I once took the funeral of a man whose family claimed that he was a ‘great supporter of his local church’, but because I had never seen him in the church, I began to wonder if he only came at night when nobody was around. So, rather mischievously, I chose this passage from John’s gospel as the reading at his funeral. The passage does describe Nicodemus as a ‘secret disciple’ who comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness to discuss his faith.
Darkness is an important feature of this gospel. The Prologue tells us that Jesus is ‘light and life’ and that the ‘light shines in the darkness but the darkness has not overcome it’ (1.4). We need to remember that this gospel comes from a situation in which there has been a breakdown in relationships between Jews and Christians. Many of the Christian party have been expelled from the synagogue because of their belief in Jesus as the Messiah. Such a painful situation is rather like a family row and yet there is also the possibility of reconciliation. Nicodemus represents those who are willing to try again. He approaches Jesus for clarification. He notes that Jesus ‘is a teacher who comes from God; for no one can do these signs that you can do unless God were with him.’ He is like many in our society today who have a respect for the person of Jesus but keep it hidden and are afraid to take it further. It is a particularly male problem. Women are more likely to make a commitment than men who are generally reluctant to let others see their true feelings.
However, this passage illustrates in dramatic terms the necessity for decision and commitment. Jesus gets straight to the point. The phrase ‘Truly, truly’ emphasises the solemnity of what he is about to say. ‘Unless you are born from above, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God.’ John, at the beginning of his gospel has already told us that those who receive the Word are ‘born of God’. In other words an entirely new outlook is required for those who wish to see God’s Kingdom here on earth. Heaven is open for those who can see. The Word is made flesh for those who can perceive ‘grace and truth’.
Sadly, poor Nicodemus doesn’t get the message. He, like many in positions of authority, can only hear and see the mundane. They are limited to a ‘this worldly’ view of reality. In fact seems more interested in gynaecology than metaphysics. So Jesus talks further about what is required for those who wish to see more and enter the Kingdom of God. Jesus points out to Nicodemus that you don’t need a degree in theology to realize that there is more to this life than the blindingly obvious. As George Herbert says (and please note, it is his day next Sunday):
A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or, if he pleaseth, through it pass.
And there the heaven espy.
Jesus refers to those who belong to the world of the ’flesh’ and those who belong to the world of the ‘Spirit’. The flesh represents a limited and restricted view and the Spirit is about freedom and openness. Access is gained by water; a clear reference to the life changing effects of Baptism. Now all of us in this church have been baptized into this new life of the Kingdom. All of us are invited, during the Lenten fast, to rediscover that life as we journey towards its great celebration at Easter. Jesus, in this passage, hints darkly at the cost to himself. He will undertake a journey, which will cause him to be lifted up on a cross. Nicodemus began this discussion by talking of signs. In this gospel the greatest sign of God’s love is seen that same elevation of Jesus on the cross. ‘So the son of Man must be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life’.
Many people are like Nicodemus. We keep our distance from being too identified with our faith for fear of embarrassment. We prefer to make only furtive visits to Jesus when no one is looking. Well this passage is telling us that life is on offer to those who will receive it and there isn’t a moment to waste. The ultimate sacrifice has been paid and eternal life is on offer. ‘Don’t let life pass you by’ says the old cliché. This passage puts that saying in the context of eternity.