As I mentioned last Sunday night, the lectionary has now launched us into a series of three mid-Lenten readings from the Gospel according to John. I also made the observation that one of the things that really characterizes John’s telling of his story is his inclusion of long sections of dialogue, and here tonight we’ve got the tail end of Jesus’ twenty-one verse exchange with the Pharisee Nicodemus. That a Pharisee—and one identified as a leader of the people—has come to speak with Jesus is itself a remarkable thing, though of course John notes that Nicodemus “came to Jesus by night,” or under the cover of darkness. Spin the story ahead to chapter 7 verse 50, and we find that Nicodemus is in fact very much a member of the inner circles of authority; one who had much to lose if thought to be sympathetic to this Galilean teacher. Yet as is so characteristic of John’s writing, coming “by night” signals more than just coming in secrecy. Nicodemus is coming from a place of metaphorical night blindness, and the whole of this exchange has Jesus offering up a series of challenges—telling Nicodemus that he must be “born again,” for instance—and Nicodemus utterly missing the point.
By the time today’s reading picks up, Nicodemus has basically given up speaking altogether. But still, I think it is important to remember that these verses are spoken to him, as part of that longer conversation.
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I wonder how many of us here memorized John 3:16 somewhere along the line? I certainly did, both in Sunday School and then again as part of required preparation to work at summer camp. It is the verse that Martin Luther called “the heart of the Bible – the Gospel in miniature,” and as any highway traveler will tell you, it has made its way on to countless billboards across the continent. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” As a stand-alone verse it does its own particular work, but I’ve sometimes thought it might have been good to have been required to memorize the next verse as well: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
But even that doesn’t do justice to the whole of this passage. I mean, I think it is important to have this sense that the Son is given “in order that the world might be saved through him”—to affirm the truth that it is God’s desire to bring the whole works home—but Jesus doesn’t stop there. He moves from speaking of the whole world being saved to saying that, “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” And he doesn’t stop there, either.
And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.
It all seems incredibly “us and them,” “insiders and outsiders,” “included and excluded,” which for this preacher, anyway, causes a certain amount of discomfort. Give me the Prodigal Son or the parable of the lost sheep any day…
And it is a way of thinking that has sometimes been malformed into incredibly judgmental and damaging theologies of raw condemnation. Churches have sometimes configured themselves around systems for determining who is “in” and who is “out”; as if we could see the true light with sufficient clarity so as to then be in a place of declaring when someone else is not in the light.
And yet we can’t decide to just stop reading at John 3:17 in order to keep things in our comfort zone. In his essay “The Johannine World for Preachers,” the Catholic biblical scholar Raymond Brown advises the preacher to “not domesticate the Johannine Jesus. It is his style to say things that border on the offensive,” Brown writes. “By all means wrestle with such verses; ask yourself and your hearers what Jesus can possibly mean by such words; be puzzled and even offended; but do not silence this Jesus by deciding what he should not have said and what your hearers should not hear.”
We are to stand with Nicodemus, and be engaged in this challenging conversation with Jesus. That, frankly, is the whole point of these long dialogues in John’s gospel; that we as the readers and hearers are also caught up in the exchange. “What did Jesus mean by these words?” is only part of the equation. What does he mean, what is he saying, is the crucial next step. If He is the light that has come into the world, and if those “who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light,” our response should not be to point out those who are obviously fleeing from the light but rather to look at our own lives and ask some questions about our own selves.
And with that in view, let me again quote from Raymond Brown’s reflections:
For the Evangelist [John], Jesus is not the founder of Christianity who lived ‘way back then.’ He is alive and well, giving life to every branch on the vine, calling his sheep by name and expecting them to recognize his voice. He knows those who believe in him and he loves them; and he expects love in return, not faith alone. The sophisticated preacher who has written off ‘Jesus loves me’ as appropriate to another style of Christianity is not going to do justice to John.
At least on his good days, the devout Pharisee Nicodemus would have been pretty clear he was living according to the light of the Law. And while Jesus is singularly disinterested in condemning Nicodemus, he is quite ready to challenge his assumptions, even to leave him troubled as he makes his way back out into the dark of the night. But this is ultimately an approach born of love, not of exclusion or condemnation. Jesus presses Nicodemus precisely because he loves him. And he presses us with these texts for the same reason.
I said that in John 7 it becomes clear that Nicodemus moves in the inner circles of power, but what I didn’t mention was anything of how he is acting in those circles. The opposition to Jesus had really begun to build, and it is apparent that those in authority are going to do all they can to stop him. It is at this point that Nicodemus pointedly asks, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” to which the others reply, “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.” (John 7:50-51) Well, Nicodemus may not be from Galilee, but his assumptions have been shaken by the Galilean to the point where he is prepared to try to have his world make room for him, perhaps even keep him safe. His efforts, however, were rebuffed by the others in his circle; others still very much caught in their own night blindness.
Nicodemus does appear in John’s narrative once more, this time accompanying Joseph of Arimathea in claiming the body of Jesus and attending to the burial (19:38-42). It would seem that in the end, Nicodemus found he was truly free of his night blindness, able to come right into the light and to go public regarding his respect for the Galilean. Because that night near the beginning of John’s Gospel he’d stood in the light—been rattled and challenged by the light—he was not about to disappear back into the shadowy cover of the darkness. And even if on that crucifixion day it would have seemed as if all had come to an end, Nicodemus was finally on his way home; his head up, and his eyes open.