030820 Lent 2
The story of Nicodemus is one of the biblical stories that I most connect to at a personal level. As a religious professional, I approach holiness with a similar combination of strengths and weaknesses. The story is the Gospel lesson on the second Sunday of Lent every three years. And every time it comes around, the world is facing a predicament that goes beyond our knowing. Three years ago it was the brand new presidency of Donald Trump. Today, it is the coronavirus, the sudden narrowing of the field of candidates to oppose Trump, and the question as to when women are going to taken seriously enough to be president. Nicodemus’ story invites us into a new way of seeing. Maybe that’s what we need.
Nicodemus didn’t go to Jesus as a newspaper reporter getting the inside scoop on a new religious force. And he didn’t go as a Pharisee to find Jesus’ Achille’s heel, so he could oppose him. Rather, he went as a seeker, sensing something in Jesus that spoke to a deep longing inside him. But he struggled to shed his identity as a religious professional; so, it was difficult for him to let go of all that he knew so he could be born to the Spirit. But that’s the only path to seeing more clearly, relating more personally and living more freely. That’s what Nicodemus wanted. But it didn’t come naturally to him.
So, Jesus uses three different approaches to get him to open. First, he knows too much, so Jesus talks about the importance of not knowing. Second, he takes things too literally, so Jesus uses metaphor to open different possibilities for him. Finally, he takes things too seriously, so Jesus teases him playfully.
Nicodemus started the conversation by saying, Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. That knowledge is buttressed by a theological argument: for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God. He starts his faith exploration at the only place he knows – theological knowledge. Pharisees knew the right things about God. But it was a “knowing that” – that Jesus was a teacher come from God; a factual, objective knowing, rather than a personal knowing – knowing Jesus as friend and relating to him spiritually.
The world often follows Nicodemus rather than Jesus. In religion and politics, we frequently insist on getting it right. The church has even missed the born again metaphor Jesus uses to heal literalism! We want to make sure everyone understands properly and describes their experience correctly. We’re seeing this in political campaigns. Politicians are criticized for being too socialist, too moderate, too conservative or too radical. Their speech is described as too bland, too intellectual, too angry or too divisive. This is as much a problem for candidates as it is for voters. Jesus says that when we act like this, we make others twice as fit for Hell as we are ourselves. We make them focus on the wrong thing. We all end up thinking we understand certain things correctly when we really can’t see a darned thing!
Nicodemus wasn’t ready to commit himself to Jesus, though he wanted something he sensed Jesus had to offer. He didn’t want to limit his options. So he went in secret and tried to keep the discussion on a safe theological level. But what good is safe if it doesn’t lead to life? Trying to control the Spirit by knowing a lot doesn’t lead to life, and gets us into trouble in all our relationships. Kindness is a fruit of the Spirit and a value of the Reign of God. Kindness loses out when one person tries to outsmart and outmaneuver others to make them look stupid to make a point. That kind of smart, that kind of knowing, doesn’t lead to life for anyone. It’s neither kind nor compassionate, and it will kill any community. According to Jesus, it blinds us to recognizing the reign of God and living out its values.
Nicodemus’ second problem was that he took things too literally. Jesus said, No one can see or enter the reign of God without being born from above. God’s reign is there to be seen and entered, but it requires a kind of seeing and a way of being marked by compassion, openness and spontaneity. Those qualities are more consistent with metaphor than with literalism. Jesus is inviting Nicodemus to let his imagination inform him, rather than his rigid systems of theology. You can’t see God’s reign from outside; one must be inside. Only by playing along before you know all the rules can you learn the game, and only by playing the game can you see the point. You can’t learn to swim without getting in the water. To be born from above is to dive into things that are not rigid; they are fluid, like water and Spirit- elements that can’t be controlled like solid things. The results of climate change are reminding us that water seeps through dikes and breaks through dams, no matter how much we reinforce them. Wind and Spirit blow where they choose, and we don’t know where they come from or where they are going. The sooner we learn that, the better it will go for us both in the material and the spiritual world.
Nicodemus longed for that kind of flexibility and imagination; but it terrified him. When you’ve been taught the dangers of anything but the literal truth you already know, you must clearly avoid metaphor. So even when acting in the same way isn’t getting you anywhere, it’s hard to choose to step outside the bounds.We see this when people want to embrace LGBTQ friends and family, or vote for a woman for president, but can’t bring themselves to move beyond what they know. One must be born to the spiritual realm, where metaphor reigns, rules do not work so well and tradition must be questioned. Something beautiful happens to people who are born again to the Spirit, to flexibility and to imagination.
Jesus is inviting us to choose the path that leads to life – a path on which we don’t know as much as we might like; where we might discover things that are painful but life-giving. To see the reign of God means to recognize God’s hand in the events of our lives and of current events. What is God saying to you amid what you are facing right now? Jesus told Nicodemus, “don’t try to figure me out in your theological schema. Get to know me. Risk meeting me face-to-face. Don’t hide behind what you’ve already figured out. Come with what you don’t know; you may be surprised by what you see.
Finally, this new way of seeing not only requires knowing less and being less literal. It means we must take ourselves less seriously. When Nicodemus asked, how can these things be? it was a more open question than the previous one, but still showed that he was stuck; he had not joined the dance to which Jesus invited him. So, Jesus teased him: Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Maybe that would stop him from taking himself so seriously. Jesus was playing with him, even though the question had serious implications. Nicodemus had reached the top of the spiritual ladder his culture and religion had defined. But he still couldn’t understand a metaphor that he sensed was key to his spiritual fulfillment. He had reached a dead end and needed to jump tracks; or in modern terms, he had to switch paradigms.
Sam Keen offers modern seekers some warning signs of false spirituality. How much humor and poking fun at beliefs and dogmas is permissible in the system? The first thing deadly serious leaders do is forbid satire, repress the clowns, silence the jesters and kill levity. We see that in the current president, who won’t even attend the Press Corps annual roast. The deepest spiritual traditions always recognize that the sacred and the profane, like wisdom and folly, walk arm in arm, and therefore true piety, and true leadership, must be seasoned with irreverent laughter.
Paul Tillich was a famous theologian in the 20th century. During one of his abstract lectures at Harvard on the nature of God, a woman rose to ask a question: “Dr. Tillich, it is well known that psychoanalysts have an exceedingly difficult time with patients who know psychoanalytic theory. Do you think God has the same problem with theologians?” For a moment, the audience was stunned by the question. Then Tillich began to laugh and said, ‘I’m sure He does.’ A tidal wave of laughter swept away the overly serious mood of Systematic Theology 101.” Jesus was saying to Nicodemus, “God has a sense of humor and you’re missing it completely. It’s okay to be a teacher of Israel, but don’t take it so seriously. Leave room for play.
Where are you today? Do you know too much? Are you too literal in the most important questions of life? Do you take yourself too seriously? Let the Spirit draw you in by helping you to admit that maybe you don’t know as much as you thought. Maybe your rigid system isn’t so necessary after all. Maybe you take it all too seriously. Who knows? You may find a God you never knew was there. You may find a new intimacy with others that you have secretly longed for but not dared to seek. And you may find a wisdom about the path forward that has been there all along.