Monday, June 1, 2015

Nicodemus's Questions

31 May 2015

O God of infinite possibilities, you have revealed yourself in so many ways. Help us to see you in your work of recreating the world in love, justice, and peace, through your Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I love to ask questions. When I went to college my father looked at me and said, “I’m so glad I can finally pay someone else to answer all your questions.” Apparently I asked him a few too many questions as a kid. We all know those children, the little ones that wander around asking why every time you say something. After only a little while, How? And Why? Become the worst two words in the history of the English language. 

Some questions come about simply through curiosity. We want to know how or why something is the way it is. Some are simply practical. What time should we meet? Where would you like to meet? What do you need from the store? Some are more culturally or politically influenced. Since moving to Texas, the rate at which I have been randomly asked if I have been born again has gone up. Not exponentially, but enough to be noticeable. This morning, we read the story in the bible where this phrase, this cultural influenced question comes from. 

The whole story of Nicodemus is an example of rebirth in the gospel of John. Nicodemus starts as a self-respecting Pharisee. He is mentioned three times in the book. The first time is the story we have today. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night to ask him some questions. I imagine that Nicodemus has already heard Jesus speak or heard about what he is teaching, because he already knows that Jesus has come from God. He has also thought about some of the things Jesus has been sharing. He has questions about it. Sadly we don’t get to hear all of his questions, but the ones he does ask are important. 

Jesus knows why Nicodemus has come to him. Before Nicodemus can manage to ask a question, Jesus tells Nicodemus about the kingdom of God. Being a Pharisee, Nicodemus has been trained to be very literal. In this reply to what Jesus has just told him, he does not disappoint. His first two questions, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Nicodemus does want to see the kingdom of God and Jesus told him he needed to be born again or born from above. The phrase used in the Greek could mean either. No wonder Nicodemus asks how can anyone be born after having grown old. He wants to know if there is any chance for himself. Yet, Jesus already knows the heart of Nicodemus, he knows the rest of the story. 

We don't get to know the full rest of Nicodemus' story, but he does show up in the gospel two more times. His actions both those times show that he has indeed been changed by Jesus’s ministry, he has been born from above. In his second appearance, Nicodemus is in the meeting of the Sanhedrin and he tries a little bit to defend Jesus. They are trying to have Jesus arrested and convicted without going through all the proper legal steps and Nicodemus reminds them that the law requires people to have a hearing before being judged. He is probably hopeful that Jesus will be let go since Jesus is an innocent man. The third and last time that Nicodemus shows up in the story is with Joseph of Arimathea and they prepare Jesus’s body for burial and lay it in a new tomb. Nicodemus follows his laws still, bringing the proper herbs in great quantities, but he honors Jesus by touching his corpse on the day of preparation. Now Nicodemus will be unclean, impure for seven days and unable to fully celebrate the sabbath. Yet, he has come to believe in Jesus and to care for him. Jesus knows Nicodemus’s heart in their first conversation.

Nicodemus’s third question though… If I had three questions I was able to ask Jesus, knowing I would receive answers, I might steal Nicodemus’s third question. Nicodemus asks, "How can these things be?" 

How can these things be?

A very literal question for Nicodemus. Jesus told Nicodemus that he needed to be born of water and Spirit in order to see the kingdom of heaven. And he wants to know how this is possible. Seems very logical to me. Yet, there are deeper movements here. It’s a very broad question without context and with this one question, Jesus answers in a very deep and spiritual way. Jesus tells Nicodemus about health and wholeness, about love so grand as to boggle the mind, about mercy so deep that the whole world might be saved. 

We don’t have any more to this story than what we hear this morning. The book of John moves on into Jesus discussing purification with John the baptists’ disciples. Yet, this conversation packs a punch because at some point in our lives, we all ask this question. How can these things be? 

Christianity seeks to speak to a crazy world. Yet, from the world’s perspective, Christianity is the crazy one. One man, who is part of God, comes into the world to save and redeem all the sin and suffering of billions of people? We proclaim a God who is three in one and one in three. That love will triumph over all the blackest pain in this world. How can that be? 

Nicodemus’s doubt and question is something that ties us all together. We all have questions and things we wonder about. There is an incredulousness of what is going on here. In this room today. The working of the Holy Spirit. The working of the full Trinity. How can Jesus be fully present with us? Yet, we believe that he is. In our community, in our fellowship, in our worship, in the breaking of bread and our prayers. We believe in God who is fully present with each of us every day of our lives.

We do not always need to understand. We feel that we need the answers, but the truth cannot always be understood logically. We speak of things here that we cannot know, we can only believe. We are brought together through our questions, but we are also brought together because Jesus already knows each of our hearts.  It must seem impossible outside of these walls. Yet, we are sent forth from this building to proclaim the impossible. There are many mysteries, but we know that nothing is impossible with God. God loves us so much that God gave his only Son so that we might all have eternal life. He does more than we can ever imagine. Jesus has redeemed all our sins and forgiven us. Nothing is impossible with God. And for that, we say, Thanks be to God.