What does Nicodemus say about human life?

Posted: April 25, 2017 in Uncategorized

Lent 2A, 2017 John 3:1-17

What does Nicodemus say about human life?

As a Pharisee he is expected to know a bit about life and about how it should be lived. He believes this man Jesus to be a learned person and he has heard of the stories around this man’s healing ministry and he wonders how he does it? He is not sure that he wants to be seen to be seeking advice from Jesus but he knows he needs to find answers to his questions. Sounds normal doesn’t it? Jack Shea in writing of this suggests, that Nicodemus is in a searching mode, he is seeking understanding, he is “stranded in twilight.  He is not mesmerized by the signs…but he wants a teaching, not another miracle.  But before he can receive a teaching from God, he must receive a teaching about himself”.  (Shea 1998:83-84)

Nicodemus goes to Jesus by night and asks ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God because what you are doing cannot be done without God’s participation. Jesus answers him saying that he is right, no one can understand what he is doing without being born from above.’ Nicodemus’s reply then shows that he is stuck in the literal world and cannot see how anyone can be born a second time. It is a onetime only event and being born again isn’t possible. Then Jesus says that this birth is more than that. It is fundamental to life. It is water and spirit, water as the foundational element of all life and Spirit which is like the wind. We know of its existence but we don’t know what it is. We know it is fundamental to our being yet it always eludes our definition and thus our control.

The other point to consider when approaching this story is that both Jesus and Nicodemus are Jews and learned Jews as well. Jesus was a first century Galilean Jew. His prayers were Jewish. His thinking was Jewish. His ‘voice’ is thick with Jewish history – personal and cultural. He is a Galilean Jew as well, which means he has a radical charisma about him. This suggests that what we need to be careful not to do is to convert him into a proto-Christian. Be careful not to add ‘Greekness’ to his Jewishness. Christianity did not emerge as a sect within Jewish religion until much later let alone develop its organizational and doctrinal views which came even later. Amy-Jill Levine suggests that, “With the stress in some churches on Jesus’s divine sonship, the cross, the resurrection, and the redemptory role of saving humanity from sin and death, his historical connection to Judaism gets lost along with his very Jewish message of the kingdom of heaven”.  (Levine 2006:19) Levine than goes on to point out that in popular Christian imagination Jesus is presented as: against the Law, against the Temple, against the people of Israel, as the only one to speak with women, as the only one who teaches non-violent responses to oppression, as the only one who cares about the ‘poor and marginalised’. It is “No wonder even today Jesus somehow looks ‘different’ from the ‘Jews’: in some movies and artistic renderings, he’s blond and they are swarthy; he is cute and buff and they need rhinoplasty and Pilates”. (Levine 2006:19) This ‘divorcing’ of Jesus from Judaism in biblical stories and traditional Christian theology is neither honest nor helpful. Especially when we hear John’s story about Nicodemus.


So here we have a Jewish Rabbi we call Nicodemus, and the story is of his encounter with the Galilean sage or Mystic we call Jesus. Nicodemus was a pilgrim.  A sincere religious seeker. A student who uses his precious study time to “expand his search beyond the standard texts… and distractions of the day”.  Nicodemus, was a member of the religious institution of his day, as a mover of theological boundaries. Willing to risk leaving behind past ‘truths’ as he and his colleagues have been taught them and known them, in order to explore something new. Jesus affirms Nicodemus by indicating that there is no other way to discover that our lives and our thinking might be different than by taking the risks, asking the questions? Not just by re-shaping, but by re-thinking and reconstructing! Here we have Nicodemus showing that life is about using the mind to shape the new future.  Thinking about life in its potential.


I want to divert a little here and suggest that we might do this Nicodemus task by thinking of life as art. The journey of life is not then about the technical achievements of science but rather about the question of meaning in human existence. We know we exist as human beings but what is our meaning? It is very easy in today’s world when we accept evolution and a universe that unfolds endlessly with no obvious purpose to it. In this view the human experience seems to be of little worth. There is little point in seeking to understand how much meaning the human place holds in the dynamics of the cosmos. There is in fact no answer to that question on an objective scale other than the obvious. That human life is only a momentary blip in the unlimited history of the cosmos. A fraction of a second in a billions of year’s environment. How to experience a second birth is a question that can only be answered in metaphor and takes us no further, whereas the task might be to ask how the human experience has value in the fleeting moments of life and the changing history. This takes us into more and more questions about meaning and giving meaning to an experience is an interpretive act. Using our human experience to evaluate one’s life and to creatively become something more is an artistic endeavour. Spirituality then is the task of art like the paintbrushes that reveal the view or the poem that feeds the interpretation. As David Galston writes, “Life expressed as art consists of standing before the abyss of the threatening, curious, unknown, amazingly full, and amazingly empty nature of the cosmos and saying yes to it all”. The ‘yes’ is not due to scientific facts; it is due to hermeneutical acts; that is to the acts of interpretation that create meaning and value as the art of being alive.

The Nicodemus story asks us to consider what would we do differently if given half the chance? How would we grow up differently? How would we re-edit the story of our life? And it goes on to invite us to be curious about life. To rethink and re-construct assumptions. Not just to conduct an autopsy on our past, but to look to the future through the eyes of new possibility. To be born anew, metaphorically if you like, but maybe even more than that! To engage in the event of life changing experience. To understand how life might be different!

Galston suggests this is what Tillich expressed when he said the Yes to life is to stand before the abyss and say yes to the courage to be. Grasp the vast nature of the question of meaning and answer yes to the question with courage. This is a Spiritual act that gives form to life dynamics, and enables us to be artists. The Nicodemus story also invites us to be saints of the curious. To protect the curious in each of us. To join with the company of earnest and compassionate teachers, of whatever faith tradition, whose openness defines a new community of hope and grace. To have the courage to dare to know creativity as God or God as creativity, with heart and mind, with courage and strength, and not to be afraid as traditional theological boundaries are pushed to their point of rebellion… The task is to be born again and this means to be pushed and to push again, with honesty and originality, wisdom and imagination. Amen.

Notes:. Levine, A. The Misunderstood Jew. The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. New York. HarperOne, 2006. Lowry, E. L. “Strangers in the Night” in W. B Robinson (ed). Journey Toward Narrative Preaching. New York. Pilgrim Press, 1990. Shea, J. Gospel Light. Jesus Stories for Spiritual Consciousness. New York. A Crossroad Book, 1998.

Galston David. God’s Human Future ‘The struggle to define theology today. Polebridge Press Salem Oregon 2016


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