Nicodemus: Taking it Personal – Jesus’ Relationships & Our Own
The writer John Updike once famously said, “we are most alive when we are in love”. Though I am not sure what the setting was in which Updike originally said those words, for the purpose of our time together today, I want to set that statement within the context of relationships. I often say, pray and believe that one of the greatest gifts that God gives us is the gift of relationships. This is true for lots of reasons. It is true because we need friendships, life partners which we find in husbands and wives, family that always loves us no matter what and church friends who accompany us on the journey of faith. The people who fill these roles in our lives are, without question, among the most important parts of our personal world.
We talk a lot as people of faith about how scripture gives us guidance for how to live best in the midst of these same relationships. And, this is important work for as much as we need significant relationships we also need to know how best to function in them for they can be very hard to manage. As a result in whatever ways scripture, the example of Jesus and faith can help us in this regard, we are often all ears.
Today and for the next several Sundays as we journey through Lent, however, I want to talk about relationships as they relate to the most fertile places in our lives for us to share our faith with others. This is a place where Jesus is also an amazing example for us. Jesus not only knew and befriended people, but he saw those relationships – some established, some growing, and others new – as places where he had an opportunity to influence others for the kingdom. In the give and take of conversation and in the every day, ordinariness of normal life, Jesus sowed the seeds of the kingdom with the diligence, focus and patience of a farmer planting a field.
Because of the way Jesus handled his relationships, I think there is much for us to learn here too. Again, there is no better place for us to influence others for Christ than in the relationships that we already have and with the people we already know. Since this is apparently what Jesus did, the question becomes how? Exactly how did Jesus go about it and what can we learn from his ways?
We begin today with Jesus’ relationship with Nicodemus. Nicodemus was not necessarily someone that Jesus had a deep relationship with prior to their conversation with each other as recorded in John 3. In fact, we can’t really say with any Biblical evidence that Nicodemus and Jesus had much of a personal relationship at all before Nicodemus sought Jesus out one evening under the cover of darkness. What we can say, however, I think, is that Jesus treats Nicodemus with kindness and understanding while at the same time challenging him in a way that seemed appropriate to Nicodemus’ current station in life.
After all, Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin which was the Jewish ruling body. This means he was a Jewish leader, someone steeped in Jewish faith and tradition and yet someone, in the very fact that he was willing to come and speak to Jesus at all, was a seeker. He apparently had enough wisdom to know that there was something about Jesus worth exploring and enough courage to want a conversation with Jesus even if it was at night and thus undercover. After all, spending time with Jesus as a member of the Sanhedrin was a risk that could easily have cost Nicodemus but apparently was one that he also thought was worth taking.
Jesus seems to live out both sides here. On the one hand, he seems to respect Nicodemus courage and want to talk with him. On the other hand, Jesus shows some honest disappointment that Nicodemus struggles to embrace the need to be born of the spirit and begin anew through the embracing of a long, promised Messiah.
In turn, I think what we see in Jesus as he responds to Nicodemus are two critical things that are important elements of any relationship that has potential for the kingdom of God. In how he responds to Nicodemus, Jesus demonstrates that understanding and patience mixed with honesty are incredibly important.
On the one hand, it seems to me that Jesus tried to respond to Nicodemus with a sympathetic understanding of the unique place from which Nicodemus came. This sounds like a very common, simple thing to say – that Jesus was understanding and sympathetic. It sounds like something we are prone to say about Jesus a lot. But, to state what we see in Jesus here is not at all simplistic and is much more nuanced.
Here is what I mean. Jesus is very honest with Nicodemus. He is clear with Nicodemus that as a person of learning and leadership in the Sanhedrin that his understanding of the way God works is a bit disappointing and shallow. Yet, in the midst of Jesus’ honesty, there isn’t really a hint of annoyance, disregard or anger with Nicodemus. In other words, Jesus wishes that Nicodemus was at a different place in terms of his understanding of how God works yet Jesus also recognizes Nicodemus has a lot to overcome and that he is in a tough spot.
Jesus shows this attitude over and over again with the twelve, with other followers and with random people that he meets. Jesus never hedges on what he believes. He never backs down from being honest and at times demanding. But, he loves each of them and is caring toward them.
This I think stands in stark opposition to the way the world tries to invite us to interact with others. We have become a polarized, black and white, you are for me or against me world. We have come to believe that we can’t love and disagree with someone at the same time. We have bought into the idea that it is impossible to be clear about what we believe while being caring toward and patient with others. We have allowed the world, not our faith, to teach us that life is always one way or the other but there really is little precedent for this in the relationships of Jesus which generally suggest that we really can be honest, straightforward as well as caring and loving at the same time.
This past Sunday evening, I found myself once again captivated by the story of the American Ice Hockey victory over the Soviet Union at Lake Placid, NY in the 1980 Winter Olympics. Believe it or not, but, last Sunday marked the 40th Anniversary of that event known as The Miracle on Ice. To celebrate, there were numerous articles written and several tv specials that aired. One of them, and the one that most spoke to me, was a two hour documentary about the event from the point of view of the Russian Team who played in the epic game. That’s right, the story from the Russian perspective. The American stars – Jim Craig, Mike Eruzione, Coach Herb Brooks – and the others, are barely mentioned. Instead, for two hours the viewer learns what it was like to be a member of the Russian Team in the game. I highly recommend the documentary if you ever have a chance to see it. It is honest and forthright about the arrogance of the Russians, their team and coaches as well as honest about their belief that they could not and would not be beaten for they rarely were in those days. But it is also sympathetic. They were real mean, from real families living through a very hurtful experience. It really was a life changing moment for many of them albeit in a different way than for their American counterparts. (The documentary being referred to is Of Miracles and Men, produced by ESPN in 2015)
This balance that we see in Jesus and Nicodemus is so, so valuable. Oh, how much better our relationships could be if we could find this balance between honesty and understanding again. This I think would only aid in our attempt to sow seeds for the kingdom in the midst of our helping our relationships in general as well.
The other critical ingredient and key word I think we see here in Jesus with Nicodemus is honesty mixed with patience. Jesus doesn’t force Nicodemus into a decision. He allows him to freely go away, think and pray. Jesus trusts that over time, the Holy Spirit, who is so elusive as Jesus himself names within our very text, will do the right work in the right time.
We don’t know if Jesus and Nicodemus ever talked again after this scene in John 3. But, I want to believe that they did. I say this because Nicodemus appears two more times in the gospel of John which is the only place his story is found at all. Both of these other texts find him growing toward Jesus. The next time we see him, he stands up for a fair treatment of Jesus by the Sanhedrin (John 7:50-51). The final mentioning is after Jesus’ death when it is Nicodemus who joins Joseph of Arimathea in taking Jesus’ body to the tomb which may be a first public sign of his faith (John 19:38-42).
In my mind, perhaps there were conversations along the way between Jesus and Nicodemus that continued to move this curious, future follower in the right direction with encouragement, honesty and patience and that we see manifested in his bravery before the Sanhedrin and later in his willingness to publicly identify with Jesus by helping Joseph take care of his body – maybe so or maybe not. Either way, Nicodemus may have come to Jesus at night but he didn’t become a follower of Jesus overnight.
Last weekend, I met my father and two brothers for a few days in the dessert of Arizona and Nevada. We didn’t travel there together, however, as our different schedules didn’t allow for it. Their schedules were freer and allowed for a longer trip. In turn, they drove to Nevada leaving from our parents house in Alabama. It was a 1,800 mile, 24 plus hour trip. I, on the other hand, hopped on a plane at dinner time last Wednesday night and was there in Nevada in plenty of time that same evening to go to bed at a decent hour. Truth be told, they pulled up to the campground in the Motorhome about 10 minutes before my Uber driver let me out at the same spot. My trip was quick. They felt like theirs may never end. My trip was relatively simple. Their was long and monotonous. But, in the end, we all got to the same place. So, what does it really matter if one took longer than the other?
Jesus and Nicodemus and their relationship leave us with two truths for our own relationships. First, being honest and being understanding can go hand in hand. In fact, many times this is the crucial element as we seek to share Christ in truth and in love. After all, people are much more willing to hear our beliefs about God if they sense that we love and care about them at the same time. Second, relationships and sharing faith in relationships grow and mature with time. It doesn’t happen over night. Yet again, as long as we get to where we had hoped to go, often times it really doesn’t matter if it takes a shorter or a longer period of time. Said another way, the journey of Nicodemus didn’t matter near as much as the apparent outcome of Nicodemus’ life. Amen.