If Nicodemus had come to the National Cathedral I imagine he would have sat about three-fourths of the way back, somewhere over on the side. Some Sundays he would have slipped in early to have a few minutes of peace and quiet to let his racing mind throttle down at least a little. He would have loved the anonymity of this vast place with its immense arching grandeur, a good place to be left alone to wonder about God and his own life. And my guess is that he would have slipped out quietly at the end, with nothing more than a nod to the priest at the door.
The Nicodemus we heard of in our gospel this morning is our contemporary—looking for answers for his life but playing it safe. He wants to find God but he isn’t at all sure what would happen if he did. He’s looking for something more in his life but is reluctant to take a risk.
“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night…” So John begins the story of a proud, cautious man who wants to meet this teacher from the hills of Galilee. This Pharisee is a powerful figure—a “leader of the Jews,” maybe one of the Sanhedrin, the “Supreme Court” for the Jewish people.
Jesus is making quite a stir. Many see him as dangerous. But others say he knows God. He speaks with authority. And Nicodemus wants to see for himself, but privately, by night, when no one would spot him, no one would know of his meeting with this noisy outsider.
If it weren’t so profound, Nicodemus’ conversation with Jesus would sound ludicrous. They keep talking, but there isn’t much communication: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God …” “We know,” the words of an insider, maybe a little smug, a little pretentious. Let’s talk, Jesus, teacher to teacher, Marine to Marine. We know what’s up here. We know how God works and doesn’t.
But Jesus’ response sails right past that cozy beginning. “I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Where did that come from? So much for a friendly little chat. We aren’t talking about a safe journey to know God just a little better. Jesus says, You have to be born from above, or born again—the Greek word can mean either.
Born again—that’s a controversial phrase for many, I imagine. It’s been badly used by some fundamentalists to shut down thinking and exploration and growth. One moment, one decision for Christ and you have a package of answers. You can flip open the Bible for a set of oracles for every detail of your life. You don’t need to question any more.
But of course Jesus was opening up life’s possibilities, not closing them down. He wanted to deepen the mystery of life, not shrink it. You have to start over, he was saying, with a life and energy from beyond you. You want to have your same old life just the way it is, and God too. But it won’t work that way.
Years ago C.S. Lewis wrote, “The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self—all your wishes and precautions—to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are all trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is to remain ‘ourselves,’ to keep personal happiness our great aim, and yet at the same time to be ‘good.’ We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way—centered on money or pleasure or ambition—and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly. And that is exactly what Christ warned us you could not do.” You need to start over, Jesus said. Born again.
Several years ago I read an account of a series of conversations the famous French existentialist Albert Camus had with a Methodist minister named Howard Mumma. Mumma was serving an American church in Paris in the 1950’s when he noticed in the back of the church a man in a dark suit surrounded by admirers, and eventually the two met and developed a close friendship.
There had always been rumors that Camus was drawn to Christian faith, but he had never converted. Mumma remembers him saying one evening, “The reason I have been coming to church is because I am seeking. I’m almost on a pilgrimage—seeking something to fill the void I am experiencing. . . I am searching for something the world is not giving me.“
Camus knew the Bible well, and of all the characters there the one he was most drawn to was Nicodemus. In talking about Nicodemus one day Camus asked Mumma, “What does it mean to be born again, to be saved?” And Mumma replied, “To me to be born again is to enter anew or afresh into the process of spiritual growth. It is to receive forgiveness. It is to wipe the slate clean. You are ready to move ahead, to commit yourself to new life, a new spiritual pilgrimage.”
Mumma reports that at that Camus looked at him with tears in his eyes and said, “Howard, I am ready. I want this. This is what I want to commit my life to.” Shortly after this conversation happened, Camus died in a car accident. [Originally reported in the Christian Century; from a sermon by the Rev. John Buchanan.]
Born again—it’s an offer Camus found compelling. It sounds daunting, but it’s an invitation and a promise that there’s more and deeper life ahead.
Of course, Nicodemus has no idea what Jesus is talking about. “How can anyone be born after growing old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
But Jesus then confuses things even more: “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. The wind blows; you hear the sound. You do not know where it comes from or where it is going.” Water, wind, Spirit—those are the keys to this new life. John the Baptist was baptizing in the Jordan River, with water of washing, cleansing. Rebirth means naming where we’ve been caught, our self-absorption, our drivenness, our narrowness, confessing it, then starting again.
Rebirth happens in the Spirit, which is to say we don’t do it ourselves. It comes from beyond us, like the wind. You know what wind is. It’s the air that’s around you all the time, like God’s presence. You don’t notice it because it’s in everything. But sometimes the air starts moving. You can’t tell where it comes from, or where it’s going. Rebirth is like that. God moving, stirring.
Sometimes a person comes into our lives. We fall in love, or make a friend, or find a mentor, and life takes on a new shape. Sometimes we read the right book at the right time, and all of a sudden everything shines with a different light. I could name three or four books that have done that for me. Sometimes an event happens—the alcoholic has a car accident and quits drinking; the close brush with cancer makes the old priorities look shallow; a terrorist attack makes you rethink your career plan. Wind, spirit blow in our lives.
It happened for writer Anne Lamott on a day when life looked completely hopeless. As she describes the moment in her autobiography Traveling Mercies, a friend turns up and takes her on a walk, which turns light-hearted and refreshing, and it leads Lamott to say this:
It’s funny where we look for salvation and where we actually find it… This is the most profound spiritual truth I know: that even when we’re most sure that love can’t conquer all, it seems to anyway. It goes down into the rat hole with us, in the guise of friends and there it swells and comforts. It gives us second winds, third winds, hundredth winds. It struck me that I have spent so much time trying to pump my way into feeling the solace I used to feel in my parents’ arms. But pumping always fails you in the end. The truth is that you don’t rise up until you get way down—the mud, the bottom. But there someone enters that valley with you, that mud, and it saves you again.
Rebirth. New life.
And we aren’t born again only once. It happens again and again as we start clinging to our lives again and have to learn to let go. It happens when life knocks us down again, and God again reaches into the valley of the shadow of death and picks us up.
It may bring with it God’s summons to give our time to a cause that matters, or our money. It may mean a decision actually to plunge into classes and let this Christian faith take you to a new place. It may mean asking why we were put on earth—what is the gift only you or I can give to the world?
One of the most thrilling things to me about this National Cathedral is that it is a Nicodemus place. This awe-inspiring place is big enough for everyone—for visitors and tourist, for lovers of beauty and seekers, for people of little faith and much, for the already committed and the tentative. And we gather here in confusing times, when, for example, the word “Christian” is a word being wielded by politicians on both the right and the left, when the word itself is a promise of hope for many and a cause of fear for others. We live in a driven, anxious society, and we come seeking hope, clarity, and peace.
And to this Nicodemus place Jesus speaks the same word. You must be born anew. Be open to where God is taking you. Look for what fresh winds might blow here, what new word God may speak to you in these times.
One thing is clear: this new birth isn’t planned. It isn’t something you can set out to do. It is, to use our gospel’s term, “from above.” Something happens to you, gets hold of you, when you’re not looking.
Well, at the end of our lesson, poor Nicodemus still doesn’t get it and says, “How can this be?” And at that Jesus takes him to the heart of the matter: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not [be lost] but may have eternal life.” Martin Luther called this the gospel in summary.
I can’t give you four easy steps to a new life, Jesus is saying. God is doing something so much grander than that. The Creator of the universe loves you, yes you, enough to hang on a cross to set you free. The answer to your search is to accept that love, and to let yourself be led by the Spirit’s breeze.
We aren’t told what happened to Nicodemus as a result of his nighttime meeting. Apparently nothing did immediately. It must have taken some time for it all to sink in. But something shifted somewhere, because we see him two more times. He’s in the Temple later when Jesus is being accused by crowds demanding he be arrested. One man stands up to defend him. His name is Nicodemus.
And at the very end. Jesus is dead, crucified, and there is Nicodemus. This time he isn’t there at night as a seeker, but as a disciple, helping take Jesus’ body away.
The man who came with his questions, who couldn’t make heads or tales of it all, somehow gets it by the end. Nicodemus said Yes to God. He followed Christ. He was born anew. It made all the difference.
And it can for you too.