Sermon for Western Heights Uniting Church
8 March 2020
Butterfly House by Eve Bunting
In today’s reading we are introduced to one of the most tantalising characters in the Bible – Nicodemus. He only appears three times in the Scriptures, all in the gospel according to John, and we know nothing else about him. But in these three moments we see a journey from darkness to courage and love – a journey for us to imitate.
The reading starts with Nicodemus the Pharisee coming to visit Jesus by night. Why at night? Is he coming to visit a teacher in the quiet hours, when Pharisees were advised to study without the distractions of the day? Will a night visit mean that his fellow scholars are unlikely to see him visiting someone as potentially disreputable as Jesus? Or is the ‘night’ from which Nicodemus emerges to question Jesus symbolic, representing the world of ignorance into which the light that is Jesus has come to shine? Given that we’re reading a story written by John, probably all of these answers are right.
When we meet Nicodemus for the second time in John’s story, religious leaders and teachers are discussing whether to arrest Jesus. There Nicodemus reminds them that the law does not judge people without a hearing, and in response he is taunted: ‘Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.’ (John 8:52). That later exchange does suggest that one of the reasons Nicodemus comes by night here is to hide what he’s doing, sneaking away from other teachers. Yet Nicodemus immediately tells Jesus that he recognises him as one of the great figures of Israel, a teacher from God. Nicodemus politely addresses Jesus as ‘Rabbi,’ but his respect isn’t enough. Jesus isn’t simply going to teach Nicodemus – he’s going to demand Nicodemus’ entire life.
Jesus answers Nicodemus: ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ In Greek, the same word can mean ‘again’ and ‘from above’, and Nicodemus takes the first meaning and responds: ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ His question might be a genuine misunderstanding. While we have some idea of what the phrase ‘born again’ might mean, and understand that it doesn’t involve literally re-entering the womb, Nicodemus doesn’t have the benefit of our knowledge of 2000 years of Christian history. On the other hand, it could be that Nicodemus does have a sense of what being born again or born from above might mean, and wants to avoid its implications. Maybe he asks his question not because he takes Jesus literally, but because he’s playing for time, as he thinks about what Jesus is suggesting.
Being born from above. Being born again. What does it mean? ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.’ For us, again with that advantage over Nicodemus of 2000 years of Christian history, the idea of being born of water and the Spirit instantly makes us think of baptism. When we are baptised we die and are reborn; the font is both tomb and womb. And as John the Baptist prophesied; while he baptised with water, Jesus would baptise with the Holy Spirit.
As Jesus then tells Nicodemus, this Spirit cannot be controlled by humans. Like the wind, the Spirit blows where She chooses, and we don’t know where She comes from or where She goes. None of us were in charge of our first births; we didn’t choose our parents or where and when we were born. In the same way, it’s God who is in charge of our being born from above. The Spirit blows where She will; all we can do is seek to be open to Her coming. In this story Nicodemus approached Jesus, but we now see that it is really Jesus who is calling Nicodemus, offering him a new start, eternal life, salvation, light in the darkness of the ‘night’ from which Nicodemus emerged. This is terrifying. This is liberating.
I am never sure about using caterpillars and cocoons and butterflies as a metaphor for resurrection, although butterflies are often used as symbols for Easter. The transition from a caterpillar to a butterfly is a natural one, whereas Jesus’ resurrection is God’s decidedly UNnatural intervention in human history. But I love the idea of caterpillars and cocoons and butterflies being a metaphor for being born again or born from above. On the one hand I believe being born again or born from above can happen quietly, and naturally, and over a significant period of time; comparing being born again to the transition from a caterpillar into a butterfly reassures us that we don’t all need to be struck down in an instant on the road to Damascus as the Apostle Paul was.
My other reason for appreciating this metaphor is its muckiness. This week I watched a time lapse video from the BBC of a caterpillar spinning a cocoon, and one of the lines that most struck me was ’the caterpillar’s head is about to split wide open’. And then it did! Ugh! If we see in this a metaphor for being born from above, it’s one that points out how extremely harsh that rebirth can be, and how much of our old selves we might lose in the process. And neither caterpillars that have head their heads split open, nor cocoons, are particularly attractive. Last week I talked about ‘the human propensity to muck things up’ symbolised by all the dirtiness of ashes. Here again we have a symbol that reminds us that God welcomes us with all our messiness and sickness and failure. We do not need to be perfect to be welcomed by God.
The other line that struck me from the BBC video was when the narrator said that the transformation from a caterpillar to a butterfly shows us that ‘change is possible’. The natural world around us shows us changes every day. We experience them ourselves, as we grow up and grow old. (I have reached the stage in my life when physical changes are usually for the worse.) And changes are often challenging or disorienting, like the changes that this congregation have experienced and will experience in the transition from one minister to another. But the metaphor of the cocoon reminds us that at the end of even the most head-splitting changes there is the possibility of the emergence of something beautiful. For that reason, too, that hope of beauty, the transformation from a caterpillar to a cocoon to a butterfly is an appropriate metaphor for being born from above.
At the very end of today’s reading we hear what I believe is the most important thing that Jesus tells Nicodemus: ‘God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ God loves the whole world, in all its darkness, with all its evil, and has come to save it. God loves us.
After his secret meeting with Jesus; after speaking in favour of Jesus getting a fair trial when the religious leaders and teachers seem to be condemning him unheard; we meet Nicodemus a third and final time. John tells us: ‘After [Jesus’ death], Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the [religious leaders], asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews.’ (John 20:38-40) One commentator suggests that Nicodemus is the mirror image of Judas. In today’s story Nicodemus emerges from the night. During the Last Supper, John tells us, ‘after receiving the piece of bread, [Judas] immediately went out. And it was night’. (John 13:30) Night for John is never just night. Judas is condemned to the darkness from which Nicodemus has emerged.
Nicodemus seems to have come a long way from his first, night-time, encounter with Jesus. Possibly Nicodemus has been born and grown up again: from someone taking Jesus literally and misunderstanding him; to someone who defends him and is mocked for it; to someone who bravely helps with his burial, showing the sort of love through service that Jesus modelled when he washed his disciples’ feet. I would love to read a historical novel with Nicodemus as the hero. In him I believe we see someone who accepts God’s invitation and leaves the night to walk in the light that is Jesus. The Spirit has blown where She will, and Nicodemus has answered Her call. Let us do likewise. Amen.