Today’s scripture from John contains probably one of the best known pieces of text in the Bible. You can’t watch a football game on television without seeing at least one sign saying: “John 3:16”. You can find this reference on billboards and marquees, spray-painted as graffiti on walls in tenements and rocks and rooftops.
We, as Christians, know that God sent Jesus so “that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
But, as Paul Harvey says, ‘this is the rest of the story’.
This passage of scripture is probably also one of the most misunderstood or misapplied.
Here we have Nicodemus, a very educated Pharisee, who acknowledges Jesus as the Son of God. But he wants to know more; so he secretly goes to Jesus in the night.
Now, why did he go in the night?
In the Jewish tradition, studying of the Torah was reserved for the night time – when things were less bustling and one could concentrate on the Word. Nicodemus was not sneaking to see Jesus so that his fellow Pharisees would not see him, or the set Jesus up for heresy. He truly wanted to learn more – he was seeking.
We might call Nicodemus the Patron Saint of the Seekers. . . he was seeking to find his spiritual soul. He was a truly observant man, but he found himself lacking. If you remember, Jesus’ response to Nicodemus was that physical observances were not enough. No matter how stridently Nicodemus followed the Jewish law, no one could enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit.
This being born of the water and spirit is one of the phrases that is so often translated as ‘born again’. This becomes the core of the fundamentalist belief that anyone who has not been ‘born again’ is doomed for Hell. And, unfortunately, we find in this day and age a lot of people who use this interpretation as a hammer to lessen the worth of anyone who does not agree with their theology.
But let’s look further at this text.
To begin with, the original Greek is actually translated as ‘born from above’. This is not baptism of water, but the descending of the Holy Spirit into our hearts and minds. We as Episcopalians, when we baptize, become members of the fellowship of Jesus and the Kingdom of God.
One who enters the kingdom of God by being born of the Spirit has experienced the reign of God, which cannot be experienced by someone who is simply born of the flesh. This ‘second birth’ involves a complete reorientation of one’s goals, desires, affections, values, and direction of life
— in other words, a changing of our heart and spirit. . .
and accepting the great love and supreme sacrifice when God sent His Son, Jesus, so that we may have everlasting life.
Everything is oriented toward the kingdom of God as the center from which life is lived out.
Nicodemus, this Pharisee, the patron saint of seekers and the curious, understood this and changed his life dramatically to follow Jesus, not only in his daily religious observances but by accepting the Holy Spirit.
Do you know that this is not the last time that we hear of Nicodemus?
In this scripture, he moves around in the darkness, looking for the Light of the Word. He sees that divine Light in Jesus and leaves his darkness of spirit by being ‘born from above’ into the light.
During the trials of Jesus with the Sanhedrin found in John 7:45-52, who speaks up for Jesus, but good old Nicodemus. He questions the other Pharisees:
Doth our law judge [any] man, before it hear him, and know what he doeth?
As a Pharisee, his defense of Jesus was not without risk – after all, he was one of the respected establishment and now he was following this heretic Jesus!
He is willing to put his life on the line to defend his faith and Jesus. What a change from the man who came in the dark seeking to learn how to enter the Kingdom of God. What a transformation when he was ‘born from above’.
And we hear about Nicodemus one more time in John 19:38-42 — after Jesus’ death on the cross. Everyone ran away. . . afraid. But Nicodemus, along with Joseph of Arimathaea, came back to the cross. They came to the cross in the darkness of that Black Friday to remove the broken body of Jesus and lay Him in the tomb. Only these two were there to give Jesus a proper Jewish burial.
Nicodemus wrapped Jesus body in cloth and anointed it with precious myrrh and aloes and spices. He and Joseph lovingly carried Jesus’ body to the tomb. They rolled the stone over the opening and left Jesus in the darkness.
But in three days, the Light of Jesus did shine again! The darkness of the soul and death would not EVER overcome the world again. By the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are all saved and marked for everlasting life.
There is no more darkness!!!
Let us all be seekers like Nicodemus. . . may we be ‘born from above’ and live in the Light of the World. When others reject or ignore Jesus, let us be Nicodemus and defend his words and works and meaning for the world. May
“we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen.”
Let us pray:
Nicodemus, Patron Saint of Seekers: May you protect the seeker in each of us from condemnation and condescension. May you guide our steps in the way that leads us to eternal life. May you place us in the company of compassionate teachers whose love defines a new community of hope and grace. May you give us courage to dare to love God with heart, mind, soul and strength.
Delivered at The Church of the Good Shepherd and Lindley Assisted Living Center in Athens, OH on 17 February 2008