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Trinity Sunday, May 27, 2018 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
In mystery and grandeur
we see the face of God.
In earthiness and the ordinary
we know the love of Christ.
In heights and depths and life and death
the Spirit of God is moving among us.
“Litany of the Spirit” by Michael Shaw and Paul Inwood
Nicodemus lived his life as a prominent citizen of his town. He had all the right connections. He had earned all the right diplomas. He was invited to just about every single gala fundraiser each season and, being who he was, he always made sure to give generously in support of all of those good causes—and there were many. But the one activity that gave Nicodemus the most social prestige was his participation on the Sanhedrin Council.
According to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, that council was the ancient Jewish equivalent of the United States Supreme Court. It was the highest legal and religious authority in Jewish life, whose most important mission was to interpret biblical laws (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy, pp. 120-121). And the Council was composed of men just like Nicodemus—good, solid, and educated. In order to even be appointed to the Sanhedrin, one had to be well versed in the Torah and in the general sciences, including math and medicine. One also had to be fluent in many different languages. In short, the leaders on the Sanhedrin Council were admired and deeply respected within the entire city. And our man Nicodemus sat right at the top of that well-admired, well-respected list.
And because of this solid, well-honed reputation, Nicodemus felt torn about going to see Jesus for himself. The name “Jesus” had been burning in his ears for days. After that day when Jesus turned over tables in the Temple, everyone on the Council had been talking about him—and not in glowing ways. So Nicodemus knew if anyone saw him going to visit Jesus face to face, then he, too, would become the subject of much discussion and rancor. “Maybe I should not even go,” he thought to himself as he waited for the sun to set and the friendly darkness of night to take hold. But try as he might, he could not resist the pull. Nicodemus felt drawn to Jesus. So as soon night fell, he quickly hurried down the road.
If Jesus was surprised to see Nicodemus, the surprise did not register on his face. Rather, when Nicodemus arrived, Jesus walked over to meet him. And as Jesus patiently waited, Nicodemus struggled to find the words he needed to say, growing more and more embarrassed with each passing minute. Finally, the words tumbled out: “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.”
Although Nicodemus did not realize it, it was not the best beginning to the conversation. Jesus is not particularly fond of being told what we “know” about him. He resists being defined by our human categories. He bristles whenever people tell him what he can and cannot do, whom he can and cannot love, who he is and who he isn’t. So when Nicodemus began his sentence with “We know,” Jesus must have sighed deeply and waited for him to finish offering his version of truth.
“You know that, do you,” Jesus responded. “Well Nicodemus, let me tell you something about what I know.” Then Jesus, having no trouble at all with his words, told the now-flustered Nicodemus that unless he was born all over again from above, he would be unable to even see the kingdom—the household—of God let alone participate in it. And as Jesus spoke, it was Nicodemus’s turn to get agitated. This whole conversation was not going according to his plan.
Nicodemus had laid it all out in his mind: First, he would present his case and tell Jesus what he knew. Then, he would ask Jesus some questions about some of the things he had seen Jesus do. And finally, if all that went well, Nicodemus would unveil the real question he carried—the question that perhaps some of us carry in here on Sundays—the one that expressed how he just felt “off” lately; how he had this sense there was something more; how it felt like he had a loneliness that never went away no matter how many different social engagements he enjoyed, or how much money he made, or even how well-respected he was in the community. While his life met other folks’ standards of “success,” Nicodemus knew he was in desperate need of depth within himself—he longed for a new deepness in his soul, for something substantial to shift in his life. That is really what he had hoped to tell Jesus that night if he could get first through his fear and doubt.
And yet, Jesus was not following Nicodemus’s agenda. Rather, he was totally derailing it with his confusing words about being born again or born from above or whatever he was saying. Instead of giving Nicodemus the answers he sought, Jesus’ words only caused more questions to arise. Finally, Nicodemus had to speak his confusion. “I don’t understand what you are talking about,” he stated. “How on earth can anyone pull off something like that? What am I supposed to do? Crawl back into my mother’s womb? That is crazy talk. Furthermore, you don’t even do anything to be born in the first place. You just are.” Jesus’ words made absolutely no sense—so Nicodemus told him so.
Beautifully, Jesus did not seem frustrated by Nicodemus’s literalism. Perhaps that is because as soon as Nicodemus walked up that night, Jesus had seen the way Nicodemus was shackled—shackled by his certainty, shackled by his need for control, shackled by his fear of mystery, shackled by the way he had started to believe his own reputation about how good and powerful he was. Thus in the time it had taken for Nicodemus to open his mouth, Jesus had already decided his agenda that night was to set Nicodemus free. Jesus wanted to set him free from his literalism; set him free from his overblown sense of self-importance; set him free from his fear; set him free from all that Nicodemus claimed to “know” about how the Holy worked.
Jesus was intent on ushering this self-assured, upstanding citizen into a whole new realm of possibility, a brand new way of construing the world; a totally different metric of defining the meaning of his life. Jesus was intent on helping Nicodemus discover more depth, more grace, more mystery than he imagined was even possible. So as soon as Nicodemus quieted down again, Jesus just piled on more images, one right after another. Water and spirit. Wind and flesh. Born again from above. Jesus kept piling up image after image in the hopes of showing Nicodemus that all of this newness was actually not something Nicodemus could ever do for himself, regardless of how many diplomas he had on his wall or how many languages he spoke fluently. There is no recipe or formula for this new birth; no list of tasks to accomplish for this new becoming; no worthiness test for this deepening of the soul.
Rather, when it happens it is like the wind that blows across your face from an unknown origin moving towards an unknown destination. And that’s because this new birth, this new becoming, it is both initiated and fulfilled by the wind of God’s Spirit, not by us. And that wind of God’s Spirit is intentionally wild and refuses to be tamed. God’s Spirit simply blows wherever it wants, changing the lives of all she touches. Furthermore, the blowing of the Spirit happens whenever she chooses, sometimes even when you do not ask for it or expect it. One moment you are like Nicodemus standing in the still, night air, trying to figure out just what this Jesus fellow is talking about; and the next moment, the hair on the top of your balding head is standing up as the wind rushes by and you sense a mystery you cannot possibly articulate or fully understand. Jesus wanted Nicodemus to know that Spirit. She is the only one who will set you free; the only one who will mend your heart; the only one who can bestow a new depth to your love and to your soul.
Yet what was Nicodemus’s response to all of those piled-up images of possibility swirling around in the night air, wild and free as the wind? Well, he just patted his hair back down and waited for the breeze to stop. On that particular night, for whatever reason, Nicodemus could not allow himself to see anything differently just yet. He could not allow his imagination to run wild with Jesus’ freedom. Not yet. He had a reputation to protect. He had a status to maintain. He had a world to keep decent and in order. “How can these things be?” Nicodemus asked Jesus.
I bet that Jesus wanted to smile in response to that question. After all, Nicodemus had come to him that night with a solid three-point plan. But just through one conversation with the Word Made Flesh, that plan was already being subtlety changed. Even without him knowing it, Nicodemus’s refrain had already shifted from the resonance of certainty with “we know,” to the lilt of a question with “how can this be?” And the very fact that Nicodemus was even open to admitting confusion made the corners of Jesus’ mouth turn up because it showed some movement, a small opening up, a slight loosening of the shackles.
“Look Nicodemus,” Jesus said, “I am just telling you what I have seen. But I’ll give you some more examples: I have seen a room full of adults and eighth-grade confirmands light up and vibrate with energy and vitality as they talked with each other about what they believed and why it mattered. That’s the Spirit’s doing. I have seen powerful young women move with beauty and grace to the rhythm of a choral anthem, managing to dance their way into the hearts of worshipers affected by their courage and strength. That’s the Spirit’s doing. I have seen little day school children making flower pots with older adults from the Center for Life and Learning, sharing joy and wonder as they worked together. That’s the Spirit’s doing.
“I have heard Fourth Church members of color bravely tell the Session their stories of exclusion and judgment experienced in this very place; their honesty causing Session to say a unanimous yes to creating a Racial Equity Council so we can all engage the next stage of hard work for beloved community, right here and now. That’s the Spirit’s doing. I have noticed the authentic support that exudes from those who gather for AA meetings in Upper Anderson or for Grief Support group meetings in the Replogle Center. That’s the Spirit’s doing. I have watched as a large congregation who has faithfully served God as a Light in the City for the past 147 years get all fired up again while it expectantly, even impatiently waits for God’s next vision for their life together to be made known, because the old Gothic church refuses to be content with merely staying the course, because they trust they are not nearly through with being Light just yet. That’s the Spirit’s doing.
“Don’t you get it, Nicodemus?” Jesus continued. “I’ve seen new birth taking place daily in people and in places and in ways that no one ever imagined and I’m telling you God’s got such a thing for this messed-up planet that God sent me down to be with you so that if you do not believe your own eyes, then maybe you’ll believe mine; if you cannot sense the blowing of the Spirit’s wind all around you, maybe you’ll believe me when I tell you it is happening (Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures, pp. 137-138). And then perhaps you won’t ever again be so afraid to tell me you feel empty, or that you desire a different way of being so much that you’d choose to go down a road at night in hopes of finding life. For even that, Nicodemus, is the Spirit’s doing. Are you free enough to see it yet? Have the shackles been loosened enough yet?”
We don’t know how the conversation ended that night or when Nicodemus decided to go back home. He probably left Jesus before the light of the sun started to shine. He still did not want people to know where he had been. He had a reputation to protect after all. But perhaps as he walked home, he reflected on Jesus’ strange announcement that all of this new birth and new life and new possibility were pure gifts from God—gifts he did not have to earn; gifts he did not have to be worthy of, gifts he was simply free to open his hands, his heart, and his mind and receive. Maybe he became so caught up in the beauty of God’s generosity of grace that he did not even notice the wind picking up again and his hair standing on end.
A while later, after Jesus had been crucified, Nicodemus decided to go with Joseph of Arimathea (also a member of the Sanhedrin) to help prepare Jesus’ body for burial. It was not the wisest thing to do, for this time it was in the middle of the afternoon. And the air was so thick with threat even most of Jesus’ disciples had fled the scene. But Nicodemus took the risk anyway. And a couple of days later, at the regular Monday morning Sanhedrin Council meeting, the air grew heavy with conversation about Jesus again. Nicodemus listened attentively. And when he heard that some of the disciples had reported seeing Jesus alive after his body had been placed into that sealed tomb, well, as Fred Buechner writes, that dear Nicodemus became so flustered that all he knew to do was to excuse himself, lock himself in a bathroom stall, and weep tears of fear and joy, just like a newborn babe (Buechner, pp. 137-138). It was the Spirit’s doing. And this time, he knew that for sure.