Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Second Sunday of Lent, 5th of March 2023
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 are reading a story written by John, who always likes his symbolism, 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 in today’s reading we see Nicodemus recognising Jesus as one of the great figures of Israel, a teacher from God. Nicodemus politely addresses Jesus as ‘Rabbi,’ but he will soon find that his respect is not enough. Jesus is not simply going to teach Nicodemus – he is going to demand Nicodemus’ entire life.
Jesus answers Nicodemus’ polite greeting: ‘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 does not involve literally re-entering the womb, Nicodemus does not have the benefit of our knowledge of two thousand 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 is 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 two thousand 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 did not choose our parents or where and when we were born. In the same way, God oversees 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 approaches 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.
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 this first 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. But he does not seem to have spent much time with the other disciples, he is not said to have followed Jesus or to have been present at the Last Supper. He may, like Joseph of Arimathea, have been a ‘secret’ disciple. But he could still have been a disciple.
In the Uniting Church we understand our faith to be both personal and communal. We believe that there is no such thing as a solitary Christian. For most of us, for most of our lives, that means attending a place of worship, like this church building, in person and worshipping with the community we find there. But just as we know that the church is not a building, we also know that the church is not necessarily an ‘in-person’ community. Covid19 has reminded us of that, but even before Covid19, and now that we are in a so-called Covid-normal world, there are people who cannot attend church in person because of age or illness or disability. Yet they are still part of the church, and part of this congregation.
Ian Hansen and I recently discussed the church being an ‘imagined community’. The idea of an imagined community was created by political scientist Benedict Anderson to explain nationalism. He wrote about the way in which newspapers in the age of print created such communities, and I’m going to read you quite a long extract from him:
We know that particular morning and evening editions [of newspapers] will overwhelmingly be consumed between this hour and that, only on this day, not that … The significance of this mass ceremony — Hegel observed that newspapers serve modern man as a substitute for morning prayers — is paradoxical. It is performed in silent privacy, in the lair of the skull. Yet each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion. Furthermore, this ceremony is incessantly repeated at daily or half-daily intervals throughout the calendar. What more vivid figure for the secular, historically clocked, imagined community can be envisioned? At the same time, the newspaper reader, observing exact replicas of his own paper being consumed by his subway, barbershop, or residential neighbours, is continually reassured that the imagined world is visibly rooted in everyday life.
An imagined community, which could be a city, a state, or an entire nation, could be created by people individually reading newspapers in their own homes. Later, it could be created by all those who watched the same television news at the same time in the evening. It is a community that is now fragmenting, as people get their news online and can curate their own ‘newspapers’.
The church is another such imagined community, and one that is both local and global. Everyone who participates in the service here each Sunday is part of this congregation, whether they attend in person, listen online, or read a paper version. And all these members of North Balwyn Uniting Church are members of an imagined community we call the one holy catholic and apostolic church. This community is created by, for instance, reading and hearing the same Bible passages as everyone who attends a church that follows the Revised Common Lectionary, members of the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, the Anglican Church of Australia, the Italian Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hong Kong, the Methodist Church Ghana, and so many more. And our imagined community is expanded to include the Catholic and Orthodox churches whenever we pray the Lord’s Prayer or use the Apostles Creed in baptism. Over Lent, we are being reminded that our imagined community includes the members of all our partner churches, as we use the prayers collected in the Lent Event prayer guide. Whether you are hearing this sermon from the pews, listening to it online, or reading a written version of it online or on paper, you are part of the imagined community we call the church.
I suspect that Nicodemus became part of the imagined community of Jesus’ disciples, even if he never joined the crowds following Jesus in person. He would already have been part of the imagined community called the nation of Israel or the people of God, we know that. I suspect that he then accepted God’s invitation as Jesus offered it, and left ‘the night’ to walk in the light that is Jesus. The Spirit had blown where She will, and Nicodemus had answered Her call. Lent invites us to do likewise, however we can do that. No matter our situation, whether we are able to attend a church building in person, or able to join with other Christians in the Spirit from our homes or from hospital beds, we are all part of the one community, made up of those who have been born from above or born again, by water and the Spirit. Let us live as blessings, so that through us all the families of the earth shall be blessed. Amen.
 Benedict Anderson, Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism (London: Verso, 2006), pp. 51-2.
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