Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
8 March 2020
Nicodemus is an intriguing figure. Mentioned only in the Gospel of John, he comes to Jesus under the cover of night. He has heard of Jesus’ teachings and miracles, and even acknowledges his divine authority. But Nicodemus wants to talk with Jesus in secret, away from the public eye. A teacher of the law and a religious leader, Nicodemus needs to be careful about his reputation. Yet as learned and well-respected as he is, Nicodemus has difficulty understanding Jesus’ teachings. Jesus tells Nicodemus during their conversation that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus responds in astonishment: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3: 1-6). Nicodemus takes Jesus’ words literally to the point of absurdity – physical rebirth, reentering the womb, and he misses entirely the point that Jesus makes: spiritual rebirth and renewal.
Nicodemus is not alone in being confused about Jesus’ teachings. It happens frequently to Jesus’ own disciples. There are numerous accounts in the Gospels where they misinterpret his words; they just don’t seem to get it. For instance, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus warns his disciples about the religious hypocrisy and corruption: “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” But the disciples mutter to themselves: “It is because we have brought no bread” (Matthew 16: 5-12). Like Nicodemus, the disciples take Jesus’ words literally and find themselves confused.
Lest we judge Nicodemus and the disciples too harshly, Jesus is not always so clear and straightforward. He speaks in parables, metaphors, and hyperboles, and he often presents difficult and controversial ideas. Centuries of biblical scholarship testify to the depth and complexity of Jesus’ teachings. When I went to seminary, I thought, like many of my fellow students, that a formal theological education would give me all the answers, and I believed that becoming a priest meant that I would need to have the Christian faith all worked out. Well, to my surprise, I discovered that the more I learned, the more I realized how little I knew. Far from answering all my questions, seminary gave me more questions.
Furthermore, now that I am actually working in a church, I am encountering more areas where my training and knowledge are lacking. Ordained ministry is like other professions; you learn far more on the job than when you were in school. Here at St. Mary’s I don’t know how many times I’ve had what might be called “Nicodemus moments.” I frequently ask Fr. Charles or a member of the Altar Party a question about the liturgy or theology, and, every once in a while, I will ask that really stupid question. And, of course, everyone is very kind in responding, but I can only imagine what is going through their minds: “You’re asking what? And you’re a priest?”
As we can see from the examples of Nicodemus and the disciples, as well as our own personal experiences, Christian faith is quite complex. We will never have all the answers to our questions, at least in this life. When we look across the broad and diverse spectrum of the Christian Church, even the clergy and the experts don’t always agree on doctrine and practice. And ultimately there are limits to our ability to reason. Our finite human minds are not capable of fathoming all the mysteries of our infinite God.
So all of us can probably identify with Nicodemus when it comes to confusion at certain points on our faith journey. For me, I can identify with Nicodemus in yet another way. He makes a second appearance in the Gospel of John. This time he is with his fellow Jewish leaders, who are plotting to arrest and punish Jesus. While his colleagues are raging against Jesus and his movement, Nicodemus quietly raises a procedural question: “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” His colleagues lash back with suspicion and anger, and ask whether he might be one of Jesus’ followers, Nicodemus is quickly cowered into silence (John 7:45-52). When I read this, it seems like something that I would do. Like many of you, I’m assuming, I have an aversion to confrontation or conflict, especially when it involves holding a dissenting view. But at the same time my conscience would compel me to speak up. So I would try to do it in a way that is as diplomatic, risk-averse as possible. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll beat a hasty retreat, like Nicodemus. Academic types are rarely known for their boldness and courage.
The views of Nicodemus in the Church are split. Most Protestants do not see him favorably because of his failure to openly proclaim his faith in Jesus. He comes to him secretly at night, and his protest in his meeting with Jewish leaders is quite mild and ambiguous. John Calvin, the great Reformed theologian and leader, castigates Nicodemus for possessing a mind “filled with many thorns, choked by many noxious herbs.” He is, in other words, confused and unable to make a clear profession of faith. During the Protestant Reformation, Nicodemus even lent his name to the creation of a term, “Nicodemite,” to refer to those who disguised their faith, in particular Protestants who tried to pass as Roman Catholics to avoid persecution.
As much as I respect the Protestant reformers, especially Calvin, I think that they are unfair to Nicodemus. Frankly, I think they’re wrong. It’s not only that I can personally identify with Nicodemus in temperament; the Protestants seem to neglect what Nicodemus does later in the Gospel – his final act. He makes a third appearance in Gospel of John, and this time it is at Jesus’ Crucifixion.
For all the confusion, hesitation, cowardice, and even duplicity, Nicodemus, in the end, takes courage and steps up. While other followers of Jesus, including most of the disciples, flee for fear of their lives and abandon their Lord, Nicodemus comes forward to bury him. We are told that Nicodemus brought a hundred pounds of costly myrrh and aloes to embalm Jesus’ body (John 19:39). As a result of this act of faith and devotion, Nicodemus is remembered quite differently in other Christian traditions. He is venerated as a saint in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, as well as among Anglo-Catholics. His feast day is August 3.
Dear sisters and brothers, our Lenten journey is taking us to the same place where Nicodemus found himself, at the foot of the cross. This past Wednesday, here at St. Mary’s, we began our weekly Stations of the Cross. And for me I had the additional privilege of joining our sister parish, St. Augustine’s, for their weekly Stations of the Cross this past Friday. If you haven’t already, I would encourage all of you to come either to St. Mary’s on Wednesday or to St. Augustine’s on Friday and experience this beautiful and powerful service in which we visualize and meditate on the suffering and death of Jesus Our Lord.
On your service bulletin today, you will find the photo of a statue sculpted by Michelangelo, depicting the body of Jesus being taken down from the cross by Nicodemus, the Virgin Mary, and Mary Magdalene. In the stories of the Passion and Crucifixion, we often do not notice Nicodemus, but he was there, embracing Jesus’ body. Nicodemus cast aside his initial reluctance and fear, and took his place at the cross.
Let us join Nicodemus at the foot of the cross. There, at the foot of the cross, we will gather with him and countless other followers of Our Lord, and we will witness and grieve his suffering and death. But it is also there, at the foot of the cross, that we will claim the hope and promise that Our Lord first proclaimed to Nicodemus that night he came to him: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, King James Version). Amen.
 Karoline Lewis, “Commentary on John 3:1-17,” Working Preacher. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=43.
 John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, Vol.1, trans. William Pringle (Edinburgh: Calving Translation Society, 1843), 107. Quoted in Robert Hoch, “Commentary on John 3:1-17,” Working Preacher. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1979.
First Sunday in Lent
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
March 1, 2020
I ran across an Internet meme this week that described Lent as “a religious holiday commemorating the time Jesus gave up chocolate and soda for forty days.”
A better definition of Lent is that it’s a solemn religious observance in the liturgical calendar in the 40 days leading up to Easter in which Christians prepare for the Resurrection of our Lord by engaging in the ancient disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
That said, it seems to me that our gospel reading from Matthew is a somewhat strange Scripture passage for the first Sunday in Lent. While we are beginning our forty-day-and-forty-night fast, Jesus’ forty days are already over! Matthew’s story focuses more on the temptation of Jesus AFTER the fast has concluded. It’s doesn’t seem like the most pragmatic way to begin Lent.
But the Church, in her wisdom, has chosen this passage for today. It would be awfully nice if it were a practical set of instructions of how to live during our Lenten journey. But maybe it’s not meant to be practical. Maybe the Church is simply trying to tell us about Jesus: who he is, and what sort of character he shows.
In the first temptation, the devil quotes Scripture and encourages Jesus to satisfy his physical hunger by turning stones into bread. When the devil says, “If you are the Son of God,” the word “if” could be translated from the Greek as “since” – “since you are the Son of God.” The devil isn’t expressing doubt about Jesus’s identity or power. He’s rather trying to deceive Jesus into using his power to satisfy his own physical needs rather than trusting the Father for them. Jesus responds in kind by quoting Scripture, affirming that life is sustained by more than physical food; it is sustained by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Jesus will not misuse his power to satisfy his own physical needs.
The second test focuses on the need for security and safety. For the second time, the devil quotes Scripture, and this time, he tempts Jesus to make himself safe from injury or even death. Jesus recognizes once again that the devil is taking Scripture out of context: Scripture does not endorse testing God’s protective grace for the sake of self-protection. Jesus will not misuse his power to make himself safe and secure.
In the third temptation, the devil tries to seduce Jesus with domination and prestige. He offers Jesus control over all the world’s kingdoms, along with the splendor that comes with it, if he will only swear allegiance to the devil. Again, Jesus isn’t led astray. He rejects the tempter’s deception and quotes scripture again in its context saying, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Jesus will not misuse his power to gain earthly power and prestige.
Just as Jesus was tempted, so we will be. Jesus didn’t respond to temptation by succumbing to it, or fleeing to another selfish vice to escape, or by complaining to God, or by wondering what he may have done wrong to deserve it. He responded by deepening his dependence on his Father. The very temptations he experienced – materialism, security, and prestige – are not foreign to us. We experience them every day. The appropriate response in resisting them is to turn to God for help instead of relying on our own power.
What are you giving up for Lent? What are you denying yourself? Jesus spent forty days and forty nights fasting in the wilderness, and it was this intentional period of self-denial that prepared him to endure and ultimately overcome these temptations by the devil. Even though Lent began this past Wednesday, it is not too late to find a way to be intentional about denying yourself something you hold dear. Intentional self-denial is helpful in the spiritual life because it reveals the things that control us. We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in denying ourselves, the things that control us come to the surface. If pride controls us, it will be revealed almost immediately. Anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear – if they are within us, they will surface during intentional periods of self-denial. But we should be prepared: when they surface, we will be tempted not only to stop denying ourselves, but also to sin. If we’re properly prepared and watching for these things to surface, we can then respond as Jesus did: we can turn to God for help and rely on his grace to strengthen our will to choose to overcome all assaults and temptations of the devil. Self-denial reminds us that we are sustained “by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (v. 4). Whatever it is that we’re giving up – that is not what sustains us; God sustains us. Therefore, when we give something up during Lent, we are not so much abstaining from something as we are learning to rely on God to give us everything that we need and more. 
While this passage teaches about who Jesus is and what sort of character he shows, there is one significant difference between how Jesus responds when he’s tempted, and how we respond: Jesus never sinned and we do. You and I might choose to respond to temptation in the wrong way. We may choose to give in to our more carnal urges and gorge on whatever it is that we’ve supposedly given up. If this happens, do not lose heart! Don’t wallow in the guilt that you feel, but instead turn to God for help and pick back up right where you left off!
During the Season of Lent, our fasting and self-denial will engage the dark places in our hearts, giving us an opportunity to come face to face with them, name them, understand them, and seek forgiveness for them. We will be tempted to rely on the devices and desires of our own hearts rather than the grace of God to overcome temptation. We will fall into sin and then be further tempted to allow the guilt we feel to keep us captive. But Lent is not about guilt, it is about freedom from the control that our fears and insecurities have over us. It is about the amendment of life and new beginnings. Lent is about learning anew that we are sustained by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
Friends, this Lent, let us train our very souls as a runner trains to run a marathon to depend on God to give us everything we need…and more. Amen.
 The discussion of the three temptations comes primarily from David Bartlett, and Barbara Brown. Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, 47-49.
 Much of this paragraph came from Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline 54-55.
 Bartlett 48.
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!