Nic(odemus) at Night

If I was to provide a title for the Gospel on Trinity Sunday (Jesus & Nicodemus) I think it would be “Nick at Night.” Nicodemus a leader of Jerusalem came under cover of darkness to see Jesus. He did not want to be seen; wanted no one who knew him to know of his visit. Something about Jesus had caught his interest and Nick felt moved to talk with him.
Jesus goes right to the heart of the matter by telling Nicodemus that only those who are born from above (also translated as born again) can see the kingdom of God. But we must look at what the term “born-again” meant to the Johannine Christ who invented it. The First Use of this term that I know of was the late night visit of Old Nicodemus to rabbi Jesus. Nicodemus was, as the gospel tells it, a man of the Pharisees, called “a ruler of the Jews.” That is to say, he was an establishment religious type, a very highly respected member of the Council of Religious Leadership, as we would say. Fellow members of that group would be the Episcopal and Methodist bishops, the RC cardinal, the executive presbyter of the Presbyerians, the chairman of the council of rabbis, and so forth. The religious establishment.
Jesus was a Pharisee, that is, a religious liberal, as compared to the Sadducee, the fundamentalist group. Nicodemus was disposed to agree with Jesus, who was himself of the Pharisee school of thought. Unlike Sadducees, they believed in Resurrection, hoped for an end to the Roman occupation, which the Sadducees had made their peace with. And they were generous and liberal in their handling of Scripture, unlike the narrow-minded Sadducees. Nicodemus after all came to Jesus not as an opponent, but as a sympathizer and collaborator, just afraid to be seen with Jesus. He addresses Jesus as “rabbi” — an honorific title of the religious establishment. This is not flattery, but genuine respect. Nicodemus genuinely likes Jesus and approves of him and what he is publicly saying and doing.
We shall never know what Nicodemus intended to say to Jesus in the next breath, for Jesus broke in and in essence said, Where you are coming from, Nicodemus, what you represent, is the old order! The fact that you must come to me by night, secretive, afraid to be seen in the day time with me, tells me that you are operating in the old establishment out of fear In this darkness, you can’t SEE the possibilities of a new political agenda, the reign of God in our time!
Indeed, Jesus sees that Nicodemus comes to him laden with all the luggage of the old order, which he represents. He brings with him the entanglements of establishment religion. Indeed Jesus sees that Nicodemus does not come to him as an individual seeking counsel or conversion of life. He believes he already has his head screwed on right. Privately, he might hold the right opinions. But he comes laden with the language of the old order, of hesitancy and compromise, of “reconciliation” and repair, bent on preserving the old order of privileged rank where the mills of God grind so slowly that no one’s grain gets ground today though the fields are white unto the harvest.
Nicodemus is willing to call Jesus “rabbi”, or “Father”, or “Abouni” or “Abbot” or “Bishop” or “Brother”, or whatever is prescribed, But he is not going to come out in the day light and say “I’ll go with you all the way to the Revolution.” The night-time cover belies his apparent solidarity with Jesus’ radical movement for change.
Jesus says, “You can’t even SEE what I’m talking about when I say “Kingdom” unless you start over from square One.
“How is that done?” Nicodemus asks. “Can a geezer be newborn at my age? Can our establishment religion be started over after all these centuries? Can we enter into the matrix & be born again? Now Nicodemus is a “teacher” in Israel, a doctor of the Church, and certainly therefore in a position to understand such things. For the primary fact is that God loves the world, and loves it so much that God is intimate within and through it and apart from it all at once: a panentheism. . And God has made Godself available for the human community and the whole creation.
All of us can go back to the tree from which we were hewn, to tap into the fountains and floods of our origins. And to enlist with the Spirit that is blowing in the Wind, alive, and moving to the future. Being Born again doesn’t mean moving back to King James’ Version of the Bible and settling down in the Prayer Book. God says to Moses on Sinai, “Take off the shoes you wore here. This is where Holy starts over. This land is Holy, right here. This is where the bush is burning, but never consumed. You did not receive a spirit of timidity, calling you to the Bush of the past, its fire extinguished, but to the lively future of the New Covenant. You must be born anew and start off from here.
Those who looks to the establishment for views will see the establishment view. And those who are born anew will go at once to open new windows, to leave the door ajar, and listen for the thunder. The wind blows where it wills, and you can’t prevent it. So it is with those born of the Spirit. To be born anew is to let new beginnings happen. All Creation is standing tippy toe expectantly waiting for something new to be seen amongst us. And the something new will not be found in layers of rules and heaps of structure. It will be found in listening to the inspiration, the breath, of the Spirit calling us into a new future into which Jesus has gone before and where God awaits us.

About don

The Rev Don Hill is an Episcopal priest, rail fan and writer. He and his wife the Rev. Dr. Nancy Woodworth-Hill are currently Co-Pastors of St Paul's Episcopal Church, Jeffersonville IN, in the Diocese of Indianapolis. They also work as parish consultants in Appreciative Inquiry, strategic planning and spirituality development for parishes and vestries.
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