Nicodemus and Progress In Faith

14 Mar

Fritz von Uhde – Christus und Nikodemus (ca.1886)

John 3.1-17 
The Gospel today has many themes in it, but I want to concentrate on both
Nicodemus’ questions to Jesus and his growth in faith.
Initially Nicodemus is simply on another wavelength to Jesus and he is
asking the wrong questions – indeed he could have dispensed with the questions
altogether and just listened to Jesus. 
But he, like many of us, has questions.
We are often looking for something. 
Something fresh, something true. 
In our faith, we search for meaning, for a sense of purpose. And sometimes
we don’t find it.  What we find are our empty
phrases heaped up in a pile for us to sift through.  Questions without answers that satisfy.  Or answers from Jesus that confuse.
God calls us over and over and we are often deaf to God’s cries.  The pleas of Jesus to know and understand him,
go unanswered.  Our egos remove us from
knowing Jesus because we often ask too many questions and even then, we ask the
wrong questions.  Often we are caught in a
rational and cerebral pursuit of faith.
Nicodemus’ search is certainly confused by him asking questions.
He comes with several questions and Jesus has answers, but they are cryptic
to Nicodemus.  They are not answers for
the feeble mind.  Perhaps this is
sometimes our pattern:  we come with questions,
intellectualising – but we are so intent on getting our questions out, that we are
not hearing.
Nicodemus is certainly left floundering.
But his search is not in vain.  He
appears again twice, later in John’s Gospel.  In chapter 7, he offers a hesitant defense of Jesus – he says of Jesus
when the Temple police want to arrest him that: ‘Our law does not judge people
without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing…’  So, gladly the faith of Nicodemus is growing
and he is prepared to take a risk and defend Jesus against his accusers.
And importantly,
very late in the Gospel – Chapter 19 – Nicodemus accompanies Joseph of
Arimathea, bringing a hundred pounds of spices for Jesus’ burial.  A hundred pounds is an enormous amount – but perhaps
there is a symbol here – Nicodemus bringing so much spice shows his deep devotion
to Jesus.  Finally, only after Jesus’
death, he has deepened his faith from his early questioning in today’s Gospel.
But this development of faith over time does not take away from the fact
that initially Nicodemus just doesn’t get it. 
His mind is not so much shut as it is clouded.  He is looking for rational answers to the
most complex of problems – who is Jesus. 
Nicodemus is confused.
He interprets what Jesus says literally and Jesus keeps trying to get
him to see his words as symbols pointing towards something heavenly. 
Maybe we can identify with Nicodemus – perhaps we sometimes wonder if
our faith is lacking and it may be because either we are asking the wrong
questions or indeed that we are asking questions at all.  For example, from the Gospel today, we too might
want to know, like Nicodemus, how it is that we can ACTUALLY be born from above,
or as some translations have it ‘born again’, when really Jesus is talking of
the spiritual realm and how our faith comes from somewhere other than from
earthly things.
Jesus says that no-one can enter the Kingdom without being born again.  Nicodemus dimly wants to know how anyone can be
born after having grown old.  And he asks:
‘Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’  Jesus is not getting through to Nicodemus’
fragile sense of faith.  They’re like
ships in the night.
And this being born into life in Christ is at the heart of our Christian
faith in different ways.  If you asked an
Evangelical Christian what it means to be born again they might well say that
it is to accept Jesus as their Lord and Saviour.  If you asked a Pentecostal Christian they
might say that it is being baptised into the Spirit.
So, when trying to understand Nicodemus and his role in the Gospel, it is
not the words ‘born again’ or ‘born from above’ that are so important, but
rather that here is a man who SEEKS.  He
has a fledging quest for understanding and faith.  And in seeking, his life changes forever –
from misguided questions, to defender of Jesus, to finally being the man who
anoints Jesus after his death.
In a way, it is not even Nicodemus’ questions that are the problem, it
is that he is caught up in them – he is stuck on another plain to Jesus.  Suspended in his own sense of logic.  Perhaps we too come to faith with our logic
to the fore – waiting for faith to emerge through the many trials of life.  I suspect that we don’t get Jesus up front
and that we simply can’t find deep faith by being ‘in our head’.  It is human to come with many questions, only
to find there are few answers. 
As we grow older perhaps our questions are not helpful anymore and when
we finally come to see Jesus for who he is, by quietly worshipping, we come
with our hundred pounds of spices to lavish on him.  Not with our helpless questions, but with our
devotion.  Our faith CAN develop beyond
our questioning.
One theory about the development of faith has it that it comes to us in
three stages: the first stage is childish faith – one that believes everything
without question.  It might be seen as a
magical stage.  A stage when faith is
built on the literal truth. 
Then comes the second stage – a period of questioning – that is also a
stage Nicodemus is at in today’s Gospel. 
Then if you are lucky enough, you come to the third and final stage –
the faith of the child-like.  Not the
childish, the child-like.  It is at this
stage that there is a synthesis – mature faith questions AND believes.  It can open itself fully to Jesus.  To me, it is not enough to intellectualise
faith as Nicodemus does initially.  Our
intellect can sometimes tear us apart. 
Perhaps even our constant questioning wreaks havoc.  Child likeness probably has quiet worship at
its core.  The people that reach this
stage are probably not asking questions of intellect.  They seem to be beyond that and somehow
accept their faith as a given and deepen their awareness of God by BEING.  For Nicodemus the prayerful embalming of
Jesus – simply BEING with Jesus – must have been a deeply profound experience for
him, in the presence of God.
Perhaps the child likeness stage of faith is exemplified by an uneducated
peasant who simply worships and praises God from deep within – without any University
developed intellectual ability to question. 
Further, it is like a person who sits and gazes on God and God gazes on
them.  In a childlike way, they are happy
just with that exchange.
If nothing else the picture presented in John’s Gospel of Nicodemus can
help us see that for all our questioning, we CAN go through a transformation.  From questioner to worshipper.
Because I don’t think we can reduce the Son of God to a few questions
and hope to get a clear and concise answer, or develop our faith instantly.
Again, Nicodemus’ problem, probably like many of us, is that he is stuck
in his head and this prevents a deepening of faith.  The great theologian Schleiermacher once said
– we all have a feeling for God.  This
feeling he speaks of is not an intellectual thing, it is something in our
gut.  It is devoid of logic.  Maybe we need to revisit Jesus with more of
our emotion and less of our questions – to take us away from being ‘in our
heads’ and rather take us into creative orbit with Jesus where we sit at his
feet and worship – not ask questions, but just be with him.
We live in a world where everything is explained, understood, dissected,
probed, questioned, rationalised, intellectualised.  Our lives are about ‘doing’, achieving, about
goal setting, meeting key performance indicators.  We seek meaning through reading, writing, enquiring
– and I admit, that has its place too.  But
it is a question of degree and priority.
Still some want answers that can be added and subtracted till the result
is a prime number, or something else that fits neatly in their ordered minds.  As we can see, Nicodemus initially wanted
answers – and he may be more like us than we know.
When our questions are all done and when our intellectualising does not
satisfy us, I believe THAT is the time, when through our deep emotional response
to Jesus, he becomes plain and obvious. 
This is essentially a response from our gut, from the core of our
emotional selves.  A kind of ‘being’,
rather than doing – suspending our search for God by our frenzied pursuits.  Maybe we can reach a quiet state of unquestioning
bliss without questions, without complex intellectual rigour.  A state, a place, where we can let go and let
God.

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