We’re in Year A this year. Year A’s pretty cool.
Year A is the first of three years in our Revised Common Lectionary. That is, starting with Advent and continuing through the 29th Proper, aka “Christ the King Sunday,” the passages of scripture we hear read on Sunday mornings all year follow Year A’s outline.
Next year will be Year B. The following year will be Year C. And the year after that will be back to Year A.
So, if you’re sitting in this church on the 2nd Sunday of Lent in 2020, you’ll hear the same scripture passages that were read today.
And I for one am glad to be back in Year A.
That’s because in Year A we encounter four very special people, all from the Gospel of John, four weeks in a row, during Lent, who appear nowhere else in the Bible.
Over the next four Sundays, we’ll hear the stories of four wonderful, surprisingly modern saints of God, from whom we can learn much—if we’re willing to take the time and listen to them.
To listen, I said. This means we’ll have to figure out not what the world has told us we need to learn from them—not what the world tells us John 3:16 means, for instance—but what each has to teach us from his or her own story.
So, who are these people?
Today, John introduces us to Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus secretly, by night; and has an image-laden conversation with him about what it means to be born from above, or born again.
Next week it’s the woman at the well, a Samaritan woman—confronting us simultaneously with culturally sensitive issues of race and gender!—who encounters Jesus and quickly runs off to share the good news with her friends and family.
The week after that brings us to an unnamed man blind from birth, whom Jesus heals, and who then confounds the very teachers of Israel.
Finally, in Lent 5, we encounter Lazarus, not to be confused with the blind beggar in the parable from Matthew. This Lazarus is the brother of Mary and Martha, whom Jesus first weeps over and then raises from the dead.
All four of these characters are found only in John’s Gospel; all four are surprisingly modern; all four encounter Jesus.
And through all four encounters, over the next four weeks, we will encounter Jesus ourselves.
He might even confront us, even challenge us, to think about our place in the world in new ways, an appropriate heart-and-soul exercise for Lent.
So, yeah, Year A’s pretty cool.
Who, then, is this guy, Nicodemus?
The passage begins: “There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night.”
What can we surmise?
Nicodemus is a Pharisee; and a community leader. Yet at the same time he seeks Jesus out.
He seeks Jesus, who by this time has already been singled out by both the Pharisees and the Jewish community leaders as someone to steer clear of.
Jesus turned over the tables of the moneychangers, after all! Why, he’s uneducated, the son of a carpenter! Maybe he’s not all there, if you catch my meaning.
Yet Nicodemus doesn’t want to steer clear of him. Maybe his community is on the right track: maybe there is something not quite right about this man Jesus. Still, despite what the world around him—his world—is telling him, Nicodemus finds himself actually drawn to Jesus.
So he goes to him. At night. Under the cover of darkness. In secret.
Wearing sunglasses. And a hat. To avoid the local Paparazzi.
I wonder, is Nicodemus spiritual but not religious?
It’s as if he wants to know Jesus, to know God through Jesus; but he’s not sure. On the one hand, his way of approaching God, his religion, hasn’t been entirely satisfactory for him; while at the same time, on the other hand, he’s apparently skeptical that Jesus will be the answer he seeks.
We get locked into our own methods pretty easily, don’t we—our own ways of doing things, our own ways of approaching Jesus?
Mine’s through prayer. What’s yours?
Oh, well mine’s through nature. What about you?
Mine’s through praying the sinner’s prayer. How about you?
Me? Ah, I find Jesus in the liturgy.
And so on it goes.
But what if we find ourselves becoming spiritually curious? What if we begin to look over denominational fences? What then?
Some of you know my own story of how I came to the Episcopal Church from Presbyterian and Reformed circles.
I was a part-time staff member of a small church of a different denomination, working as a worship leader.
Yet I found myself drawn especially to two things about the Episcopal Church: its liturgy and music; and its sacramental theology. I found myself wanting to attend the local Episcopal parish. But I couldn’t, since I had obligations at the other place.
Well, what to do?
As it turns out, Holy Week was approaching. So my family and I decided to attend the local Episcopal parish, St. John’s, for the Triduum, that three-day drama that comes at the end of Holy Week: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil.
By the end of these three days, we were convinced: The Episcopal Church would have to become our new home.
But that first time we donned the doors, on that Maundy Thursday—I couldn’t help but feel a lot like I was playing hooky; like I was doing something very wrong; like I was dishonoring the tradition to which I belonged; like I was somehow being unfaithful or disloyal.
How surprisingly modern Nicodemus’s story is!
So, what is the main lesson we learn from him?
Our world has made a lot of the conversation that takes place in today’s Gospel.
What does it mean to be “born from above” (as the version we heard today puts it; or, to put it in a more popularized outfit, what does it mean to be born again)?
The imagery of rebirth has captured the modern American evangelical imagination.
We’ve all heard the question, or some variation of it: Are you a born-again Christian?
I don’t know about you, but I feel this question has been overused; that the phrase born-again Christian ought to be put on a list of banned Christian lingo.
It’s a polarizing phrase.
To one group of Christians, it’s an identifier, as much as to say, “Yeah, you say you’re a Christian. But are you really in? Are you born again?”
Whereas to another group, it’s derogatory or pejorative, as much as to say, “Are you actually one of those fringe wackos: are you born again?”
And because it’s polarizing, we’ve been distracted from the main point here. The main point is not about individual souls being born again. John 3:16, that favorite verse of countless people, says that God so loved the world. It’s not about individual souls here so much as it is about all of creation.
So, let’s put this phrase away, on the list of banned Christian lingo, at least for a while, until it loses its polarizing quality.
Fortunately for us, there’s another image that comes out of this passage. And I’m convinced that this other image, not the image of rebirth, is in fact the overarching image by which we can understand Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus.
What is this image? Light and darkness.
The passage begins with this image (Nicodemus comes to Jesus by cover of darkness); and with this image the passage ends (light exposes people’s deeds, Jesus says).
Light and darkness here, not rebirth, is the governing image: it’s only after one has been reborn that one comes out of darkness into light.
So, what happens when we look at Nicodemus through this lens of light and darkness?
Nicodemus first comes to Jesus in darkness. He is seeking. He is curious. He is probably concerned about what his community will think of him. He may even be confused.
And isn’t this a lot like us? Don’t we know a lot about darkness? Isn’t our faith hard to understand? Isn’t being a Christian often confusing? Aren’t we seeing the looking glass only dimly? Aren’t these all mere shadowlands?
By the way, we face darkness at both the individual and corporate levels. The corporate Church, throughout its history, has made many errors. I only have to mention the Crusades to prove that point.
But, this coming to Jesus in darkness isn’t all that we see of Nicodemus in the Gospel of John. He shows up again, later, near the end, with another heretofore secret disciple, a certain man by the name of Joseph of Arimathea, who owns a tomb hewn of out rock on his property, the very tomb into which Jesus’ body will be laid.
Do you remember this part of the Easter story?
Nicodemus and Joseph come and carry Jesus’ body away and lay it in the tomb.
And they do this deed in the full light of day!
Despite his convoluted faith, fully aware that his religious and community colleagues would see him, fully aware that his deeds and faith would be exposed in the full light of day, Nicodemus throws caution to the wind and carries Jesus’ body away.
Despite the Church’s mistakes, whether in the Middle Ages or in the modern day; despite how confusing and convoluted our theology can be, the Church has been called to keep throwing caution to the wind, to keep carrying on Jesus’ work in the full light of today.
And what is this work?
Only to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, and to heal the sick.
Only to care for orphans and widows.
Only to walk across town with food in our backpacks to donate to those less fortunate than ourselves.
Only to love all creation in such a way that it might be born anew.