“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Most of what you need to know about Nicodemus is captured in his name. Go ahead: take it apart; even if you’ve never declined a Greek noun, you can see what it means. Nicodemus: Nico, or Nike, means ‘victory,’ a perfect name for a sneaker company; and demos means ‘people,’ as in ‘democracy,’ or demographics.’ Nicodemus was a Conqueror of the People.
Nicodemus was a Conqueror of the People, a Master of the Universe. If you are older than 40, you remember Sherman McCoy, the vivid protagonist of Tom Wolfe’s great novel The Bonfire of the Vanities from 1987; prosperous bond trader Sherman McCoy, says the novel’s narrator, is a Master of the Universe. If it helps, think of Nicodemus as Sherman McCoy. Or maybe not.
John tells us he is a leader of the Jews, which might mean that he is a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, sort of a Town Council with the authority to make laws, collect taxes, adjudicate disputes, arrest criminals, and distribute resources.
Ultimate authority in occupied Jerusalem, of course, rested with local Roman governors like Pilate and Herod, but this Sanhedrin, this sort of Shadow Authority of Jewish locals, exercised considerable power alongside the Roman occupation.
So Nicodemus has money; he has power; he has prestige; he has an education. In other words, he is both Guardian and Beneficiary of an ossified Status Quo. In still other words, no one has more to lose by relinquishing what he has and changing who he is. Nicodemus is a leopard who would be a fool to change his spots. That’s why, on the Second Sunday of Lent, he is the perfect person to encounter for people like us. Pay attention.
And then, to his own utter dismay, not to mention that of his colleagues, Nicodemus manages somehow to sympathize with the enemy. He is intrigued by this hotshot young Rabbi who is igniting little brush fires of change all over Judea and Galilee, so he makes an appointment to see Jesus.
Now, as you well know, it can be a huge inconvenience and general pain in the neck to respect your enemies. In war, it makes it harder for you to kill them, and in the brutal arena of partisan politics, it can get you into a boatload of trouble with your friends.
Remember those Republican Governors like Charlie Crist of Florida and Chris Christie of New Jersey who had the nerve to be photographed with President Obama’s friendly arm slung over those gubernatorial shoulders? It’s not quite as damaging as creating fake traffic jams in New Jersey cities, but it’s close. In a rational world those gestures would be admirable rapprochements with your loyal antagonists on the other side of the aisle, but as we all know, today’s partisan politics is anything but rational.
No wonder Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. It’s possible that he came to see Jesus after dark in order to have a quiet thoughtful conversation with the Rabbi far from the madding crowds that always pressed upon Jesus from sun-up to sundown, but it’s more likely that he came to Jesus by night in order to keep it a secret.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus after midnight. Perhaps, like Eric Clapton, he says to himself,
After midnight, we’re gonna let it all hang down…
We’re gonna stimulate some action;
We’re gonna get some satisfaction.
We’re gonna find out what it is all about…
We’re gonna cause talk and suspicion;
We’re gonna give an exhibition.
We’re gonna find out what it is all about.
After midnight, we’re gonna let it all hang down.
Can you imagine what would have happened to Nicodemus if the paparazzi had snapped a photo of Jesus throwing an arm around his shoulder? Remember: no one has more to lose from an assignation like this than Nicodemus, Conqueror of the People, Master of the Universe.
“Rabbi, we know that you come from God,” he admits to Jesus, to our surprise. This is an extravagant confession of faith from someone who memorized the immutable, nailed-down-tight Jewish Torah at his momma’s knee when he was still in short pants.
He doesn’t really ask a question, but Jesus gives him an answer anyway. “Listen to the truth,” says Jesus to Nicodemus. “Listen to the truth: No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born….”
And then Jesus finishes his inscrutable comment with an ambiguous Greek preposition. “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born… Again?” Maybe. Or, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born…from Above.”
The Greek preposition John uses means both ‘again’ and ‘above’. What is it? Born Again? Or Born from Above?
Perhaps Jesus’ ambiguity is deliberate. “You must be born again,” he wants to say. “Start again. You must relinquish what you are in order to become what you might yet be.”
But Jesus also wants to say, “You must be born from above.” That is to say, “You must put yourself into Heaven’s hands because you are not capable of bringing about the radical transformation demanded by the kingdom of God. You must be born of the Spirit, and the Spirit bloweth where it listeth; you hear the sound of it, but no one knows where it comes from or where it’s going. Maybe, Nicodemus, maybe the leaping, diving, skipping tornado of the Holy Spirit will leap harmlessly past your location. Maybe you’re not ready for this yet.”
John doesn’t tell us how Nicodemus reacted to Jesus’ eccentric and ambiguous message, but we do hear from him twice more in John’s Gospel. When Nicodemus’ colleagues insist that Jesus be arrested for sedition and disturbing the peace, Nicodemus is horrified, first of all because he is plagued with this inconvenient respect for the opposition, and secondly because this is just not the way Jews do things. “Jews don’t convict people without a fair hearing,” he reminds his impatient colleagues. “We don’t have any Guantanamo’s in Jerusalem.”
But the Sanhedrin operates out of the Joe McCarthy School of Politics: anybody who questions the pristine sanctity of the Fatherland is a Communist or a traitor. So Nicodemus shuts up quick, and isn’t heard from again until it’s too late.
After Jesus is executed, Nicodemus accompanies Joseph of Arimathea to the cross to deposit the broken body of Jesus in Joseph’s borrowed grave, and Nicodemus supplies one hundred pounds of expensive spices and perfumes in an act of respect for the rabbi he’d once visited after midnight.
Down the ages Nicodemus has become known as The Secret Disciple. Not bad for a Master of his Universe. Not bad, but not quite. None of us are surprised when Nicodemus remains The Secret Disciple instead of becoming an open and committed one.
Do you see yourself there reflected? I do. “The Bible is the Book That Reads Us,” someone once said, and ain’t it truth? The Bible reads us. The Bible is like Google; it has collected a lot of private information and knows everything there is to know about you. Who among us doesn’t instantly understand why Nicodemus kept secret his respect for this hotshot young rabbi?
Jesus was asking Nicodemus to be born again, or born from above. Jesus was asking him to start over as something brand new. Jesus was asking him to leave behind everything he’d worked so hard to become. Who wants to be born again when you’re at the top of your world?
Peter Gomes, once the beloved Chaplain to Harvard University, talks about the aristocratic Boston lady who found no reason to be born again, because she had been born once, on Commonwealth Avenue. Yes? Who wants to be born again on the South Side when you were born once on the North Shore?
Look, I understand your ambivalence about that well-worn phrase ‘born again.’ The more evangelical pockets of the Church Catholic have abused it and worn it out. Someone else once said, “The trouble with born-again Christians is that they’re an even bigger pain the second time around.”
Still, my prayer for all of us is that in the stasis and stillness of a settled, secure, self-satisfied life, you’ll hear the rustling of the wind, which bloweth where it listeth, and my prayer is that then and there, perhaps quite against your will, you’ll realize that you are not your own, but belong to your faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who is calling you to be born again, to be born from above, to start over again with God, to strive not for the earthbound kingdoms and acquisitions and prestige of this world, but toward that unseen realm beyond the walls of space and time.
Because, Lord knows, the Church has enough Secret Disciples. The Church has enough Country Club Christians for whom Church membership is just another way of polishing an already brilliant reputation to a high sheen.
When William H. Willimon was Dean of the Chapel at Duke University a few years ago, a friend of his reminded him of the aptness and vitality of this hackneyed born-again language. His friend had been a prestigious attorney at a prominent law firm, but then he started drinking and before he knew it he’d lost his partnership, his family, his prestige, his standing in the community, everything that told him who he was.
Then he started clawing his way back into life. And one of the things that surprised this alcoholic attorney was how important his faith had suddenly become to him. He’d always been a nominal Christian, always a Nicodemus, always a Secret Disciple. But he’d always considered himself a step or two above it all. Church was for losers, he always thought to himself. Church was for intellectual wimps. Training wheels.
But then his fall from grace. And his climb back into grace. “You’d be amazed what I’ve learned from God,” this lifelong friend told Dr. Willimon. “So many words I’d heard all my life have suddenly become real to me. Words like ‘being born again.’ Or like ‘you can only find your life by losing it.’ Or, say, like ‘take up your cross and follow me.’ Through my pain, by hitting bottom, I’ve met God,” he told Dr. Willimon.
“And what is God like?” asked Dr. Willimon. “God is a tough, relentless, devastating friend,” he said, ‘who won’t leave me alone until I have started all over again.”
And then Dr. Willimon says, “So now you know why, when a Duke student recently told me that since she’d come to Duke and thought deeply about life, taken a religion course, and majored in Philosophy, she’d been able to put God behind her, she’d grown up, she was able now to live life quite well without recourse to such infantile notions as God.
“Great,” said Dr. Willimon. “Give it a try. Get all grown up and liberal and adult and fossilized. But as you go along, you’d better keep looking back over your shoulder.”
It takes a lot of faith to let go of what we are in order to become what God intends us to be. And yet, in the stasis and stillness of a settled, secure, self-satisfied life, you’ll hear the rustling of the wind, because, as someone put it, “He practiced and pictured the character and possibility of all people, and breathed purpose and destiny into all creation. He opened out an everlasting communion with the Father that made the Romans, the conventional powers and authorities, all the destructive and craven impulses of the world, even death itself, seem paltry and pitiful.
“His are the words and deeds of eternal life, and there have been none to match them before or since.”
John B. Rogers, Jr., “The Book That Reads Us,” Interpretation, October, 1985, pp. 388-401.
Peter J. Gomes, “A Good Word for Harlots” in More Sundays at Harvard (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press:, 1996), Pg 31.
 Attributed to Herb Caen. I am afraid I can’t make a more specific attribution.
William H. Willimon, The Intrusive Word (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publications, 1994), pp. 57-58.
David F. Wells, “Holiness: Sacrifice (Mark 8:31-38)”, The Christian Century, 2000-03-08, 271.