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“Nicodemus, Jesus, and Us”

a sermon based upon John 3:1-10

In this morning’s anthem, the choir sang: “If I told you my story, you would hear Hope that wouldn’t let go. … You would hear Love that never gave up. … You would hear Life, but it wasn’t mine. … If I should speak, then let it be of the Grace that is greater than all my sin; of when Justice was served, and when Mercy wins; of the Kindness of Jesus that draws me in. Oh, to tell you my story is to tell of Him.”[1]

I’m sure that Nicodemus had a story… a story like the one alluded to in that anthem. A story that developed over time… about how the kindness of Jesus drew him in. It was a story in which God’s grace proved greater than Nicodemus’s skepticism; a story in which the old Pharisee came to believe that Rabbi Jesus was right, after all. He could be born again, born anew, born from above, even when he was old.

We first meet Nicodemus in today’s reading from John, chapter 3, as we overhear his night-time conversation with Jesus. We are told two things about Nicodemus: First, that he was a Pharisee – a fastidiously religious perspective which insisted that people must keep all the rules of the Bible in mind as they lived their daily lives in order that they and their society would be acceptable to the Lord God. Pharisees were models of good Jewish citizenship, and they served as scribes and teachers of the Law, so others too would stay “kosher.” The Bible contained everything a person needed to live a good life.

The second thing we are told is that this man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, was “a ruler of the Jews.” The Greek word is “archon” as in monarchy, oligarchy, hierarchy, or anarchy -- “to rule”

William Barclay (who was a professor of New Testament at Glasgow University and rector of Trinity Church in Renfrew, Scotland), in his commentary on this passage[2]: “Nicodemus was a ruler of the Jews. This is to say that he was a member of the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin was a court of 70 members and it was the Supreme Court of the Jews. … In particular, the Sanhedrin had religious jurisdiction over every Jew in the world in that day; and one of its duties was to examine and deal with anyone suspected of being a false prophet. … It is an amazing thing that Nicodemus should come to Jesus at all.”

Barclay goes on to say: “It may well be that Nicodemus belonged to one of the most distinguished Jewish families. Away back in 63 B.C., when the Romans and the Jews had been at war, Aristobulus, the Jewish leader, sent a certain Nicodemus as his ambassador to Pompey, the Roman Emperor. … [That happened 60 years before Jesus’ birth, but again 40 years after Jesus’ death, another member of the Nicomedes family made history, according to Josephus.] … In the terrible last days of Jerusalem, the man who negotiated the surrender of the garrison was a certain Gorion, who was the son of Nicodemus. [William Barclay says:] It may well be that both these men belonged to the same family as our Nicodemus, and that it was one of the most distinguished families in Jerusalem.”

If what Barclay says is true, it is truly amazing that this Jewish aristocrat -- with all his wealth & power & status in society -- would seek out an itinerant Galilean preacher to talk about his life, his soul.

But Nicodemus not only came to Jesus on this particular night, he says to him: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.” (John 3:2) Wow! An endorsement like that from a member of the Jewish Supreme Court, a respected teacher of Israel, is great! (Any of the remaining candidates for America’s Presidency would’ve loved to get a “sound bite” endorsement like that, don’t you think?) “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.” Emmanuel.

Jesus replies: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew – “gannan anothen” in Greek – he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3) What does Jesus mean when he tells Nicodemus that he must be born anew, or born over, which could mean born again, or born from above. Jesus attempts to clarify the concept by referring to being “born of water and the Spirit.” (John 3:5) “That which is born of the flesh is flesh,” Jesus continued, “and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, “You must be born anew.” The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know whence it comes or whither it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:6-8)

Nicodemus (apparently as confused as ever) said to him, “How can this be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this?” (John 3:9-10) Obviously there is a deeper underlying concept that Jesus wants Nicodemus to grasp… and it doesn’t seem to be getting through. (!) I’ll have you hold that thought for a few minutes, as we go on with the story of Nicodemus’s life, as recounted in the Gospel of John…

“This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long. This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long.”[3]

Nicodemus appears a second time in John’s Gospel (Chapter 7). On this occasion, the chief priests and Pharisees had sent officers to arrest Jesus. (John 7:32) However, after they listened to Jesus, and heard what the people were saying about him, the guards went back to the court. They asked: “Why did you not bring him?” (John 7:45)

“No man ever spoke like this man,” the officers replied. The Pharisees answered them: “Are you led astray? You also? Have any of the authorities, or of the Pharisees, believed in him?” [Hmm? Huh?]

Well, this is the chance for Nicodemus to raise his hand… to find his voice. (!) Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them, said: “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing, and learning what he does?” (John 7:50-51) Yes, Nicodemus is beginning to stand up for Jesus… arguing for justice!

Apparently it was not enough to turn the tide of the other chief priests and ruling Pharisees. They replied: “Are you from Galilee, too? Search and you will see that no prophet is to rise from Galilee.” (7:52) According to these Bible experts, Jesus came from the wrong place! Being raised in Nazareth, a north-country Galilean, disqualified him.

Nicodemus shows up a third time in the Gospel of John (19:39). On the day that Jesus died, Joseph of Arimathea donated his family’s rock-hewn tomb as a burial site for Jesus’ body. John tells us that Nicodemus brought “a mixture of myrrh & aloes, about a hundred pound weight” which would be wrapped inside the linen shroud to bury Jesus’ body. This wealthy man, who first came to Jesus by night, appears now in public, in the final scene of the tragedy, as the person who cares for Jesus’ dead body – something his disciples should have tended to, but they had all fled in fear. Not Nicodemus!

“How marvelous, how wonderful! And my song shall ever be: How marvelous, how wonderful is my Savior’s love for me!”[4]

Okay, now that you know Nicodemus’ whole story, let’s get back to the question: what does Jesus mean when he tells Nicodemus that he must be “born anew” -- born of the Spirit? What does Jesus mean by that word “spirit”? (Have you ever asked yourself?)

We Christians, ever since the Pentecost “out-pouring” of the Holy Spirit which “birthed” the Church -- which I believe was the second coming of Jesus Christ, in spiritual form, through which his followers (then as now) have been able to call ourselves the “Body of Christ” -- we have become accustomed to speaking of the Spirit. Some churches say the Holy Spirit is the “third person of the Trinity” – we sing in the Gloria Patri: “Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost”.

But Nicodemus -- meeting with Jesus that night, so long ago… asking to be enlightened -- would not have known those stories. He would not have imagined any of that 4th Century theology. (No.) For Nicodemus, a well-educated Jew -- as for many people even now in our more modern world! -- a human being was considered a two-part entity (a “dual” being): Body and soul, or body and mind.

On the one hand, there is the physical body. Flesh & bone… muscle and skin. This was called “soma” in Greek… body. The flesh incarnated physical desires and appetites, drives such as sexuality and hunger, and performed habitual behavior on a daily basis. The five senses, and some basic mobility, gave the body freedom to live.

But they also realized, on the other hand, that there was an animating element of “personality” -- which they called “psyche.” Today we translate that word “soul” or “mind.” (!) This element of one’s personality is made up of the ego, the mind with its thought processes, one’s emotions with all their feelings and sensations…

hopes and dreams … and the person’s volition (or will) by which decisions are made and one’s goals and values maintained.

There are a great variety of personalities in every society – introverts and extroverts, achievement-oriented and affiliation- (or friendship-) driven types. There are many people who are by nature judgmental and want things settled and certain; all in agreement at the end of the day, so that matters are closed. Other people are more intuitive, and like to consider many options, who are comfortable with ambiguity and who like matters left “open-ended”.

There are no “right” or “wrong” personalities -- “psyches” -- just different preferences; some of them are in-born by “nature”, other elements of one’s “soul/psyche” are nurtured. (It’s “both/and”.)

This is not a lecture on human psychology, or about the Myers-Briggs Temperament analysis test, nor is it an introduction to the Enneagram. It’s just a reminder that for much of the world – both in the Bible, and in Western society – the human being consists of two realities. Primarily we see the body of flesh – our soma – but there is also an invisible energy animating the person which gives it life and character. That was considered one’s “soul” or “psyche.” From that word, of course, we get “psychology” – and when a person’s body responds with physical symptoms because of thoughts that are in their soul, doctors may call it “psycho-somatic”. The body is responding to one’s mind. (The whole thing is very complex.)

Nicodemus interpreted Jesus’ suggestion that he “be born over” – “gannan anothen” – as meaning that he must be “born again” (that is, being born over in time sequence instead of “over” referring to the source from above). Obviously, the Pharisee was confused. “How can anyone be born over after having grown old!?” he asked. “Can one enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (Put that way, being “born again” does sound ridiculous!)

Jesus probably chuckled when he clarified the old man’s obvious misunderstanding. “Look, I tell you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without having been born of water and Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh, but what is born of Spirit is Spirit.” Jesus then goes on to illustrate Spirit in relation to the wind that blows where it chooses. It has nothing to do with a natal canal; everything to do with being born anew, born from above, born over. “Gannan anothen.”

The comparison of God’s Spirit with the active dynamics of Wind -- which cannot be controlled, but can be experienced -- may have been another play on words by Jesus. You see, “spirit” and “wind” are the same word in Hebrew -- “Ruach” -- and they are the same word in Greek “Pneuma”!

I am tempted to stop and preach on that provocative metaphor – being born of the Spirit is like being blown by the Wind -- the Holy Ghost is like a mighty Gust – a gale that catches your sail, and pushes you forward… But (looking back in my files) I realize that I already preached about that last year (June 23, 2019, in my sermon about “God So Loved the World, and You Must Be Born Again” – and it’s still available on the website, both in written form and as a video.

So, for today, I want you to notice what Jesus just did. He introduced a third component to the make-up of a human being. (!) Flesh and soul, soma and psyche, are fine as far as they go. But to engage God’s Realm, Jesus indicates it must include “the Spirit.”

So again I ask you, what does Jesus mean by born of the Spirit?

What Jesus revealed to Nicodemus (and to us, as we listen in) is that a human being is not just “dual” in nature, but a “tripartite” being. There is a third component of human life that Jesus calls “spirit”. “Ruach” in Hebrew; “pneuma” in Greek. In English: “Spirit”.

Yes, you and I each have a body, with all its physical capabilities – its sexual gender, its basic skeleton & circulation system -- some of us are bigger & stronger, others younger & weaker -- with differing natural attributes & appearances. Each of us has a body of flesh & blood by which we present ourselves to the world, and through which we communicate and relate to our physical environment. Please take good care of that birth-body, because it’s the only one you & I have!

And, yes, each one of us has an unique “personality” that makes us a “person” with all those “psyche”/“soul-like” capacities of thinking, emotion, and volition. Honor that dimension of your being, too, with education – learning by listening, by reading, observing, & discerning. Attend to that component of your being by mindfulness & tenderness. Find friends and counselors with whom you can talk about your feelings and your decisions, your direction in life and life’s meaning.

Take good care of your “psychic” health, your mental health, your “soul”, which makes your body into the person you are.

But Jesus reminds Nicodemus that there is a third dimension… Beyond the capacities of body and soul, each of us possesses a “spirit” with its capacity to know God, who is wholly Spirit. It is this dimension of “spirit” which is able to see and understand things of God, with a clear conscience, without fear; to have personal communion with God, to feel a sense of intimate partnership with our Creator… whom Jesus usually referred to as “the Father”.

Jesus was encouraging Nicodemus to give up his pre-conceived notions about how God thought and acted in the world. Put away the over-riding filter of the Pharisees world-view, take off the blinders of cultural conditioning, cease and desist with the rule-keeping religion & judgmentalism that seemed to dominate Jewish society. In short, you might say, Jesus was telling Nicodemus to become “spiritual” and not so “religious.”

I know a lot of today’s non-church-going people say that they are “spiritual, but not religious”… and they think it is a new concept. Hello !! Jesus was trying to do the same thing in his day!

Kindle the Spirit! Catch the Spirit! Get attuned to the Spirit of God, Nicodemus… and trust it… have faith in it, just as Jesus did.

Jesus wants Nicodemus -- and us -- to be more “spiritual”!

To that, I say: Amen.

[1] Lyrics by Jason Ingram & Mike Weaver (2015)

[2] The Gospel of John, vol. 1, The Daily Study Bible Series, The Saint Andrew Press: Edinburgh, July 1955, reprinted Westminster Press: Philadelphia, Nov. 1956, page 111

[3] Lyrics by Fanny J. Crosby “Blessed Assurance”

[4] Lyrics by Charles H. Gabriel, “My Savior’s Love”

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