come from God.”
Nicodemus projects confidence and certainty. He’s a man who’s used to being in control, a leader.
So why does he come to Jesus by night?
Now you know that John put that detail in for a reason. You know that in the gospel of John, there’s a difference between light and darkness. Right up front in the prologue, John tells us that Jesus is the light that has come into the darkness. Light is good, darkness not so much. It’s a bit like Star Wars that way, you know, the light side and the dark side. And you know that in Star Wars, if someone comes to you out of the darkness, that person is more likely to be a Sith Lord than a Jedi Knight.
Now I’m not saying that Nicodemus is all bad, in fact in many ways he’s a lot like me. But there is something wrong here, the darkness is telling us that. Why would Nicodemus come to see Jesus in the night rather than in the daytime? The only reason I can think of is that he’s operating in the dark because he doesn’t want anyone else to see him. Sometimes we call this plausible deniability.
Because even though Nicodemus speaks with confidence and certainty, his actions lack courage and commitment.
Nicodemus says “we know”. There’s a detachment there isn’t there. But Jesus responds, “Truly I tell you.” Jesus makes it personal. Because for Jesus, it is personal.
“We know you are a teacher.” Have you ever had someone tell you something about yourself? Label you? Try to put you in a box? Nicodemus tries to put Jesus in a box, tries to contain him. But Jesus doesn’t just blow up the box, he blows Nicodemus’ whole world wide open.
Nicodemus informs Jesus that he’s reached a conclusion. But Jesus says to him, you’re just at the beginning. In fact you’re only at the beginning of the beginning. Like a child in the womb that hasn’t been born yet.
Because if you think your relationship with me can be limited to a detached, arm’s-length statement of fact, you need to be born again.
God calls us into relationship. Jesus came to call us into relationship. And as you know from experience, relationship takes commitment and vulnerability and faith and openness and love, all the things that Nicodemus is holding at arm’s length. Nicodemus is staying in his head, he’s cautious, he’s trying to control things, he lacks commitment, he’s making statements rather than being open to new possibilities.
And so Jesus tells him “you need a new start”. Jesus says you must be born again. Nicodemus needs to be born of the Spirit, so that the Spirit of God isn’t something out there but something in here, so that she can dwell in him and he will become a child of God. That’s not an arm’s-length relationship! It’s a gift - for those who would receive it.
But sometimes we prefer to be arm’s-length. It’s safer that way. We hold God at a distance. We might carve out an hour on a Sunday morning, we might talk the God-talk, we might be able to recite certain facts about God. But too often, and again I recognize myself in this, we lack passion, courage and commitment.
When Bishop Michael Curry preached at the Royal Wedding eight days ago, he took the world by a storm. People are still talking about his sermon. But he didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. He didn’t give us any new facts about God. What he did was to speak with passion, courage and commitment. Or to use the language of Pentecost, he was on fire with the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit did what the Holy Spirit always does: she moves people.
And that’s exactly what Nicodemus needs. He needs to be moved. Jesus challenges Nicodemus to move:
from statements of fact, to a way of life.
from being in his head to being all-in, heart, soul, mind and strength
from being curious to being committed
from being cautious to being courageous
from being certain to being open to new possibilities
from being detached to being passionate
from being in control to being in love
This is the movement that we need in our faith and in our lives. This is what it means to have faith, to be in relationship with God, to be a child of God. And don’t underestimate what we’re talking about here. This isn’t something that you can just do on your own by reading one of those self-help books. This is the work of the Spirit, this is a movement so earth-shaking and soul-stirring that the only metaphor strong enough to carry it is the image of being born again.
Because here’s the amazing thing. Even though God is beyond us, even though God is immense, the creator of the heavens and the earth, the one who appears to Isaiah in a vision in which just the hem of God’s robe is enough to fill the temple, this overwhelming God chose to be born as a human being so that we could come to know him, and he could invite us into relationship with Godself, calling us friends, showing us the power of love that is the foundation of our relationships with God and with each other.
And that’s not all. Because, now, in every time and place, that same immense God comes to us as Spirit and dwells in us, and we are born again, born as children of God, born into a way of life that is committed and courageous and compassionate and loving. It is indeed an incredible gift, because as the preacher said, there is power in love:
The power to heal our wounds.
The power to fuel our imaginations.
The power to work for justice
The power to change this world
The power to light up our lives and our relationships with the fire that God has promised us.
Today is Trinity Sunday. It is a day when we remind ourselves that the source of love, the source of that power, is God.
The God who is beyond us, immense, overwhelming, the giver of life, the Creator of the heavens and the earth.
The God who walked this earth, who revealed Godself to us in human form, in our relationships, in our midst.
The God who is here and near. The Spirit within us.
Come Holy Spirit, dwell in our hearts. Make us your children, and fill us with the power of your love.
Homily: Yr B Trinity Sunday, May 27 2018, St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 6.1-8; Ps 29; Romans 8.12-17; John 3.1-17.
Image by Babis Kavvadias (Creative Commons)