The Humiliation and Healing of Nicodemus
Week of Sunday May 31 - Trinity Sunday
Gospel: John 2:23 – 3:17
(John 2:23) When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. 24But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people25and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ 3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ 4Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ 5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ 9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’10Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 ‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 ‘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.
17 ‘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. 18Those 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. 19And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But 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 is clear at the beginning that Jesus has come from God. Even the leadership of "the Jews" gets it: "we know that you are a teacher who has come from God…" The sectarian impulse which lurks in John intrudes even into this most profound of readings. Nicodemus, humble searcher that he is, is nonetheless used as a stereotype of the Jewish leadership's culpability: we know who you are, but we will not listen. (We betray this reading when we think Nicodemus is not being sincere.) And Jesus replies with "the royal we." Only it is not Jesus at all. It is the community of John setting the local Jews right: "Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony." (3:11)
It is a humbling reading, and a warning to us. John talks about sacred and profound insights into being human, insights our age really needs to hear, and yet it is done in the context of "we know the truth and you don't." Human love, and human wisdom about spirit, has its limits.
The good news is that "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. 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."
The tough news is that our conventional faith is often missing the point. Nicodemus is not only a humble searcher, he is among the bravest and most faithful disciples. He speaks up for Jesus in the Council, at a time when emotions are running high and scapegoats may be seized upon. And he is present at the cross. (John 7.45-8.2, 19:38-40) "No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God," he says, but this belief is not enough.
Do you see this? We could almost say Nicodemus is a Christian! He makes a profession of faith to Jesus— I believe!, but it is not enough. It misses the point.
Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above / born again." There is another plane of existence and understanding that transcends what Nicodemus has seen. As Loader puts it, "‘You must be born again’ is addressing Nicodemus’s need to take a completely different approach to faith. He needs to have a new kind of seeing and knowing, if he is to see (3:3) or enter (3:5) ‘the kingdom of God’."
He has come at night, which is another way of saying he is "in the dark." He wants more. He knows he is lacking something. And Jesus tells him he is correct. He does need more, a more that is so profound it is like a rebirth.
Jesus is about to tell him "the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes … so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." These words will tell us the spirit/wind sets its own agenda. It comes to us with its issues for our life and discipleship, not the issues on our conscious, ego driven agenda. It can humiliate us, publicly stripping all our pretentions to knowledge and wisdom, and leave us as naked as we were born.
Christians tend to laugh at Nicodemus. "How can this be? … Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?" Ignorant, we say. Or, perhaps we think he is being sarcastic with Jesus, ridiculing him.
We betray ourselves. The spirit blows where it wills, and our lack of sympathetic smiles for Nicodemus' situation show that we have not yet let it blow in us— or let it blow too little. Otherwise our rueful nodding would be saying, "Yes. Been there. Had no idea what God was saying to me. Realised I was pig ignorant. Felt like I'd spent years studying and following Jesus… and was discovering I knew nothing. I felt like an idiot."
Instead of telling the minister he is a heretic, or quoting chapter and verse of some book, or a piece of scripture— defending our ignorance, this is— slamming the door shut when the spirit has blown us open— Nicodemus asks humbly, "How can these things be?" And when Jesus humiliates him with that painful question— "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?" Nicodemus 'takes it on the chin.' He does not storm out. He does not go back to the Sanhedrin crying for blood. He accepts his ignorance and waits for what God will give him. The spirit/wind blows where it will, there is no putting in an order for understanding this or that. When the spirit is ready it will tell us what is on the menu.
We can get so lost in the "air of unreality" in conversations like this in John that we miss the fact that Jesus does answer the question, "How can these things be?" This is the answer:
13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago … was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. (2 Cor 12:2-4)
Beware those who 'know too much about spirit,' no one has ascended into heaven… spirit blows where it will; like the wind you do not know where it comes from…
However, we can say spirit is like the serpent in the wilderness.
To unpack this, let's look first at "eternal life." N.T. Wright reminds us that popularly, this "is the biblical promise of a timeless heavenly bliss."
But it isn’t. In the many places where the phrase zoe aionios appears in the gospels, and in Paul’s letters for that matter, it refers to one aspect of an ancient Jewish belief about how time was divided up. In this viewpoint, there were two “aions” (we sometimes use the word “eon” in that sense): the “Present age,” ha-olam hazeh in Hebrew, and the “age to come,” ha-olam ha-ba. The “age to come,” many ancient Jews believed, would arrive one day to bring God’s justice, peace, and healing to the world as it groaned and toiled within the “present age.” You can see Paul, for instance, referring to this idea in Galatians 1:4, where he speaks of Jesus giving himself for our sins “to rescue us from the present evil age.” In other words, Jesus has inaugurated, ushered in, the age to come.” But there is no sense that this “age to come” is “eternal” in the sense of being outside space, time, and matter. Far from it. The ancient Jews were creational monotheists. For them, God’s great future purpose was not to rescue people out of the world, but to rescue the world itself, people included, from its present state of corruption and decay.
If we reframe our thinking within this setting, the phrase zoe aionios will refer to “the life of the age,” in other words, “the life of the age to come.” When in Luke the rich young ruler asks Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (18:18, NRSV), he isn’t asking how to go to heaven when he dies. He is asking about the new world that God is going to usher in, the new era of justice, peace, and freedom God has promised his people. And he is asking, in particular, how he can be sure that when God does all this, he will be part of those who inherit the new world, who share its life. This is why, in my own new translation of the New Testament, Luke 18:18 reads, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit the life of the age to come?” Likewise, John 3:16 ends not with “have everlasting life” (KJV), but “share in the life of God’s new age.” (N.T. Wright How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels pp 44-5, quoted by Nuechterlein.)
So, contrary to much we have learned with mother's milk, the verse reads like this: 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may share in the life of God’s new age, now.
I say "now" because as Nuechterlein also says
Most commentators bring out the immediacy of this phrase for John, namely, that it begins right now for those who believe. It is about a quality of life in this world more than about some other-world to come in the future. In the context of mimetic theory, I have found it meaningful to experience this promise of eternal life as being in deep relationship to the unending source of life itself. We are able to imitate the self-giving life of Jesus Christ with the promise of being connected (as branches to the vine) to the unending source of life.
I have emphasised the last sentence. Sharing the life of God's new age means imitating the self-giving life of Jesus Christ. And remembering our main concern in this post, life in spirit, we might rephrase this: we are not our own, we are to imitate, and spirit sets the agenda.
Our age needs to hear this. It is hard enough to think that we must imitate the Christ, to trust him that this is how to use our life. Far harder is our need to somehow learn that we do not set the agenda for how we will imitate him!
But what is this spirit? What is this pneuma which we must let set the agenda?
For we who are Nicodemus today, spirit is an alien concept. Our morbidly logical understanding of the world means that we seek— we don't even think about this— we seek to understand spirit. To understand, in our world, actually means to stand-over, to measure, define, and thereby control phenomena, or at least manage them. We don't actually stand-under them and be informed by them in the way the word understand suggests. So if a phenomenon is not measurable by our measuring and defining tools, or not easily so, we tend to dismiss it as meaningless.
I want to emphasise that we don't have much choice in doing this. I cannot comprehend spirit, because from my early childhood comprehend means always to begin to control and define. We say that as we grow up we grow in "understanding." This is the air we breathe. But what we call spirit is not controlled and understood. Spirit is experienced.
Spirit is the wider reality that reaches beyond the ego Andrew who knows, controls, defines, reasons, and makes sense of things. Spirit is what Andrew lives in, and it will not submit to his definition. Spirit is like wilderness which will not be tamed by urban developers but swallows their houses and grand designs.
To recognise spirit is to recognise that we are not our own. It is the ultimate humiliation of our egotistic project. It is reality's NO to the pretentions of western scientific culture which has set out to rule the world, and which, at base, thinks it is the highest reality.
This is spirit in action:
We are sitting in a small bible study about 1980. All of us are involved in working with aboriginal people in some way, and the discussion has moved to what the tribal group we are working with, have to give up from their culture to be really Christian. I am not at ease with the tone of the conversation. Even then I am aware that we whites too, are trapped in our own culture.
I let the conversation flow around me, withdrawing to my own thoughts. ''What do we whites have to give up of our culture? I ask myself. ''Andrew,'' says the voice, ''You have to give up your intellect." This is not a stray thought- this is a voice. No sound waves vibrating across the room but definitely a voice- and a definite answer to my question. The voice is a shock and the answer is shocking- give up my intellect? It seems ridiculous. (One Man's Web)
Here the ego-logical thinking me is over-ruled. Spirit does a stand-over on me! In the same article I wrote
Looking for more, I am trying to meditate. This master says to look at the images, rather than try and empty the mind.... and so the fish slams onto the bench in front of me where there is no bench. My head jolts back as though I am slapped in the face. Fear of a raw, unexpected reality surges through me. This is no dream... I never have that experience again, and I am not sure I am sorry. I sense a place I should stay out of- or at least, not open myself to. (One Man's Web)
It does not take long before we enter territory we cannot explain, or explain away if we are honest. One response is to say I am ill… another is to say it is mental static— get more sleep… anything but to admit that here is a reality that I don't understand, can't control… and ultimately, can't avoid.
Like Nicodemus I am in the dark. I want more. I want to be wise. But I do not want to be taken in.
I am proud of my ego and self control. I keep a clear head as others panic around me. I am awake to the charlatans and the spiritually dangerous, who prowl our spiritually illiterate society. With intellect and reason, I have fought my way around and through the fundamentalism of religion. I have avoided the foolish physicalist and ''scientific" fundamentalisms of Dawkins and others. With self control I have avoided much of the excess of our society.
Yet l am happiest when I am engrossed in a task, when my-self is forgotten and focused somewhere else, and I am not thinking of me and staying in control. This little ekstasis, this little stepping outside of myself, is a sign, a hint of that which I long for, and yet somehow fear. (One Man's Web)
Now we are ready to approach Jesus' answer to "how can these things be?" Remember how he said, "And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life?"
In the old story (Numbers 21) the people have begun to journey with God. But they
became impatient on the way. 5The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’ 6Then the Lord sent poisonous/fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died….
The serpent is a symbol of the deep forces in life, so the symbolic meaning of this story might be that if we are too impatient with spirit it does not help us. Trying to set the agenda— which is actually rejecting spirit and where it takes us— may even make us ill.
The people ask Moses to
'pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous/fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ 9So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
In symbolic / spirit language the meaning is clear. To be healed, look at the thing of which you are deathly afraid. Look at the thing which seems to threaten death, rather than flee from it. The story makes us uncomfortable; this snake of a pole seems dreadfully close to an idol. Perhaps that is the point. We almost venerate the thing of which we are afraid because we honour it by paying it attention rather than seeking to be rid of it. (We might note that the serpents are not taken away; instead, a way of healing is given.)
In our age, to look at and take seriously the world of spirit—so not "crystals and incense"— is to look for healing at the very serpent which has bitten us. It is to go back and befriend, listen to, and take seriously what ails us, what is killing us.
And that means to "let go of our intellect" in the sense that we don't seek to control the situation with our "adult" western secular logic.
What ails me? Things of spirit: anxiety, loneliness, memories of abuse, fear, depression, phobias, finding some meaning in my life… Most of us reading this are among the privileged in the world of money and worldly success. It is in the world of spirit that we are ill and impoverished. And a poor Indian peasant, still living in a culture which knows spirit, might look on us with pity.
In the past few weeks I have been obsessing and churning over how to relate to someone in authority who could make my life quite difficult. What seemed like a great opportunity, and to have a wonderful synergy with other work I am doing, became a great burden. It was making me ill— physically ill.
I knew— my intellect and ego knew— that what was going on had to do with my past history, and had next to nothing to do with the person with whom I was struggling. They were a convenient screen on which to project my past struggles. But that knowledge was useless, for it had no power in the situation. It did nothing to help me manage or get over the situation.
I was reminded of Carl Jung's approach to such issues.
He said the only way to 'endure these assaults of the unconscious' was to 'find the meaning of what I was experiencing in these fantasies.' He spoke about finding meaning by translating the raw emotions into images or metaphors that he could befriend:
To the extent that I managed to translate the emotions into images— that is to say, to find the images that were concealed in the emotions— I was inwardly calmed and reassured. Had I left those images hidden in the emotions, I might have been torn to pieces by them. (Memories, Dreams and Reflections, quoted by David Tacey in Gods and Diseases pp37)
The essential thing is to differentiate oneself from these unconscious contents by personifying them and at the same time to bring them into relationship with consciousness. ( Jung in Tacey pp39)
So I did it. Instead of trying to intellectually figure out how to manage the situation, instead of rejecting spirit by seeking to understand (aka stand over) it, I befriended it. I gave this clutch of emotions a name. And I asked this name, "Who are you? Why are you doing this to me? Why are you trying to push me out and isolate me from everything that affirms me, and to push me out from where I am at home?"
I have no answer. I have no clue as to what happened, or what will happen next. I felt nothing— there was no "spiritual experience." But the whole churning abscess of worry was disarmed. Instantly. It is not. I can't really remember what the fuss was about, why it was getting to me so much.
I have no answer, but I do have an experience. I have the experience of becoming well. I have experienced spirit. And now I continue to imitate Christ until spirit again decides to present me with an issue where I have to "let go" and be healed. Spirit will choose what that is, not me.
How do I do this? Or should I say, how do I wait?
I think our age is so infected with doing rather than being, and understanding rather than experiencing, that even our religious disciplines are infected. I find in me an overwhelming need to comprehend, to follow an agenda, to work out what to do, to set ministry goals and strategic objectives. Cutting through that to "find spirit" is incomprehensible. I can't see how to do that.
Tacey wonderfully says the ego has to become "a bit faithless to its god."
If it remains too "good" and obedient nothing will happen in its life…. It has to take a few risks, and listen to the serpent who offers it the apple, in order to move on from original bliss. (Ibid p66)
In another place he says that in our time "suffering is the royal road to the sacred." (A lovely riff upon, and corrective to Freud!) In other words, stop praying in the formal sense, listen to what hurts. Listen to what seems to be our failures of faith. Befriend them… this is learning to pray again.
It's a 'big ask' to pray in such an unfamiliar way. It seems a bit faithless. But what I have learned, and what I keep needing to relearn— I forget in days— is that if I seek to imitate the Christ, if I will do what Jesus would do in my shoes, I will find plenty which hurts. There will be— there is— much that distresses me. Instead of dismissing it, or praying it away, I should listen, play with it, befriend it. Because then I have stepped into the breezeway— and sometimes the wind tunnel!— of spirit. And although I still don't understand what Jesus means about being born again, I do know what he is talking about.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!