"Pharisaical Tendencies" – John 3:1-17
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "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." Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, "You must be born from above.' The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? "Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."
Preparations for today's sermon started a couple of weeks ago, by preachers and pastors more disciplined than me, of course. I know this because social media feeds and Facebook pages that cater to pastors and preachers, like me, started offering their unsolicited 2 cents – before Pentecost Sunday, last week, even – about ideas and inquiries and warnings against what should or should not be said when describing and explaining God on Holy Trinity Sunday.
And I gave up on that years ago, to be honest – pretending I could do justice to the Doctrine of the Trinity in a single sermon, I mean. And I like to remind myself what David Lose, who used to be a professor of Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary and now is the President of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, said a few years ago, about his rule of thumb regarding the Trinity: that anyone who says they understand it, isn’t to be trusted.
So, rather than go down the road of doctrine and dogma and textbook definitions when it comes to the nature of God, as some may be doing today, I thought I’d share with you something new that got my attention, as I read this very familiar Gospel story this time around. It’s just one little word Nicodemus uses when he shows up to meet Jesus, under cover of darkness.
First, though, we need to remember how much it matters that Nicodemus was a Pharisee and about how significant it is that he came to Jesus very deliberately “by night,” so no one else would know what he was up to. The point of those details is that Nicodemus wasn’t supposed to be playing nice with Jesus. He and his fellow Pharisees were suspicious of, cynical about, and downright opposed to everything Jesus was up to. So Nicodemus was risking a lot by talking to Jesus – his status, his reputation, maybe even his life, knowing the rest of the story, the way we do.
So what caught my attention this time around is how Nicodemus says, in his very first question to Jesus in the dark of that night, “WE know that you’re a teacher who has come from God…” “WE know…” “WE…”
Not “I know…”, not, “I was thinking…” not, “I was wondering if you could tell me….” But “WE know that you’re a teacher who has come from God because no one can do the signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
Now, maybe Nicodemus pretended his friends, the Pharisees, were in on this wondering with him. Maybe he said “we” like some people ask for advice for “that friend” who doesn’t really exist, only because they want to know something for themselves that they’re too embarrassed to ask.
But maybe, Nicodemus wasn’t in this alone. I often say in Faith Formation and other classes I teach, if it’s a question you’re wondering about, the odds are pretty good someone else is wondering the same thing, too. So, maybe Nicodemus and some of the other Pharisees really had been asking these questions and having these conversations and harboring some really faithful ideas about who Jesus was, and who Jesus wasn’t. And maybe Nicodemus was sent by his buddies. Or maybe he was the only one with enough curiosity or courage to go looking for the answers they all really wanted to find.
And thank God Nicodemus had that curiosity and courage to go and ask. Because I think he’s a faithful example for a world that’s full of Pharisees, still. You see, I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that each of us has Pharisaical tendencies in some way or another.
By that I mean, aren’t there some things each of us feels positively certain about? Some ideas we just know are right? Other ideas we believe just can’t possibly be? And don’t these things influence a lot of what we do? I’m talking about the stuff of politics and religion – those things you don’t talk about it polite company or bring up over Thanksgiving dinner unless you’re looking for a fight.
And to take that all a step further, don’t we harbor questions about God’s place in our life – questions about our faith, maybe – that we share with very few people, if we dare share those questions with anyone? Aren’t there questions we have – or questions we have had – about all of this faith stuff that are too hard or too embarrassing or too potentially heretical to ask out loud?
The thing about Nicodemus is that that’s the sort of question he was asking, according to his faith, as he understood things. And he showed up to Jesus looking, it seems to me, for some kind of text book answer; some kind of 50 cent word; some sort of theological treatise to explain who/how/what/why Jesus was up to, what he was up to. After all, that’s always what any good Pharisee is after, right? Black and white, cut and dried, right and wrong sorts of lines in the sand – proof – about how things are or how they should be.
And too much of the time, that’s what we pretend faith is all about: proof of right and wrong, governed by religious tradition… proof, cut and dried and measured against ancient texts… black and white evidence by or for or against some religious law or doctrine or dogma or definition as we understand it – or as someone tells us we’re supposed to understand it. (I kind of think Nicodemus might have been satisfied with a clearly argued “Doctrine of the Trinity,” that night in the dark with Jesus.)
Which makes Jesus’ response to him so funny and so faithful and so cool, because Jesus gives Nicodemus none of those things
Jesus says, “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above,” and “No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” And he goes on and on with all this talk about being born of the flesh or born of the spirit and about the wind blowing where it chooses. And I can almost see Nicodemus’ head spinning with it all, maybe confirming what so many of his fellow Pharisees had been trying to convince themselves about all along: that this Jesus from Nazareth was just another fake… another heretic… some new-age kook, selling a new-fangled spirituality for those simple-minded losers down by the lake.
But see, what’s most amazing about Nicodemus and his encounter with Jesus, is that Jesus’ new teaching changed him – and that he let it. We don’t hear much about Nicodemus after this, except in Chapter 7 when he actually stands up for Jesus, in the face of some of his fellow Pharisees. And he shows up one more time, at the end of John’s gospel. After the crucifixion, it’s this Nicodemus who helps anoint Jesus’ body and prepare it for burial. However and whenever it happened, it’s fair to assume that Nicodemus was swayed, in some meaningful way by his time with Jesus that night way back when.
And my point in all of this, I suppose, is to wonder what would happen if we put down our text books and our dictionaries, even our doctrine and our dogma some of the time? And what if we put down the defenses and the distractions they represent for us, too? What if we let go of what we pretend is locked-in or set in stone or settled, hard and fast, about the God we worship and the Scripture we read? What if we made more room for a living God and a living Word that are bigger than our best, most faithful descriptions or definitions?
What would happen if we approached Jesus – and if we approached the God who meets us in one another – with honest, hard, holy questions and then let that God’s gracious, loving, forgiving – living, moving, breathing presence – reveal new things for us and change us in the face of our questions?
It can seem as risky for us as it was for Nicodemus, way back in the day. But my favorite thing about the Doctrine of the Trinity – this Father, Son, Holy Spirit stuff – is that it represents a relationship. We use it to describe a relationship between the many ways God is alive and evident in the world. And we use it to invite and encourage each other to engage a relationship with that living, loving God, just the same.
And when we dare to do that, like Nicodemus dared to do that, we might be born again – re-created – made new, in spite of ourselves. We might find we’ve entered the kingdom of God, right where we live. We might be changed – as God intends – by water and Spirit. And we might change the world, in return, by this grace we receive and then share in the name of this God who is Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit, and more, surely, than we have yet imagined.