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.
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