The Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I like Nicodemus. I relate to Nicodemus. In fact, he’s one of my favorite characters in all of the gospels. In him, I see so many people I have known. Religion and philosophy majors, seminary classmates, curious intellectuals. In him, I see myself. In him, I see large numbers of well-intentioned, well-educated Episcopalians who have never found a way to turn their spiritual curiosity and honest questioning into a living faith. Because Nicodemus is the perfect example of the religious seeker who was trapped by his own intellect.
He is the faith seeker who can’t seem to get past the academic. His spiritual life is not faith seeking understanding, as Anselm put it. Rather it’s understanding seeking faith. Nicodemus was part of the religious and intellectual elite of first century Judaism. Think of him in modern terms as a cross between a biblical scholar and a physicist. As a Pharisee, he was among the most educated in all Jerusalem. And what the gospels don’t tell us is that despite Jesus’ ongoing arguments with the Pharisees, they were in fact considered to be liberal thinkers and reformers among Jewish religious leaders of the day.
Now in our lesson for this morning, Nicodemus comes to see Jesus by night. He’s heard Jesus speak. He may have even witnessed one of Jesus’ miracles. Nicodemus realizes that in this relatively unknown man from Nazareth, there is something special, something holy. And even though he calls Jesus “rabbi”, Nicodemus probably also knows that Jesus has not been professionally trained. From Nicodemus’ point of view, Jesus is just a street preacher with a small band of followers. So rather than risk his reputation by visiting Jesus during the day, when everyone would see him, he visits Jesus by night. This way he can protect his place in society and satisfy his own curiosity at the same time. Now, Nicodemus is a good man, an honest man, a religiously earnest man. And what he wants to do is make sense of Jesus. He wants to understand how Jesus fits into what he already knows, how Jesus fits into his worldview. Nicodemus understands the law and the prophets. He has studied them for most of his adult life. He understands what scripture says, that the promised Messiah is supposed to be like. Jesus is obviously special, obviously blessed by God, but he doesn’t fit any of Nicodemus’ paradigms.
So, Nicodemus comes to Jesus to deepen his understanding. And Jesus tells him it is not understanding that he needs, but personal transformation. I imagine Nicodemus sitting on the floor across from Jesus, hoping for a good theological conversation, like a seminary student sitting in a professor’s office, wanting to talk about Bart, or Augustine, or Niebuhr, or someone like that. Nicodemus wants to theologically interview Jesus. But Jesus will have none of it. He doesn’t talk theology with Nicodemus so much as he points him towards the spiritual. Nicodemus doesn’t need more knowledge. He needs to be touched by the Spirit. He needs to open his heart to God. He needs to be transformed in such a way that he is reborn by water and spirit. Because what the kingdom of God requires is just not right thinking, but the giving of one’s heart and soul. When it comes to having faith, understanding is important. Wrestling with ideas is important, but they cannot stand alone. Faith requires deep personal commitment.
One of my spiritual mentors has always been this wonderful, old German immigrant I knew during my days in Savannah, Georgia. His name was Helmut; I think I’ve mentioned him before. He came to the United States in the 1930’s and spent most of his life working in a steel mill. I imagine he had a limited formal education, but he was one of the wisest people I have ever known. To be around him was to be in the presence of humble holiness. He exuded a peacefulness and a joy that only comes from a deep and abiding faith. He loved easily, he laughed easily, he gave freely. He was whole, and authentic, and deep. I was a young priest, and with my degree from Yale Divinity School proudly hanging on my wall, I thought I could run theological rings around him. But the truth is, I couldn’t touch the depths of his faith. He was a spiritual giant. He was literally full of Christ.
The author, Robert Fulghum, who wrote many books, but that one that so many of us know “All I Really Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten.” He once poked fun at theological pursuits by saying that, “Arguing whether or not God exists is like fleas on a dog arguing whether the dog exists. And arguing over the correct name of God is like fleas arguing over the name of the dog. And arguing over whose notion of God is correct is like fleas arguing over who owns the dog.” Seeking to understand our faith is important, but some of us confuse that pursuit with having faith. Nicodemus, wanting to better understand God, but Jesus wanted him to be touched by God. And that is what all of us should want and pray for as well. The mystics say that God is closer to us than our breath. That God is closer than we are to ourselves. St. John of the Cross says we are in God like a stone is in the earth. You don’t have to search for God. In fact, there is no way to get any closer to God than we already are. The religious life is not just seeking to make sense of the holy, but it’s also the realization of the closeness, the union that already exists between each of us and our God who is Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Three in one and one in three, the Holy Trinity.
Good old Nicodemus was changed after his encounter with Jesus. He may not have fully understood all the things that Jesus said to him at the time, but he was changed, nonetheless. We see that later in John’s gospel, Nicodemus defends Jesus when his Pharisee colleagues search for a way to have Jesus killed. And it is Nicodemus, along with Joseph of Arimathea, who cares for Jesus after the crucifixion, bringing a hundred pounds of spices to anoint Jesus’ body, as it is laid in the tomb. Christian tradition has it that Nicodemus became a devoted follower of the risen Christ, and that he spent his time teaching and spreading the gospel throughout the land. It is said that he was eventually martyred for his faith, and he is considered a Saint of the church. Yes, friends, faith is more than belief. It is more than the quest for the right ideas about God. Faith means inviting Jesus Christ into your life. It means falling on your knees and asking Christ to draw closer to you than you are to yourself. It isn’t only Nicodemus. All of us must be born of water and spirit. God wants to touch us, to love us, to transform us, to fill the empty spaces inside our souls. But first we have to invite him in.
Let us pray.
God of second chances, who is patient with our confusion and who leads us into deeper faith, if only we have ears to hear and eyes to see. Grant that we may be born anew each day into hope, born anew each day into joy, born anew into your kingdom. Lord Jesus Christ, when we become legalistic in our living, teach us the language of forgiveness. When we become concrete in our thinking, lift us into the ways of your Spirit. When we become stuck in religious patterns that lead us away from you, bring us back to living faith. May your grace become the context for our days.