Message from Our Pastor
Everyone got it? No?
Well, that is not surprising. If you listened to the readings today, you know that even the lectionary gurus had trouble coming up with texts that incorporate all parts of the Trinity, let alone explain it. The festival of the Holy Trinity is the one Sunday that pastors are left scrambling for some clever image or metaphor to help their sheep understand this, quite frankly, not fully understandable, piece of theology. There are some things in life that are a mystery and should remain a mystery. The Holy Trinity is one of them.
But this doesn’t help with today’s sermon. I still have to teach or preach about something, or I wouldn’t be doing my job and you would be greatly disappointed. I want to give David Lose, the former president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia credit for setting me on the path that the remainder of this sermon wanders.
The path that I’d like to wander today is the path of curiosity. Our guide is going to be Nicodemus. Most confirmed church goers know Nicodemus from the story that we heard this morning. Depending on the past sermons you have heard, you may think of Nicodemus as a coward – coming to Jesus at night lest his Pharisee friends take issue with the company he keeps. Or maybe you think Nicodemus to be somewhat foolish taking Jesus’ words literally - asking how one can reenter a mother’s womb and be born again? Or maybe you never heard a sermon in which Nicodemus was the key subject before and so you don’t have an opinion one way or another. Admittedly, I think this will be my first stroll with Nicodemus.
So what about this path that I’ve named curiosity? What does it have to do with Nicodemus, with our own faith journey, and does it relate in any way to today’s festival theme, the Trinity. Well, let’s find out.
Today’s reading from John 3 is the first of three times Nicodemus appears in that gospel, the only book in which Nicodemus appears. We are told that he came to Jesus by night and said, “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.” It’s a statement, a broad and simple statement, but a statement of faith, nonetheless.
Jesus takes this simple statement and dives into the deep end of the pool of faith. No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. And these few words crumble Nicodemus’ fragile faith into a pile of confusion. What? How can anyone be born after having grown old? And off Jesus goes running ahead of Nicodemus with an explanation of what it means to come from God, and be the Son of God, and the Son of Man. What it means to be the one through whom life springs eternal, indeed, the one who is the savior of the world.
By the time Jesus is done a few verses later, Nicodemus has slipped back into the night without even the mention of a goodbye.
I’ve always thought Peter to be the disciple closest to our own faith journey. Boasting one minute, denying the next. All in when it suited him, returning to the fishing boat when it didn’t.
But there is something to be said for Nicodemus. That tentative start. “Ok, God, I get this much, I get that you are God. But I’m not so sure about, well, anything else.”
How many times do our doubts or just lack of understanding the ways of God drive us to have a clandestine meeting in the shadows, the only place where we dare to admit that maybe our faith isn’t quite as strong as we, or everyone else, think it is, or want it to be.
We don’t hear from Nicodemus again for another four chapters. By this time Jesus has healed on the sabbath, fed the 5000, and walked on water. His own brothers didn’t yet believe in him, but he had caused enough trouble that the chief priests and Pharisees sent the temple police to arrest him. But the temple guard return empty handed claiming, “Never has anyone spoken like this!” The guards are berated for being taken in by Jesus’ words and bowing to the crowd, for surely the Pharisees who sent them know the law better.
And then one of their own speaks up, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” Guess who. Yep, Nicodemus.
Now the text reads: “Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them, asked, ‘Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?’” And I have to wonder to whom is the gospel writer referring when he says that Nicodemus is one of “them”. The most immediate, preceding noun is Jesus, the nearest plural noun is crowd. Pharisee is three sentences away. And straight away, after his question Nicodemus is asked, “Surely, you are not also from Galilee, are you?”
Clearly Nicodemus has continued to keep his eyes and ears open since he departed Jesus that first night. Enough so that he puts forth his challenge in the form of a question. All Jesus does, when challenged, is ask questions. Nicodemus has proved to be a quick learner. He is still traveling the path of curiosity, but not yet so convinced of who Jesus is that he is ready to come out of the shadows.
I get Nicodemus. Even as a pastor there are times that I live in faith’s shadows and I’m not quite able to speak with confidence about who God is, or why Jesus had to die. My faith usually has a lot more questions than answers. And what I was certain of yesterday, I may not be so sure of tomorrow. Like Nicodemus, I travel the path, but I’m not always 100% sure that it’s the right one. Any of you know what I am talking about?
The final time that Nicodemus appears on the scene is near the end of the gospel. Jesus has been arrested, crucified and taken down from the cross. Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple of Jesus, was given permission to take away the body, and, Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body and wrapped it with the spices; there was a new tomb close by, and they laid Jesus there.
It’s interesting that two secret disciples tend to Jesus after his death. Only in death, when everyone else has walked away, do they step up and say in their actions, what the Centurion spoke, “Surely this is the Son of God.”
How many times, after the fact, have we wished we would have spoken about our faith? Or, how many times has our guilt felt like those 100 pounds of spices Nicodemus was carrying? Or, we’ve come to the end of the path, and still have questions.
Nicodemus is the patron saint of curiosity. What I like about him is that he’s not as bombastic as Peter. Peter sways from one end of the pendulum to the other, while Nicodemus struggles with his faith and questions. And he takes his questions straight to the source, “Jesus, how can this be?”
Of course Jesus loved both Peter and Nicodemus. There was room in the world and at the table for both of them. They each had their own part to play. And God so loved both of them that He sent Jesus so that whosoever believed in him, boldly or simply, by day or by night, would have everlasting life.
Neither Nicodemus or Peter got it all right all the time. So if we don’t get the Trinity or can’t explain it, well, that’s OK. We can just continue along the path of curiosity and ask God the next question that comes along.