John 3:1-17 March 5, 2023
Nicodemus, a Pharisee, comes to Jesus at night for a clandestine chat. I wonder what is on his mind, what he wants. Is he on a spiritual quest, or testing Jesus to find his weakness, or hoping for an alliance in religious politics? In line with our Lenten theme, is he searching for God’s love in all the wrong places? On a deep dive into Nicodemus this week, I discovered he appears three times in John’s Gospel, so we can explore how his relationship unfolds with Jesus over time. What can we learn through Nicodemus? How do we come to Jesus unclear about our search and what we truly need from God?
Our story needs some context. Notice this scripture is only the third chapter of John. In this Gospel, Jesus begins his public ministry at Passover with the scene of turning over the tables of the money changers and clearing the Temple. Jesus sure knows how to make a dramatic entrance! His ministry begins, whip in hand, to the sounds of coins crashing, dove wings flapping, frightened sheep bleating, and angry protests. Perhaps Nicodemus is watching in the crowd, thinking, “Here is a man with whom to reckon.”
John says Nicodemus is a Pharisee, so we might think he was against Jesus since we know Jesus had multiple run-ins with this group. But Nicodemus sounds sympathetic,
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with that person.”
Notice he uses the pronoun “we.” Other Pharisees are interested in knowing more about Jesus behind the scenes. I wonder why? The Pharisee’s primary opponent was the Sadducee party. The two parties disagreed on the central act of faith in God. Sadducees focused on making sacrifices at the Temple to please God and gain favor. Pharisees believed that closely following the laws of the Torah was more important than sacrifice. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, the name Pharisee means,
“one who separates himself,” or keeps away from persons or things impure, to attain the degree of holiness and righteousness required in those who would commune with God.
Remember that Nicodemus wants to be holy and seeks God with a rigor that might be beyond us. He prays when he wakes, keeps kosher at his meals, and can likely recite most of the 693 laws of the Levitical code from memory. He is a student of the Torah who reveres adhering to its commands. When Nicodemus saw Jesus wreaking havoc with the animals for sacrifice, he may have thought, here is someone who will be on our side. This Rabbi Jesus knows that Torah is more important than animal sacrifices, and he knows how to make a statement.
Jesus’s first response throws Nicodemus off track. Jesus replies to Nic’s gracious opening: “Truly no one can see the Kingdom of God unless they are born from above.” Nicodemus’s carefully calibrated legal mind misfires, “How can anyone be born after growing old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” We might assume Nicodemus is being too literal, thinking Jesus meant an impossible physical rebirth. But Nicodemus doesn’t strike me as stupid. I wonder if he is also speaking in metaphor.
Jesus, surely you understand human nature. People aren’t just spiritually reborn. The older you get, the harder it is to change. Spiritual growth comes from hard work, reading the Torah daily, and staying pure to all its commands. Faith requires discipline, will, and effort to stick to the precise path of the Torah. That is how we are born from above.
Jesus responds, “Truly Nicodemus, you must come from water and spirit. The wind blows, and you hear the sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. That is how you must live in the Spirit.” No wonder Nicodemus is confused because Jesus seems to be speaking in riddles.
To better understand Jesus’s meaning, let’s think about wind. The Greek word “pneuma” can mean wind, spirit, or breath, depending on the context. Many religious traditions connect wind, breath, and spirit. Nicodemus would have known the creation story of Genesis, where the Spirit of God hovers over the waters and blows with the wind to separate the land from the sea. God breathed into the nostrils of lifeless clay and enlivened Adam. The central practice of Buddhism is to be conscious of your breathing. Breath is the aliveness you receive at every moment from the world, born from above in each new moment. People who study comparative religion show the similarities between Spirit, the Hindu “prana,” or Daoist “chi.” Breath is where spiritual practices connect to the living reality of God.
To paraphrase, Jesus said, “The answer, Nicodemus, is blowing in the wind. Bob Dillon’s classic helps us understand Jesus’s meaning. Listen to the words of the third verse:
Yes, and how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
And how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, and how many deaths will it take ’til he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind
Bob Dylan is not asking questions that cannot be answered with numbers. How many times must you look up to see the sky? I don’t know, seven? How many deaths are too many? If you don’t mourn one death, you will never be able to answer the question. It’s all blowing in the wind until you pay attention.
Here is another way Jesus could have made his point if he had grown up in Boothbay Harbor. Nicodemus, if you want to sail the ship, you must understand and work with the wind. The Sadducees are under the impression that sacrifice is the way to God, so they would begin their cruise by sacrificing to God for favorable winds and gentle seas. The Pharisees are experts in all the laws about sailing. They know who has the right of way, which side is port and which is starboard, and the difference between a jib and a jibe. You can learn much about sailing by reading Patrick O’Brien’s stories and the US Sailing Manuel. But if you want to get out in the harbor past Squirrel Island, you must become an expert on the wind. Jib and jibe all you want; the wind is where the energy is.
Memorize all the scripture you can, and follow the law to the last iota, Nicodemus. You know the law, but that doesn’t mean you know God. To know God is to know love. Paul, the former Pharisee, eloquently makes this point.
If I speak in the tongues of humans and of angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith to remove mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.
We don’t get any report of what Nicodemus makes of this conversation. He fades into the night, and Jesus goes to John for baptism. Nicodemus shows up later in John chapter seven when a crowd is arguing and wants to arrest Jesus for blasphemy, which is punished by death. Nicodemus says, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing.” Good for him for upholding the true purpose of the law. But the crowd turns on him and says, “So, are you also from Galilee? Are you taken in by all this?” It must have been a rude awakening for Nicodemus to see that the law is only as good as the people who are willing to follow it. Being right about the law won’t protect him from people’s prejudices’ or the religious ideology they believe. For the second time, Nicodemus fades from the scene.
Nicodemus shows up again after the crucifixion. He meets Joseph of Arimathea, and together they take Jesus’ body for burial. Nicodemus is the one who brings all the myrrh and aloes for the preparation of the body, seventy pounds worth of the essentials. (John 19:39). Of all people who could have come to claim Jesus’s body, how strange it is Nicodemus. It’s not one of the 12 who abandoned Jesus, not Peter who denied Jesus three times, a family member or one of the Marys. It’s Nicodemus, the Pharisee who could only talk to Jesus at night.
We don’t know the end of the story as Nicodemus disappears from history. In sermons, Nicodemus often becomes the foil for people who are too literal, legalistic, or ideological to understand Jesus’s message of spiritual rebirth. Some authors have tried to fill in the gaps and claim Nicodemus was a convert. Nicodemus is a saint in the Eastern Orthodox church, the patron saint of curiosity.
I think John left the story open-ended. Nicodemus isn’t a saint or a villain. He is a good man who wants to do the right thing. But he struggles with the limited views of God he has inherited. His God is too small, and the only way forward for him is to open to a broader, more expansive understanding of the divine. Does Nicodemus finally get it? The real question is to us. Are we open to the fresh winds of God’s Spirit?