Why We Are Nicodemus

Continuing the consolidation of my blogs, this is from the Text Trove.

Sermon for Trinity Sunday


John 3:1-17: There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, who came to Jesus by night and said, Rabbi, we know you are a teacher come from God: for none could do the miracles you do except God be with you. Jesus said, Truly I tell you, Unless you are born again, you cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus said, How can an old person be born again? Can I enter the second time into my mother’s womb, and be born? Jesus replied, Truly unless you are born of water and of the Spirit, you cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Don’t be surprised if I say you must be born again. The wind blows where it will and you hear the sound of it but cannot tell where it comes from or where it goes. Thus it is with everyone born of the Spirit. Nicodemus answered, How can these things be? Jesus replied, Are you a master of Israel, and do not know these things? Truly, We speak what we do know and testify to what we have seen; and you don’t receive our witness. If I have told you earthly things, and you do not believe, how shall you believe when tell you of heavenly things? No one has ascended up to heaven, except he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but
have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.

Text: God sent not his Son … to condemn.

We are condemners. Our world is founded on condemning. We condemn without knowing we condemn. We assume that others also condemn. We also assume that God condemns. When we are told that God does not condemn, we say, Oh yes? Why, look at the prophets! Look at Jesus himself! Who said generation of vipers? It matters not. Goodness and righteousness condemn, whether it is the Baptist or Paul or Jesus himself.

We invest in condemnation. Not merely by approving the development of legal structures of the state and of other institutions, but in the entire structure of discourse up and down the line. Virtually everyone is on one side of something and the dividing line is condemnation. Where two condemnations meet a fence is built. A boundary is created. A war follows.

This text from John is a corker. It goes on to say that Jesus comes not to condemn but that *the world might be saved*. I like the construction here. It implies conditionality. It more or less says he saves the world but leaves a little question. I think John means to say: Jesus comes to make possible the saving of the world. Without him the world will not be saved. With him, it might be.


What explicitly has Jesus done that makes the saving of the world possible? Is there anything in the reading as a whole that suggests a direction for an answer? There is indeed. The answer is belief in the One who God has sent, out of love for the world, that the world might be saved.

And in what does this belief consist? Certainly it does not consist in believing in the scientific probity of the events surrounding his death and resurrection, as though a simple, content-free special effect could save the world. The world will not be saved by the Thomas-event or a billion similar events.

The key word is God’s love and what Jesus brings to the world that the world might be saved. This provides a context for understanding the salific events of the passion and the cross and the tomb. Jesus is the one who opens up the way that lies beyond the polarities created by condemnation. Jesus comes to bind the Author of Division. Jesus comes to elucidate the Beatitudinal presuppositions that underly a life that has transcended the polarities.

So the answer does lie in the text.

So what do we do with the huge, explicit and implicit fund of anger and condemnation that Jesus himself engenders in us when we reflect on the failure of the Gospel to save the world? What do we do with the Jonah-like residue that means even a modest repentance will not satisfy us? What do we do when we have to be receivers and custodians of this word in a world that would not respond even if we could properly preach the word in all of its pristine simplicity?

I think we then look at ourselves and admit that *we* are the problem. That the “might” part of the text is related to the fact that we think we believe but *do not _really_ believe*. The sign of this truth is that we still condemn. Another sign is that we do not trust the Beatitudinal implications of belief — we do not experience the liberation of the teachings. We do not see that they are the true and saving strategies of non-conflicting existence. We do not turn the cheek, give the cloak,
reconcile by sunset, lose life to save it, and so forth.

The text explains why we are the problem — why we are Nicodemus.

To move beyond condemnation to a place of reconciliation, to truly believe in God’s love, we must be born of water and the spirit. I suspect this rebirth is what we need in order to believe — to believe that God so loved the world that he sent his own Son that it might be saved. We are on the borderline of that exploration when we seek to make communion and eucharist and community come alive. We are on the borderline when we understand our witness to be wrestling with text and practicing loyalty to God. We are somewhere in the womb, waiting to be born again for real.


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