The Second Sunday in Lent
17 February 2008
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Storm K. Swain
O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from thy ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of thy Word, Jesus Christ thy Son; who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Romans 4:1-5 (6-12), 13-17
+ May the words of my lips……….Amen.
Do you remember one of those times when Scripture became exciting for you?
When one of the characters in the Bible just leapt out and off the page and grabbed you?
Or when all of a sudden you may have felt your heart burning within you, like those on the road to Emmaus?
Or did the Word of God in Scripture seem ludicrous to you at one time?
Was it simply a slow drip of moments, or a blinding flash that knocked you to the ground?
Did you laugh, like Sarah, not imagining that these things were possible, and yet somehow get turned around, or upside down by them anyway?
Or have you had a moment when, all of a sudden, what you thought you believed somehow got too small to fit the circumstances, and you had to go and seek out greater truth like Nicodemus?
I have some fondness for Nicodemus due to, some eighteen years ago, having left a city, a great job, and certainty in life to test out a call to ministry by going to seminary. I have some sympathy with the back door approach, the “I’m not really sure but I thought I’d turn up anyway” approach.
Nicodemus came by night to see Jesus. In the darkness he sought him out and confessed what his knowledge had brought him to. You see, Jesus had made a bit of a stir. It’s Passover time, and instead of being one of the respectful pilgrimagers, Jesus has come in and turned things upside down in the temple, treating the house of God as if it were his own, then instead of fading back into the woodwork, he has healed people and performed miraculous signs. And something has happened to Nicodemus in the process.
Nicodemus, is a scholar and a teacher. He knows the religious law and he is not afraid to interpret it. Instead of getting the common ‘Pharisaical’ attitude we have so often expected and experienced in the other Gospels: “He must be doing these miracles through sorcery or the devil,” Nicodemus says “Rabbi we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no-one can do these signs that you do apart from God.” Here, the tables turn. Nicodemus, the teacher, becomes the student; the young itinerant Rabbi, with his low status Galilean accent, and no record of sitting at the feet of Shammai, Hillel, or Gamaliel, becomes the learned one who has wisdom to impart.
The shift is monumental. But not complete.
Nicodemus is willing to ask the ‘How?’ question, but he is not yet willing to ask the most crucial question of all: the ‘Who?’ question.
To ask that question, and we all have learned that we shouldn’t ask a question that we are not ready to hear the answer to, Nicodemus, must be born anew. Nicodemus must be willing to let go and let God into his life, in a way unexpected, unasked for, and totally reorienting. A shift has to happen in Nicodemus’ being, where like Abram before him, he willing to give up all he has and begin again. As is characteristic of Jesus, he answers this yearning for the kingdom of God before Nicodemus even knows its there. For Nicodemus had been certain of his relation to God. It is prescribed in the law. Nicodemus knows where he stands in relation to the Law and the prophets, though he is willing to debate about the interpretation of the 613 different commandments. He is a Jew and his people’s connection to God is sure. At least it was until this moment.
In this moment Jesus inseminates a new understanding but one that takes the ground from under Nicodemus’ feet. He has to be born from above. The earth bound Nicodemus hides in his resistance – debating the possibility of a second physical birth. Yet Jesus is speaking of water and the Spirit.
Lets not be too sure we know what Jesus means, or at least what he meant to Nicodemus. Baptism: purification rituals and blood rites mean a different thing to us than they did to this teacher. Jesus can be interpreted as implying that this revered teacher of Israel, member of the Sanhedrin, is in the place of those outside the house of Israel, who need to be purified and make sacrifices to become one of the Chosen people.
Jesus invites Nicodemus, whose embryonic understanding is only beginning to develop, into the watery embrace of the God that seeks to enfold him in love.
Jesus invites Nicodemus into this divine disturbance, where it is not the law that saves but the Spirit; where it is not Moses that saves but the Son of Man; where it is not those things that are seen but something as elusive as the wind that may have been blowing around him that will tell him the answers to the questions he dares not ask.
Yet Jesus answers him anyway, in the words that are so memorable to be inscribed on our hearts as well as our minds. Jesus tells Nicodemus “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Something happens to Nicodemus. The story doesn’t end there. Yet even here in the story, when speaking of birth, Jesus is intimating his death on the cross. Nicodemus arises in the Gospel again. In the midst of the Sanhedrin plotting to arrest Jesus, Nicodemus courageously speaks up for a fair trial before he is pronounced guilty. He is dismissed with the remark that he is not from Galilee, and that he should go back and examine the Scriptures as no prophet will come from there.
We next see Nicodemus after the resurrection. The one who heard so early the words of the Son of Man being lifted up, may have been one of those to take him down. With Joseph of Arimathea, laying him in his own tomb, Nicodemus brings an amount of myrrh and aloes fit for a King, with which to entomb the dead Jesus. These gifts as expressive of his faith as the original gift of myrrh. The one who was invited to be purified is made unclean in the eyes of his own law, handling the dead on the day of Preparation. The one who came in darkness, sees the light of the world extinguished.
Is this where it ends for Nicodemus? It could be where it ends for us. Where we could read Scripture like any other story of faith, and see it on a phenomenological level. A story about and object of faith.
But Jesus won’t let us do that. When he addresses Nicodemus, “You must be born from above,” he addresses us also. It is as if he is looking over Nicodemus’ shoulder into our eyes, the address “you,” becomes no longer singular but plural. We become part of the story and the journey of faith.
But it seems that that journey doesn’t stop here for Nicodemus anyway. We all know that baptism is the beginning of the story and not the end.
I remember that moment in seminary when, in my excitement, I discovered that the Church was teaching those things I had learnt outside of the Church. That the formation of the canon of Scripture, the saying of the early theologians and the Apocyphal writings all were on the agenda. Perhaps because I chose to eventually hang around with the theologians of the 19th and 20th Centuries, that I didn’t come across the Gospel of Nicodemus or Acti Pilati as it was called: the Acts of Pilate. Although it seems most likely that this was written in the middle of the fourth century, Justin before 150, and Tertullian, before 220 both mention Acti Pilati.
The Greek, Copic, Armenian and Latin copies of this apocryphal Gospel speaks of Christ’s trial and resurrection and a Latin appendix speaks of the descent to the dead. In the first two parts, Nicodemus figures speaking for Jesus before Pilate, along with Bernice, the woman with the flow of blood, and the man paralysed for 38 years, and then after the Crucifixion, Nicodemus speaks again in the Sanhedrin in support of Phineas, Addas & Angaeus who have come from Galilee, having witnessed the Ascension. These men tell of what they have seen independently, their stories matching up with each other. They speak also of not only Jesus having risen from the dead but tombs being opened. Not fully convinced, the Sanhedrin leaders hear stories of Simeon having prophesized in the temple when Jesus was first presented, and seek out Simeon’s son’s Leucius and Charinus who have arisen, and we hear from them the later Appendix about Jesus’ descent to the dead, which is worthy of Dante. However, it is the account of Joseph of Arimathea, whom the Sandhedrin locked up after he entombed Jesus that sways them. Having disappeared, Joseph is found and at a meal at Nicodemus’ house with Annas and Caiphas and the other leaders, Joseph tells of Jesus coming to him, taking him to see the empty tomb and returning him to his house, requesting him not to leave it for forty days.
The Gospel says: 1 And when the rulers of the synagogue and the priests and the Levites heard these words of Joseph the became as dead men and fell to the ground, and they fasted until the ninth hour. And Nicodemus with Joseph comforted Annas and Caiaphas and the priests and the Levites, saying: Rise up and stand on your feet and taste bread and strengthen your souls, for tomorrow is the sabbath of the Lord. And they rose up and prayed unto God and did eat and drink, and departed every man to his house.
Whether there is any truth in these apocryphal gospels we do not know. But what we do know is that the story goes on, and we are part of that story. Like Nicodemus who comes out of the darkness into the light where he effects reconciliation, or Joseph who experiences the risen Christ and for forty days mediates and prays on this happening, we too are invited during Lent to be enwombed in God’s love who invites us into the space of eternal life, to live out of this love and to surrender to the Spirit.
For even as we face the darkness of this Lent in our journey towards the Cross, we can do so in the footsteps of Nicodemus knowing that “tombs become wombs for those who surrender to mystery.”
In the name of Christ. Amen.
©2008 Storm Kirsten Swain