First Person Sermon: Nicodemus

The Second Sunday in Lent

John 3:1-17

(Nicodemus enters, stretching and rubbing a very sore back): A hundred pounds of spices! A hundred pounds—just lifting that load is enough to make my back ache. But I had to carry that bundle over a mile, in the dark, and on my own. I have not done that much physical work in many a year. But I certainly couldn’t have any of my servants carry it for me. 

All of it had to be done in secret and under the cover of darkness. After all, I certainly don’t want to end up like him…

I am Nicodemus. I am a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, the chief legal body in Judea. For that reason, I am known as a ruler of the Jews. I have a reputation for being one of the chief teachers of our faith here in Jerusalem. I am quite certain now that I don’t deserve that reputation. 

Let me tell you why.

We have just laid Jesus’ body to rest. I am sure you have heard all about Jesus of Nazareth. Many of us had great hopes for him. My good friend, Joseph of Arimathea, had even become one of his disciples. Of course, Joseph could not be open about his allegiance. That might have been fatal for Joseph.

So Joseph went to the procurator, Pilate, in the middle of the night. He asked for Jesus’ body so that it would not hang on that cross to be defiled by the wild animals. Pilate agreed. My part in this little plot was to bring the linen cloths and the spices to prepare and preserve the body. Joseph has a family tomb in a secluded garden. No one saw us. We are safe.

Safe. That always seems to be my path.

My name in Greek means “conqueror of the people.” That sounds impressive, does it not? Conqueror of the people! Please do not be impressed. At most, I have conquered a difficult piece of Hebrew or a large jar of wine. My conquests extend no farther.

We buried Jesus in the dark. That is how I came to him the first time as well—under the cover of darkness and secrecy. 

It was just before Passover in Jerusalem. We were having our annual Sanhedrin conference. We debated the usual issues—taxes, purity laws, too many Gentiles in Jerusalem, and the upkeep of the Temple. As we discussed the Temple, a messenger burst into our session.

“Some lunatic is causing a riot in the Temple courtyard! He made a whip of cords and started beating the merchants and moneychangers. Tables are thrown all over. Money is scattered in every corner. The livestock is running wild in the streets. And he keeps shouting, ‘Stop making my Father’s house a market place!’”

 We all ran into the courtyard and saw him—Jesus of Nazareth. He was covered in sweat, gasping for breath. “What is the meaning of this?” the chief priest screamed. “What sign can you show us for doing this?”

Jesus raised his chin in defiance. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

“Are you mad?” the chief priest laughed. “It has taken Herod forty-six years to build the Temple, and it is not finished yet. How will you do the job in three days!” The Sanhedrin members were sure Jesus was a crazy fool. We went back to our debating.

His words, however, would not leave me. For some reason, I needed to know more. Many in the crowd shared that view and encouraged me to seek him out. I was unwilling to risk a public conversation. So I found out where he was staying. We met under the cover of darkness—secret, and safe.

I am a Pharisee. No matter what you might think, I was not opposed to Jesus. I want God’s kingdom to come as much as anyone. I heard about Jesus’ power and his teaching. Perhaps there was something to it all. I had to know. “Teacher,” I said with the greatest respect, “we know you have come from God. After all, no one can do these signs as you have apart from God’s presence.”

I treated Jesus with honor. In return, I received a challenge. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” The word Jesus used was very complicated. Did he mean “born from above” or “born again” or “born anew”? It could have been any of those meanings. I didn’t understand him at all.

“How can these things be?” I asked. Jesus was blunt. “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” I did not hear many of his words after that. I now know what he did. He used mysterious phrases because he didn’t know me. And he did not know my motives. For all Jesus knew, I might have come to trap him into an arrest. He evaded precisely such traps many times in his life.

What hurt the most was how right he was about me. “‘Very truly, I tell you,’ he said to me, ‘we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.’”

That was it. I did understand, but I did not like what I heard. Jesus talked about a whole new way of living in God’s kingdom. For centuries we had been trying to find our way to God. Now Jesus said that God was coming to us. And God was coming to us through him!

I came to Jesus in the darkness. And that was the problem. I did not hear many of his words, but these words have stuck with me. “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” I was safe in the dark. I was afraid to come into the light. I was afraid to change my mind.

After that, I left. But I was not the same.

Some months later, Jesus came to Jerusalem again. It was the Festival of Booths, the time when we Jews celebrate the gift of God’s law to Moses. In the middle of the festival, Jesus began teaching in the Temple. The crowd debated whether he was from God or not. He was persuading large numbers of people that he was right.

I was becoming more and more convinced.

The Sanhedrin debated the issue briefly. Then a vote was taken. The council sent the temple guard to arrest Jesus for blasphemy. The guards, however, took some time to listen to Jesus. They hesitated. They returned to the authorities empty-handed. 

“Why did you not arrest him?” the authorities demanded. 

“Never has anyone spoken like this!” the officers of the guard replied. The authorities scoffed. They described the crowd as ignorant of the law and cursed by God. I was not ready to take a public stand on Jesus. But I could not let this terrible process continue. 

I stood up before the council and raised a point of order. “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” I asked. 

The president of the council responded with an insult. “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you?” he sneered. “Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.” 

I was publicly humiliated. But at least I bought Jesus some time. He was gone before they could send the guards back to the temple.

This last time, however, he did not escape. He came once again for the Passover. This time the chief priests had an inside contact. They bought off one of his disciples. They arrested him in the Garden of Gethsemane. 

The trial was quick—merely a formality. I could have spoken in his defense, but it would have made no difference. All that would have happened is that I would have ended up dead alongside him. And courage is not my strong suit, remember?

The Romans crucified him at the Place of the Skull. He was one more failed messiah, humiliated and broken by the might of the Roman eagle.

Joseph decided that Jesus had endured enough. That is when he asked to be allowed to bury the body. I may be short on courage, but I have plenty of money. So I bought the spices and the sheets. If only a strong backbone could be so easily purchased.

I sought him out in the dark. But I know that I cannot remain in that darkness. I remember now some of his words from that first encounter. “But those who do what is true come to the light,” he said, and he looked closely at me, “so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

I have lived in the darkness long enough. Now he is buried with respect and honor. Tomorrow is the Sabbath. On the third, I will go to the Sanhedrin speak the truth that I have heard from him. That will be the first day of the week. 

Who knows what might happen after sunrise that day!

Born in the Heart — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Today is Holy Trinity Sunday.  Each year, on the first Sunday after Pentecost, we celebrate the Holy Trinity.  This is the only church festival that celebrates a doctrine.  And this doctrine leaves theological heads spinning.  Martin Luther once wrote, “To try to deny the Trinity endangers your salvation; to try to understand the Trinity endangers your sanity.”

So let’s get a little crazy today.  Let’s look at the Trinity.  Here is the main thought for today’s message.  The Trinity takes us to God’s heart.  Let me say that again.  The Trinity takes us to God’s heart.

Hans Bruntjen was as modest and humble a man as you would hope to meet.  He was an expert fisherman and a master woodworker.  When I left as pastor of Galilean Lutheran Church, I received a cross as a gift.  But this was no ordinary cross.  Hans made it.  And then he explained it to me.

Photo by Rakicevic Nenad on

The cross is a Trinity Cross.  The base is a circle, symbolizing unity and completeness.  There are no corners for hiding.  There are no sides to take.  There is one center.  And from that center radiates a threefold cross.  At first I thought of the three crosses when Jesus was crucified.  But Hans corrected me.  The three crosses, he said, stand for the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Each cross is an image of the others.  Each cross is supported by and depends on the others.  Each cross is intertwined with the others.  Hans said this is how the Trinity looks to him—intertwined, interdependent, and rooted in the one center.

But why three crosses, I asked Hans.  In his wonderful German accent, Hans said, “Ach!  Don’t they teach you pastors anything in seminary?  God’s who life,” he said, “is about self-giving.  God’s whole life is cross-shaped, whether we talk about Father, Son or Holy Spirit.  I built this cross,” Hans concluded, “with the crosses coming out of the center towards us.  God’s self-giving love comes to us.  The crosses aren’t about what God looks like.  The crosses are about how God works!”

Hans Bruntjen was one of the best theologians I ever met.  God’s heart is self-giving love.  The Trinity takes us to God’s heart.

We don’t always understand this.  Let me illustrate.  Little Johnny and his family lived in the country, and as a result seldom had guests. He was eager to help his mother after his father appeared with two dinner guests from the office.

When the dinner was nearly over, Little Johnny went to the kitchen and proudly carried in the first piece of apple pie, giving it to his father who passed it to a guest. Little Johnny came in with a second piece of pie and gave it to his father, who again gave it to a guest.

This was too much for Little Johnny, who said, “It’s no use, Dad. The pieces are all the same size.”

God’s heart is self-giving love.  We are invited to live the same way.  The Trinity takes us to God’s heart.

So, if I had to pick one image to define the purpose of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, I would pick a dinner table.  Nothing defines and describes Jesus’ earthly ministry better than open and inclusive table fellowship. 

In Luke 15:2, for example, Jesus is criticized because he eats with the wrong sorts of people.  “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them,” the Pharisees and Scribes grumble. 

In Luke 19, Jesus chooses to eat dinner at the home of Zacchaeus, a notorious sinner.  Here is how Jesus summarizes that action.  “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.

Is this image of the dinner table an accident in Jesus’ ministry?  No, it is a peek into God’s heart.  The Trinity takes us to God’s heart.

Hanging in our bedroom is a copy of “The Icon of the Holy Trinity.”  This icon was created by Andrei Rublev in 1410. This is an image that begins in the Old Testament.  Abraham welcomes three strange visitors to his tent in the heat of the day.  He serves them a marvelous meal.  During the meal, he discovers that these three strangers somehow are God—making a house call.  Like many Christian readers of the Old Testament, Rublev sees the three visitors as an image of the Holy Trinity.

I want you to notice just one thing today.  The dinner table has three guests—and four sides.  The picture invites you to consider taking your place at that table with God.

Please don’t skip over this theme.  Just for once, maybe, let’s make this more than a ho-hum assertion.  The Maker of all things wants you in God’s life.  The Redeemer of the universe wants you in God’s life.  The Sustainer of Creation wants you in God’s life.  At the heart of God is a sign that says, “Welcome, child—Welcome, sinner—Welcome, friend.”  That sign is at the place reserved for you and you alone.  And God will do anything to get you to the table.

The Trinity takes us to God’s heart.

I invite you to open your heart today to God’s heart.  God pours out everything so that you and I can be filled.  Today we come as close to God’s heart as we can get.  God invites you to open your heart to that self-giving love.  In prayer, praise and worship, you can say to God, “Touch my heart.  Fill me today with your love.  Change my heart to be what you want.  Make me yours, O God!”

And in that heart, the Holy Spirit brings New Life to birth.

Brenda and I enjoy the PBS series entitled, Call the Midwife. The series is based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth. She worked as a midwife in London’s impoverished East End, beginning in the late 1950’s. The show has its share of love affairs and tragedies. But the center of the story is always about delivering new babies.

Dozens of times we have heard mothers cry out in anguish, “I can’t do this!” And dozens of times we have watched a midwife wipe the sweat off the mother’s brow, swab her chapped lips and gently assert, “Yes, you can! I will help you!” And minutes later a life is laid on the mother’s breast.

The Holy Spirit brings New Life to birth. That new life is launched in God’s victory at Easter. Easter becomes personal as that new life changes us from the inside out every day. And that new life works through us to bring new life to all.

So think today about the Holy Spirit as midwife. First, the Holy Spirit doesn’t just wind us up for the day and then leave us to our own devices. That’s how many of us think—that we’re on our own. But that’s not how the Spirit operates. In his book, The Awakened Heart, Gerald May offers this comment. “I think it hurts God,” he writes, “when religious people cannot trust God’s presence with them all the time.”[i]

In my first call, I was fortunate to know a gifted lay preacher from another community. Sometimes he led worship while I vacationed. Sometimes he preached so that I could hear a sermon and worship with my family. He was a farmer, and he always prepared sermons in the same way. He kept a pad of sticky notes in his tractor cab. When he got a thought or an idea or an illustration, he wrote it down and stuck on the window of the cab. By the end of the week he had his sermon.

I will never forget one of those sticky note ideas. He was reminding us of God’s closeness all the time and every day. “God is closer to me,” he told the congregation, “than my dirty underwear.” It took us a moment to get past the image itself. Then the Good News came through. The Holy Spirit doesn’t set us spinning and then walk away. The Holy Spirit works in and through us at every moment of every day.

The Holy Spirit brings New Life to birth.

The Holy Spirit breathes with us through the pain. I had the honor of being my first wife’s labor coach during two deliveries. I discovered that what I said made little difference during the most painful moments of the process. In fact, the less I said the better things went at those moments. But two things did matter. I never let go of her hand, even though I thought she might squeeze the bones right out of it. And I breathed with her through the pain.

When life gets really real, our mouths are not up to the task. In our traumas and trials, we cannot find the words. That’s why we all struggle to know what to say to someone who is grieving. Human words cannot speak the unspeakable. Human lips cannot utter the unutterable. So the Holy Spirit breathes us through the pain.

Our calling to is “bear love.” Earlier I mentioned Gerald May’s fine book, The Awakened Heart. May discusses what it means to “bear love.” We endure the cost of loving. We carry love to others and spread it around. And we bring love to birth in the world.

That’s why Trinity is really about doing rather than talking. The primaballerina, Isadora Duncan, was once asked to explain a dance she had performed. “I can’t explain the dance to you,” she replied. “If I could say it, I wouldn’t have to dance it.”

If we could just talk about God’s love in Jesus, then we wouldn’t have to dance it, or do it. But God’s best work is too deep and mysterious to be trapped in mere words. Birth is a process, not a lecture. New life is a miracle, not a model.

The Trinity takes us to God’s heart. And in that heart, the Holy Spirit brings New Life to birth.

[i] Gerald May, The Awakened Heart, page 85.

Text Study for John 3:1-17 (Pt. 5); Holy Trinity B, 2021

5. The Wind, the Word, and the Womb

Now, to clean up a few loose ends…First, have you made your contribution to yet? During their May fund drive, your gift is matched dollar for dollar.

Now, on with the show.

Last year, we had terrible luck in growing tomatoes in the garden. The plants we purchased came fully equipped with tomato yellow leaf curl virus. The disease devastated the plants, and we never harvested one fruit. We were determined to find a way to avoid a repeat performance this year.

We planted tomatoes from certified seed and began their lives indoors. All has gone remarkably well (so far), and we suddenly had nearly 40 brave little vines bending toward the light and sucking up water and nutrients. We studied “hardening off” the seedlings and have put them outside to get stronger. They continue to respond well.

The hardening off process allows the new plants to adjust to the variations in temperature, moisture and humidity that don’t happen indoors. More than that, they are gently buffeted by natural breezes. In the process, the stems strengthen, and the baby plants are prepared for adolescence. The wind is a necessary part of the maturing process and provides the stress required for strength.

Photo by PhotoMIX Company on

Yes, it’s a labored metaphor, but it works for me. The Wind is necessary for maturity. It strengthens the stalk for real life and further growth. Part of the Spirit’s job is to make Christians “anti-fragile”! The Wind blows where it chooses, and we can observe the effects – the waving vines and the sound as the Wind passes. The Wind comes and goes as the Wind chooses and leaves that mark on those who are children of the Wind.

The Wind of the Spirit blows up our assumptions, blows down our walls, and blows into our hearts. This is not to destroy us but to build us up into all that God has made us to be. Jesus makes it clear that the Wind is where it begins. But the wind blows only the life to which the Word testifies and the Womb bears.

The Word speaks only with the Breath of the Wind that blows life into bones that are dried out and clean cut off. The Womb delivers the life that drives the Wind and begets the Word. The Wind creates the breath-giving trust that hears the Word which calls us to the Womb of New Creation.

The Wind, the Word, the Womb – this is the experience of the Trinity in John, chapter 3. The philosophical analysis of the interior and exterior workings of the Trinity will wait for another few centuries. In John, the Wind of the Spirit creates the breathed-in trust called faith that hears the Word of the only-begotten Son who calls us to the Womb of Eternal New Creating.

“The reference to the Spirit here needs to be situated within the larger portrayal of the Spirit’s activity and character according to John,” Karoline Lewis writes in her commentary (page 47). Our attention should be drawn, she continues, to John 20:22, where the risen Jesus breathes on the disciples and gifts them with the Holy Spirit. The reference to the Spirit here in John 3:5, Lewis writes, is “literally about becoming a child of God, a new creation, a new created identity, rebirth, that encompasses being born again, anew, and from above” (page 47).

In a week when we remember the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the white supremacist pogrom of the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921, we white Christians are called to wrestle with the source of our identity as humans and as Christians. What will it take to disentangle that Christian identity from the cement overcoat of whiteness, both as individual identity and as systemic reality? Do we actually want to disentangle the one from the other? If we do, we will surrender our illusions of mastery and control.

“The image of the wind/spirit (pneuma) in 3:8 points to the danger of defining life and restricting possibilities according to what we can know and control, writes Gail O’Day. “Nicodemus cannot know the whence and whither of the wind; yet the mystery of the wind does not diminish the wind’s power and reality. The wind blows where it will, and our part is to hear the sound of it, not to attempt to dictate and control its comings and goings. As is true of the wind, ‘so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ We can no more control and contain Jesus’ offer of new life than we can contain the wind. We can embrace the offer of new life and be born anothen, or we can spend our days in resistant amazement, weighing the odds and the costs.” (O’Day article, page 58).

Spending our days in resistant amazement, weighing the odds and the costs — ok, that’s an irresistible sermon quote. Or it would be if it didn’t hit quite so close to home…

“Traduttore traditore,” says the old Latin proverb. “The translator is a traitor.” This wisdom is triply true when it comes to Christian theology. Our theology, if it is creative, honest, and deep, always borders on blasphemy. Words cannot and dare not capture the Word, any more than we can bottle and distribute the Wind. So, we always dance on the knife’s edge of poetry when we dare to speak of the Trinity at all. The double and triple entendre of artistry in the Gospel of John weaves poetry and prose to achieve an approximation of awe and wonder.

Theology without humility is idolatry (and I think humility without theology is idiocy, but that’s another story). If we know something, objectively and conceptually and intellectually, we can delude ourselves into believing we control it. Preaching without penitence is criminal arrogance. Instead, we should sit with Job periodically and confess that we are dust and ashes in the presence of The Eternal Mystery.

Trinity Sunday, therefore, is no day to delineate a doctrine or to celebrate the feast of a theological fetish. Instead, Trinity Sunday is the festival of epistemic humility, the liturgy of those “lost in wonder, love, and praise” (Charles Wesley, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” – see Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #631). I think Wesley’s text is a non-negotiable for Trinity Sunday, although I would consider singing the first two verses in reverse order – leading off with the Breath, “end of faith as its beginning…”

Epistemic humility is rooted in the kind of god we profess to worship. This is the question Douglas John Hall raises in The Cross in Our Context (among other places). When we Christians talk about “God,” which “God” do we mean? “Where deity is concerned,” Hall asks, “is our foundational assumption that of power or that of love?” (page 77). I read the gospel text for Holy Trinity Sunday through the lens of that question.

If we live in the places of power, position, privilege, and property, we are likely to pledge our allegiance to the God of power. “When religion is brought into the center of political power and caused to serve as the spiritual guarantor and cultic legitimator of the powers-that-are,” Hall writes, “the natural or psychic propensity to link God with power is given a new and subtle twist. God, then,” Hall continues, “is no longer merely the transcendent force behind the ever-changing scene of existence but an eternal sovereignty reflected in and radiating from the throne of earthly might and authority.”

This the god, for example, who is “worshipped” in the proposed “God Bless the USA Bible.” I encourage you to read the article by Shane Claiborne, Doug Pagitt, Lisa Sharon Harper, Jemar Tisby, and Soong-Chan Rah on for more details.

The God of power over love requires that we come to the Divine throne and demonstrate our worth and our worship in order to remain in the Divine presence. If we live in places of vulnerability, displacement, oppression, and want, we are likely to see God as the one who suffers with us.

Can we relinquish our addiction to the power-loving god who ratifies our hierarchies and hegemonies? Can white Christianity untangle itself from supremacist, triumphalist, imperialist ideologies and become once again the community that follows the Crucified God? I am sure the answer is “yes” on some macro scale, but I am not nearly so confident about the responses of particular denominations and faith communities, including my own.

Trinity Sunday allows us to remember and declare that God’s Love for the world comes in the shape of a cross (John 3:16). “If the crucified one is truly representative of the God by whom faith believes him to have been sent,” Hall writes, “then, however ponderous the transcendent power that reason and religion have attributed to deity, the Christian god must be seen as a suffering God” (page 85).

That Love reveals what God is like for us (John 1:18). Hall quotes one of Paul Tillich’s best lines in this regard (with apologies for the male-dominant pronouns). God “showed us His heart,” Tillich wrote in describing Luther’s theology, “so that our hearts could be won” (page 85).

And that Love blows through the cosmos, creating new life wherever that Love chooses.

References and Resources

Clark-Soles, Jaime. “Characters who count: the case of Nicodemus,” Chapter 7 in Engaging with C. H. Dodd on the Gospel of John: Sixty Years of Tradition and Interpretation. Edited by Tom Thatcher and Catrin Williams. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Curtice, Kaitlin B. Native. Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Koester, Craig R., “Hearing, seeing, and believing in the Gospel of John” (1989). Faculty Publications. 22.

Lewis, Karoline M.; Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries) Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

O’Day, Gail R. “New Birth as a New People: Spirituality and Community in the Fourth Gospel.” Word & World 8/1 (1988), pages 53-61.’Day.pdf.

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Thurman, Howard. Jesus and the Disinherited. Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.

Wengert, Timothy J. (translator). Luther’s Small Catechism with Evangelical Lutheran Worship Texts. Minneapolis, MN.: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2008.

Wengert, Timothy J. Martin Luther’s Catechisms: Forming the Faith. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2009.

Text Study for John 3:1-17 (Pt. 4); Holy Trinity B, 2021

4. Wholly and Holy Possible

“One of the church’s biggest blind spots,” Kaitlin Curtice writes in Native, “is ignoring the stories of those on the outside. We hide behind dogma and theology,” she suggests, “instead of leaning into our humanity to connect with one another or to the land” (page 66). It’s not much of a leap from this description to that of Nicodemus in the third chapter of John’s gospel.

Nicodemus is an excellent representative of establishment (white) Christian churches in any time and place. For the most part, he is a stereotype used by the writer of John’s gospel to make theological points. So, we should not consider this a description of a variety of first century Judaism. Rather, Nicodemus stands in a mirror looking back at us, safe and secure, passive and privileged members of the American Christian establishment.

Photo by Pixabay on

Gail O’Day offers an insightful and rich meditation on the resistance to newness in John 3 as she writes in her 1988 Word & World article, “New Birth as a New People: Spirituality and Community in the Fourth Gospel.” I think it’s worth our time to review that article, reflect on her comments, and riff a bit on where she leads us.

The talk of being “born” in John 3 should take us back to the Johannine prologue, and especially to John 1:12. “And whoever received him [the Word], he gave the legitimate authority to be(come) children of God, to the ones who placed their trust in his name…” (my translation). O’Day argues that in the Prologue, we learn that “when one becomes a child of God, one is given a new identity” (see John 1:13), and “one also enters into a new community” of those who have beheld the glory of the Word (see John 1:14). “Thus, through belief in Jesus’ name,” she concludes, “we become a new people and I become a new person” (page 53).

As our weekly text study group discussed this text, both the gift and the challenge of this text became obvious, Newness means relinquishing oldness, and that’s painful, frightening, destabilizing, and threatening. That possibility may not be any better news for us in our established churches than it was for Nicodemus in his (stereotypical) settled certainty. Newness of life appears to mean that some sort of death comes first. Generally, we settled and certain types are not lining up for that opportunity.

O’Day notes this tension in the text of the Prologue. “There are others who do not recognize Jesus for who he is and do not receive him,” she observes. “This note of tension and resistance is not present only in the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel. Rather,” she suggests, “these opening verses are programmatic of the response Jesus receives throughout the gospel” (pages 53-54). The call to newness can evoke a generative response, but it is just as likely to provoke what the Hebrew scriptures call “hardness of heart.” The story of Nicodemus is a case study of this tension.

O’Day notes that Nicodemus already has an identity and a community. He is named and comes “out from” the Pharisees. His interest in Jesus is rooted in a credulity based on Jesus’ previous signs. The fourth gospel has ended chapter two, as O’Day notes, by asserting that “sign faith” is precisely the kind of faith that Jesus will not trust as faithfulness. “As if to test Nicodemus’ knowledge,” O’Day writes, “Jesus’ response to Nicodemus is to offer a teaching. Jesus is providing Nicodemus with the chance to show that he can see and comprehend beyond the level of signs” (page 55).

We have observed the polyvalent possibilities of anothen. O’Day rightly notes that the use of the term “underscores that the newness of which Jesus speaks cannot be contained or comprehended by any simple or preexistent categories. He speaks of a newness that challenges even the conventional capacity of language” (page 57). Jesus invites Nicodemus to expand his imagination and his capacity to trust far beyond the limits of his conventional and established vision and hopes.

What a good word for Christians who, for the most part, want nothing so desperately as to go “back to the way things were” before Covid-time! The invitation to be born, as O’Day notes, is the opportunity to receive a new identity. The invitation to see and to enter the “Kingdom of God” is the opportunity to become part of a new community, “to serve in God’s kingdom with all those freshly born” (page 57).

Nicodemus protests the terms of the invitation and resists the promise, as O’Day puts it. Nicodemus says to Jesus, “How is a person (‘man,’ which connects us again to John 2:23-25 and to John 3:1) able to be born when one is old?” (John 3:4). Nicodemus already knows what is possible, in his view of the world (see previous posts). Jesus’ offer of the new birth “challenges too much of what Nicodemus accepts as settled. His imagination is not prepared for the newness Jesus offers,” O’Day argues, “and so he clings tenaciously to his categories of the possible and impossible” (page 57).

Clinging tenaciously to our categories of the possible and the impossible – this will be the death of any number of congregations and perhaps even some Christian denominations in the next decade.

O’Day identifies a pattern in John 3 which carries through the whole of our gospel reading for Trinity Sunday. Jesus offers new life. We (aka Nicodemus) resist the offer. Jesus repeats the offer, and we repeat the resistance. The second cycle of the pattern happens in verses 5 through 9.

The second round “ups the ante” (pun intended). “The new birth will both contain and transform all prior experience and categories of birth,” O’Day writes. “The reference to water and Spirit means that the new birth can be limited neither to the physical rebirth that Nicodemus seems to envision, nor can it be identified with some form of psychological, internal readjustment of human nature. Jesus speaks of a new mode of new life which both encompasses and transcends these two options. A new life will be born,” she concludes, “no longer only from water, but from water and Spirit” (page 58).

The reference to the Wind/Spirit/Breath in John 3:8 will get more attention in the next post. Jesus emphasizes the unpredictable and uncontrollable independences of the Wind/Spirit/Breath, at least from our perspective. “We can embrace the offer of new life and be born anothen,” O’Day concludes, “or we can spend our days in resistant amazement, weighing the odds and the costs” (page 58). Nicodemus illustrates “resistant amazement” and disappears from the narrative – for the moment.

Before we let him go, we need to look once more in the mirror at our own “resistant amazement” in this moment which calls forth newness or death for many of our churches. Even though O’Day was writing nearly 25 years ago, her questions are pointed and pertinent.

“The particular question that the text of John 3 puts before us,” she proposes, “is whether indeed we will allow our lives to be transformed by God’s possibilities. Will we allow God’s power and promise for newness to have full reign in the transformation of our lives, or will we define the places and pockets where God’s newness is allowed to enter? Will we establish what is and is not possible, or will we relinquish such determinations to God’s “impossible” hopes? Will we embrace the chance to be born anothen, or will we join Nicodemus in asking, ‘How are these things possible?’” (page 59).

I might consider ending my message with that quote and leave the question mark as the conclusion. In a footnote, O’Day quotes Joseph Sittler in Gravity and Grace, who noted that the task of the sermon is “to hang the holy possible in front of the mind of the listeners”. She says, “This is also what this text is about – to move the listener/reader from the human impossible to the holy possible” (page 60, note 13). There’s a sermon title in there for sure!

Of course, John 3:9 is hardly the end of our gospel reading. O’Day argues that John 3:10-15 constitutes the third “offer of new life” in the story. O’Day notes that anothen does not appear in these verses as such. However, Jesus notes that the Son of Man must be “lifted up.” Thus, the offer of new life comes “from above,” but the “above” is the cross. “The offer of new life, ‘to be born anothen,’ has only one source—Jesus’ offer of his own life,” O’Day writes. “Jesus’ offer of his life through his being lifted up on the cross makes new life possible. To be born from above is to be born anew in the lifting up of Jesus on the cross” (page 60).

This “new life” then, O’Day argues, “is the final determination of both new identity and new community” (page 60). It is the definition of what it means to have the legitimate right to be(come) a child of God. Nicodemus will come back twice more in this journey toward new identity and new community. As noted in a previous post, the gospel account does not resolve his story (or ours). O’Day seems optimistic that good ol’ Nic got it in the end: “Jesus’ death opens Nicodemus to the possibility of new life. Grace and newness of life are made available even to those who try to say no. God’s possibilities will triumph and work transformation” (page 60).

O’Day’s concluding words are worth another quote here. “Our personal lives and our lives lived in community will never be transformed, will never move from brokenness and fear to wholeness and hope, until we can listen again to Jesus’ promise of new birth offered in this Fourth Gospel text,” she writes. “We must stop asking, ‘How is it possible?’ and instead affirm that God’s grace can make even the hardest of hearts new” (page 61).

How does she know me so well?

References and Resources

Clark-Soles, Jaime. “Characters who count: the case of Nicodemus,” Chapter 7 in Engaging with C. H. Dodd on the Gospel of John: Sixty Years of Tradition and Interpretation. Edited by Tom Thatcher and Catrin Williams. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Curtice, Kaitlin B. Native. Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Koester, Craig R., “Hearing, seeing, and believing in the Gospel of John” (1989). Faculty Publications. 22.

Lewis, Karoline M.; Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries) Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

O’Day, Gail R. “New Birth as a New People: Spirituality and Community in the Fourth Gospel.” Word & World 8/1 (1988), pages 53-61.’Day.pdf.

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Thurman, Howard. Jesus and the Disinherited. Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.

Wengert, Timothy J. (translator). Luther’s Small Catechism with Evangelical Lutheran Worship Texts. Minneapolis, MN.: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2008.

Wengert, Timothy J. Martin Luther’s Catechisms: Forming the Faith. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2009.

Text Study for John 3:1-17 (Pt. 3); Holy Trinity B, 2021

3. Knowing the Unknown

Krista Tippett recently interviewed Dr. Jill Tarter for her On Being podcast and radio broadcast. Tarter, according to the show notes “is the co-founder and chair emeritus for SETI Research at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. She currently serves on the management board for the Allen Telescope Array. She has been awarded two Exceptional Public Service medals from NASA and the Women in Aerospace Lifetime Achievement Award. In April of 2021, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.”

She was also the model for the astrophysicist, Dr. Ellie Arroway, the lead character in Contact, the movie adaptation of Carl Sagan’s book by the same name. It’s a great interview, and I’d recommend it for your edification and entertainment.

Tarter talks about the factors that have motivated and informed the systematic search for extra-terrestrial intelligence – especially the “game-changers” that have opened new avenues for that project.

Photo by Alex Andrews on

Among those was the discovery of “extremophiles,” forms of terrestrial life that exist and flourish in incredibly “hostile” environments such as the cooling water of nuclear reactors, the boiling battery acid of volcanic eruptions, and the neighborhood of thermal vents at the bottom of the ocean.

If life can evolve there, might it also evolve in unexpected places on other planets? The possibility opened up new pathways forward in the SETI journey. “So, I think that part of the lesson there is, we need to stop projecting what we think onto what we don’t yet know,” she suggested at the end of this description. “So we were totally wrong,” she notes, “and now extremophiles and exoplanets suggest there’s just a huge amount of potentially habitable environments out there.”

Stop projecting what we think we know on what we don’t know – that’s a good admonition for Nicodemus, and for us. Nic projects what he thinks he knows on what he doesn’t know. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher coming from God,” he states with such confidence, “for no one is able to do these signs which you are doing unless God is with that person” (John 3:2, my translation).

Nicodemus uses the Greek word for “knowing” that is less relational and more arm’s-length (oida). When Jesus gets around to “knowing” again in verse 10, he uses the Greek word for knowing that is relational and interpersonal (ginosko). That’s a detail that matters in our understanding of the text (and of the work of the Trinity in the cosmos).

Part of Nic’s problem, therefore, is his epistemology, his commitment to a particular way of knowing. He projects what he thinks he knows about how God works on to what he doesn’t know about Jesus. He can’t – is not able – to access the Abundant, Eternal Life Jesus offers from his current point of view. He must be born “from above” in order to have the appropriate point of view.

“From above” is about one’s worldview, one’s perspective on reality – not about one’s physical location or momentary experience. “We can’t solve problems,” Albert Einstein wrote, “by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Nic could have used some of Einstein’s insight and openness during his night visit to Jesus.

People believe that Einstein also famously coined a definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” The phrase was around a hundred years before Einstein was writing. It is so wise that it became associated with the famous physicist in the 1980’s. In any case, Nicodemus could have used that good counsel as well in his dialogue with Jesus.

What Nicodemus thought he knew for sure was an obstacle to gaining the real knowing that Jesus offered. This is John’s version of Jesus’ words to Peter in Mark 8. Nicodemus had his mind set on human things rather than on Divine things and was reluctant to budge from that position.

We can have some sympathy for good, old, Nic in this regard. How do we respond when we discover that what we thought we knew for sure is wrong? We tend to respond more often with violence than with new vision. Such a discovery typically terrifies people. And terrified people are always potential terrorists. The path to Abundant, Eternal Life requires a vision of something authentically new.

Therefore, Jesus’ metaphor is precise. The vision of something authentically new is just like being reborn, being made new, starting over from scratch. This requires dismantling much of what we thought we knew for sure. I think of Thomas Kuhn and his reflections in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. What we think we know for sure is often the chief obstacle to new knowing. That’s why new knowing more often comes through revolution than through evolution.

Nicodemus certainly serves as a type for the “established” Church of our time. I don’t mean a legally established Church, of course. I mean the Christian cultural reality which has created and undergirded western, imperial, and colonial politics and culture for the last 500 years.

That model has worked incredibly well for the small number of white, male, wealthy, property owners who designed and maintained the system. Within that system, it was possible to “know” things for sure. “White” and “male” and “powerful” were the categories that defined truth, beauty, and goodness and served as the centers of cultural and political reality. Lots of information could be generated within that system – some of it good, but much of it bad for those who didn’t fit the centered categories.

Now, that system is being recognized for what it is. That system of knowing is threatened with deconstruction, decolonizing and de-centering. The response is predictably violent. How do we respond when we discover that what we thought we knew for sure is wrong? A casual perusal of the headlines on any given day provides numerous illustrations of the responses.

The Divine Spirit of Life and Love is not captured by or contained in any human construction. That Spirit blows where the Spirit wants, refuses to color inside the lines, is no respecter of hierarchies or hegemonies. That Divine Spirit breathes new life into us if we’re able to accept the gift. We don’t decide where the Spirit blows or what gets blown around.

In fact, the Spirit rarely blows from the center outward to the margins. The reverse is almost always the case. That’s why it’s important to keep in mind the diptych approach that structures the Gospel of John. Many commentators have noted that the gospel writer sets up intentional parallels between characters. The one important for our purposes is the contrast between Nicodemus in chapter 3 and the Samaritan woman in chapter 4.

Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman show us that the established center is the last place where we will find new ways of seeing, thinking, and knowing. Nic doesn’t get it because he is committed to a privileged system. He meets Jesus in the dark and has trouble getting out of the shadows. The Samaritan woman labors under no such limitations. She meets Jesus in the glare of noonday and gets it almost immediately.

“Too often the price exacted by society for security and respectability,” Howard Thurman writes in Jesus and the Disinherited, “is that the Christian movement in its formal expression must be on the side of the strong against the weak” (pages 11-12). We have spent far too much time with Nicodemus, projecting what we think we know on to realities about which we know very little. Will congregations be willing to venture out to the village well and learn from the Samaritan women in our communities?

So far, the reviews are mixed. In our predominantly wealthy and white and male (in terms of leadership and values) congregations, the response too often has been that issues of race and class, gender and ethnicity, power and privilege – these are problems of other people, far from us. Why should we be concerned? After all, things are just fine for us in our location and from our perspective. We already know what we know, and it works for us.

If that is our perspective, then the gospel reading for this Trinity Sunday may be and should be an uncomforting and discomfiting text. At least, that should be the case if we even hear what’s going on.

Transforming vision comes mostly from the margins and rarely from the center. Like Nicodemus, we must be born from above, anew, and again. That birth is and will be painful and traumatic. What birthing is not? Moreover, that new birth is a daily experience and not merely a one-off event.

This is, after all, how we Lutherans understand our baptismal covenant – our entry into the “born from above” life. Luther asks in his Small Catechism, “What does baptism signify?”  He answers, “It signifies that the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily sorrow for sin and through repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever” (page 44).

This Christian business is not about what we think we know. It’s about how we are known, and loved, into new life every day. That newness is both personal and institutional, both relational and systemic. That newness is the main business of the life of the Trinity within us, among us, and through us.

References and Resources

Clark-Soles, Jaime. “Characters who count: the case of Nicodemus,” Chapter 7 in Engaging with C. H. Dodd on the Gospel of John: Sixty Years of Tradition and Interpretation. Edited by Tom Thatcher and Catrin Williams. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Koester, Craig R., “Hearing, seeing, and believing in the Gospel of John” (1989). Faculty Publications. 22.

Lewis, Karoline M.; Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries) Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Thurman, Howard. Jesus and the Disinherited. Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.

Wengert, Timothy J. (translator). Luther’s Small Catechism with Evangelical Lutheran Worship Texts. Minneapolis, MN.: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2008.

Wengert, Timothy J. Martin Luther’s Catechisms: Forming the Faith. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2009.

Text Study for John 3:1-17 (Pt. 2); Holy Trinity B, 2021

2. But What is “Believing”?

If believing is seeing in the Gospel of John, then what does the gospel writer mean by “believing”? “Indeed, Jesus also did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which have not been written in this book,” the evangelist declares in John 20:30-31, “but these have been written in order that you would trust that the Messiah, the Son of God, is Jesus, and in order that by continuing to believe you may have life in his name” (my translation). There is clearly some relationship in the Gospel of John between seeing “signs” and coming to trust Jesus. What that relationship is remains the subject of scholarly investigation and debate.

In John, chapter 2, we have two texts with clear signs reported in them. First, we have the wine miracle at the wedding at Cana. “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee,” the writer reports, “and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (John 2:11, NRSV). In this brief text we have a sign, some comments (which were made by the wine steward, not Jesus), and “believing” on the part of the disciples.

Photo by Julia Volk on

Second, we read about the Temple Incident. The religious authorities demand that Jesus should produce a sign to justify his action. Jesus cryptically points to the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension as he describes the destruction and restoration of the Temple of his body. While this interaction does not produce immediate “believing,” it has long-term effect. “After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken” (John 2:22, NRSV). This text is a preview of the discussion below on believing and hearing, but let’s hold off on that for now.

After these texts, we get a brief but significant aside from the gospel writer. “But as he was in Jerusalem during the festival of Passover, many trusted in in him, seeing his signs which he did,” we read in John 2:23 (my translation). “But Jesus himself did not entrust himself to them, because he knew the thing about all [of them], and he had no need that one might testify concerning a person; for he himself understood what was in a person” (John 2:24-25, my translation).

The gospel writer affirms that Jesus will not entrust himself to “a person” whose faith is rooted in the signs they have seen. In the next verse, “a person” (Greek = “Anthropos”) comes to him and begins babbling about the signs Jesus has done and how those signs demonstrate that God is “with” Jesus (see John 3:3). Karoline Lewis notes that reliance on signs, according to the Gospel of John, can result in, at most, an incomplete believing and is as likely to mislead the inquirer as to produce authentic believing.

Craig Koester looks at the juxtaposition of texts in John as a way that the writer demonstrates the complicated relationship between seeing and believing. He notes that different audiences witnessed the same signs. “Faith” comes or does not because of how those audiences then respond to Jesus’ words which follow the signs.

For our purposes, we note that Koester lifts up the connection between Nicodemus in chapter 3 and the Samaritan woman in chapter 4. The two characters are a study in contrasts: Jewish man vs. Samaritan woman, religious authority vs. one who is socially marginalized, coming by night vs. meeting Jesus in broad daylight. Moreover, Nicodemus fades from the scene as Jesus speaks. The Samaritan woman becomes more engaged as Jesus speaks (pages 333-334). That contrast is a clear mark of believing.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus, Koester notes, because he saw some of Jesus’ previous signs. But, Koester continues, “The signs had not prepared Nicodemus to believe Jesus’ words. Genuine ‘seeing’ means seeing or entering the kingdom of God (3,3.5) and seeing or having eternal life (3,36). Such vision,” Koester concludes, “can only come from a new birth and a faith that receives Jesus’ testimony (3,11.33)” (page 335). By the end of the chapter, it appears that Nicodemus is one of those who has not accepted the Son’s testimony — at least, at that point in the plot.

The Samaritan woman comes without prior experience of Jesus’ signs. Her expectation is not shaped by experience. She is surprised by Jesus in multiple ways and begins to believe in him. She shares her nascent testimony with others and leads them to hear Jesus further. The Samaritans in the village come to believe because of Jesus’ word (John 4:41-42). The term here, by the way, is “Logos.” There was no prior seeing. So, for the Samaritans, believing does in fact lead to seeing.

The Gospel of John climaxes with the Thomas story and the benediction upon those who have not seen and yet believed. That believing comes by hearing the Word through the testimony of the disciples. “The macarism in 20,29 does not deny that the disciples who believed when they saw Jesus were blessed;” Koester concludes, “it insists that those who believe without seeing are blessed, through a faith engendered by hearing the testimony of others” (page 346). Those others have received the gift of the Holy Spirit and the task of binding and loosing in Jesus’ name.

That blessing is for us as readers of the Gospel of John. We have not seen the signs of the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension firsthand. Instead, we have the testimony of the Word. “The signs recorded in the gospel,” Koester says, “would confirm and be received by the faith which the readers already had, that they might continue to believe” (page 347). Koester concludes that believing doesn’t come through seeing in the Fourth Gospel, but rather through hearing. The experience of seeing produced mixed results. It is testimony that works, according to the gospel writer.

We have a clear intersection with Paul’s words in Romans 10. He notes that everyone, whether Jew or Greek, can call on the name of the Lord and thus be saved (verse 12). “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed?” Paul asks. “And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?” (Romans 10:14, NRSV). Believing comes from hearing the Good News of the Messiah, the Son of God, Jesus. As Luther noted, the church is a mundhaus, a “mouth house,” where oral proclamation is the primary activity.

So, faith comes from what is heard,” Paul concludes, “and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17, NRSV). Paul uses the Greek term for spoken words, (“rhematos”), rather than “logos” for “word” here to make sure we understand that he is talking about words that are spoken either by or about (likely both) Christ. While methods and means of verbal proclamation certainly change and adapt over time, the need for verbal Christian witness is apparently non-negotiable. “The evangelist makes clear,” Koester concludes, “that Jesus’ actions were rightly perceived only by those who already responded with faith or trusting obedience to what they had heard from or about Jesus” (page 348).

What, then, what does “believing” look like in the Gospel of John? It does not look like Nicodemus in John 3. Nicodemus comes with a preconceived notion of the importance and meaning of Jesus’ signs. As a result, Jesus will not entrust himself to such a person (although, as we have seen, there may be hope for good old Nic yet). Nicodemus represents those of Jesus’ “own” [people] who did not welcome the Word made flesh (see John 1:11). Nicodemus is “The Teacher of Israel,” but is limited in his seeing by what he thinks he already knows about God. His seeing does not lead to “believing.”

Instead, in John’s Gospel, “believing” is first of all welcoming (accepting, receiving) the gift of the Word made flesh and dwelling among us. The Word comes from God and is God. This Word reveals the very heart of God the Father, whom the cosmos has not seen in fullness until the coming of Jesus (see John 1:18).

“To those who received him, he has given to them the legitimate right to be children of God…” (John 1:12, my translation). While signs may serve as illustrations of Jesus’ witness and reminders upon reflection, they do not produce believing. Believing is a gift to be received. Then it is a call to be answered. And finally, it is a task to be performed. In addition, believing is not a one-time event or decision but rather an ongoing allegiance and way of life, nourished and supported by the Paraclete, who is called alongside us on the journey.

“As we have noted repeatedly, faith is not a one-time event, but a process,” write O’Day and Hylen. “Many believe in Jesus only to later reject him; others have a tenuous belief that competes with their fear; even those who do believe do not fully understand. The Gospel,” they suggest, “offers its invitation to any who would begin to believe, or continue to believe, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God” (Kindle Location 4125).

References and Resources

Clark-Soles, Jaime. “Characters who count: the case of Nicodemus,” Chapter 7 in Engaging with C. H. Dodd on the Gospel of John: Sixty Years of Tradition and Interpretation. Edited by Tom Thatcher and Catrin Williams. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Koester, Craig R., “Hearing, seeing, and believing in the Gospel of John” (1989). Faculty Publications. 22.

Lewis, Karoline M.; Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries) Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Wengert, Timothy J. (translator). Luther’s Small Catechism with Evangelical Lutheran Worship Texts. Minneapolis, MN.: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2008.

Wengert, Timothy J. Martin Luther’s Catechisms: Forming the Faith. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2009.

Text Study for John 3:1-17 (Pt. 1); Holy Trinity B, 2021

“Seeing is believing,” goes the old chestnut. Few of us know, however, the original and fuller context of the saying. “Seeing is believing,” wrote 17th century English clergyman, Thomas Fuller, “but feeling is the truth.” Fuller was skeptical that English philosophical empiricism and its emphasis on the value of sense data alone could fulfill its promise to deliver The Truth. Instead, Fuller wanted to leave room for intuition, insight, and emotion in the “knowing” business.

The Gospel of John goes further and is more astute even than the Reverend Fuller. Seeing is not believing in the gospel. It may even be an impediment to believing in some cases. Instead, John tells us over and over that believing is what produces seeing. In an age when we are more and more familiar with ideas such as confirmation bias, anchoring, the halo effect, and the availability heuristic (to name just a few of our cognitive blind spots), we know that believing has a profound impact on what we are willing and able to see.

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Jesus declares to the befuddled Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born from above, one is not able to see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3, my translation). It is one’s worldview – what the Gospel of John would call one’s “faith” – that determines what one sees rather than the other way around. Nicodemus and his colleagues are focused on what they can see – the “signs” that Jesus is doing – in order to determine what they believe. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he has things backwards.

As I have meditated on the mystery of the Trinity, I have usually begun with God the Father, moved to God the Son, and then proceeded to God the Holy Spirit. Lately, however, I have realized that in terms of faith experience, that order is precisely backwards. Faith in Jesus – God with us – begins as the creation of and gift from God the Holy Spirit.

“I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him,” Martin Luther writes in the Small Catechism. “But instead,” Luther continues, “the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel…” (page 31). Tim Wengert describes the Holy Spirit as “the beginning of God’s work with us” (page 59). The Holy Spirit makes dead flesh into living and breathing humans, enlivened by faith. Wengert writes, “Nothing can stand in the Holy Spirit’s way in making the dead alive: here, daily, by faith and forgiveness, and, one day, eternally, in the resurrection of the dead” (page 67).

I’ve never preached or heard a sermon on the doctrine of the Trinity that I remember. As most commentators note, sermons on doctrines do not make for compelling preaching. But engaging with Nicodemus in the Gospel of John is quite another story. As we listen in on this odd and confusing dialogue and the discourse that follows, we can witness and participate in the drama of faith and the mystery of Spirit.

Jaime Clark-Soles examines Nicodemus through the lens of literary analysis applied to classical works. Read her book chapter noted in the “References and Resources” for the details of the methodology. Suffice it to say that Clark-Soles’ analysis leads us to see Nicodemus as an important, complex, and unresolved character in the drama of the Gospel of John. Nicodemus is named, unlike most of the other characters who have faith-related interactions with Jesus. He appears four times in the gospel and at some critical junctures. Here in John 3 Jesus names him “The Teacher of Israel” (the NRSV translation notwithstanding). Something important is going on with this bashful Pharisee and “ruler of the Jews.”

Clark-Soles suggests that all the elements of the plot of the Fourth Gospel are present in the nighttime interview in chapter 3. “To believe in God’s only-begotten son is of utmost value and is rewarded with eternal life, exemption from judgement, and salvation. Unbelievers are judged and perish. One is judged,” she concludes, “based on one’s stance towards believing or not believing in Jesus” (page 136). At the end of the interview, Nicodemus has not fared very well and simply disappears from sight – for now.

There is often debate about where the direct quotation ends in John 3 and where the discourse directed to the audience begins. I think that’s a false distinction, and Clark-Soles appears to agree. Instead, the whole discourse is directed both at Nicodemus and at us as the more informed audience. Why all the attention to Nicodemus here and in other places in the gospel, she wonders, unless he matters a great deal to the process of the gospel account?

“I suggest this is best explained,” she writes, “if we consider that Nicodemus remains in Jesus’ hearing at least until 3:21; he is drawn to a relationship with Jesus that he will struggle with throughout the narrative, causing him to see himself as an individual able to differentiate himself from his ‘natural’ group. Given his status, this process must be a frightening, potentially cataclysmic proposition. Nicodemus ponders all these things in his heart,” she proposes, “until we meet him again in chapter 7” (page 137).

The fact that we will meet Nicodemus again sets him apart from most of the other characters in John’s gospel. Will he come to believe at some point in such a way that he can see Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God? Things don’t look good in chapter 7. Even though he steps forward to raise a procedural issue in Jesus’ defense (7:50-52), he is immediately shouted down and retreats back into silence. He is unwilling to be cast out in the way that the blind man will be expelled in chapter 9.

But rather than portray Nicodemus as a failed disciple, the gospel writer suspends judgment and waits for things to unfold. Clark-Soles observes that “the narrator again carefully shows that Nicodemus belongs to a particular social group, and his encounter with Jesus places him in a precarious position vis-à-vis his own group” (page 139). I have to wonder if such situations were common among the first audience of the Fourth Gospel. The drama in chapter seven keeps us wondering if Nicodemus will see the light before the end.

Nicodemus also appears with Joseph of Arimathea at the deposition and burial of Jesus in chapter 19. Joseph appears at this point in all four canonical gospels. Nicodemus appears only in the account in the Fourth Gospel. Why does he show up in this way? What if Nicodemus functions, Clark-Soles wonders, like the women at the end of Mark’s gospel? “That is,” she writes, “what if the open-endedness or lack of closure is a rhetorical technique that invites the reader to imagine the narrative time extending beyond the Gospel and directly into the reader’s own life?” (page 140).

Nicodemus is, in Clark-Soles’ terms, “an open-ended character” (page 142). He struggles to believe in ways that other characters in the gospel account do not. There is plenty in the gospel for those on the margins of their communities – Samaritans, women, disabled, foreigners, Gentiles, and even the dead! “But the educated, high-status reader with much to lose in terms of social standing by following Jesus,” Clark-Soles notes, “might find the character of Nicodemus true to their own situation” (page 142). Again, this seems to suggest that such people – those in danger of losing power, position, privilege, and property – were a major audience focus for the writer of the Fourth Gospel.

In fact, Clark-Soles argues, perhaps the character of Nicodemus should be the one in the Fourth Gospel with whom readers would most identify – the one with the most to lose by believing in (professing allegiance to) Jesus and the one who has not made a choice either for or against by the end of the gospel account. “The reader turns him round and round like a prism,” she concludes, “seeing the different angles and, in doing so, catches perhaps a glimpse of the complexity of their own motives and the potential cost of following Jesus” (page 142).

Perhaps the call in the Gospel of John is for Nicodemus and those like him to come to some resolution of the question of Jesus as Messiah and Son of God. The Fourth Gospel, with the story of Nicodemus, “may finally move from having their mind on earthly things (power, status, fear, shame),” Clark-Soles proposes, “to heavenly things (Christ, the Father, birth from above)” (page 143). Whether this line of investigation fits with the gospel writer’s intention or not, I don’t know. But it certainly livens up the story for me.

And it gets the Trinity focus right. The Holy Spirit stirs up the gift of faith in Jesus in the waters of our baptism. That faith is the way that Jesus abides in us and we in him. Jesus makes God known to us because Jesus is the Father’s heart present in the cosmos. That’s a description of the Trinity I can appreciate. That description requires a response that will cost me. And the more I have in terms of power, position, privilege, and property, the more it will cost me. Will Nicodemus receive Jesus in the end? Will I?

References and Resources

Clark-Soles, Jaime. “Characters who count: the case of Nicodemus,” Chapter 7 in Engaging with C. H. Dodd on the Gospel of John: Sixty Years of Tradition and Interpretation. Edited by Tom Thatcher and Catrin Williams. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Wengert, Timothy J. (translator). Luther’s Small Catechism with Evangelical Lutheran Worship Texts. Minneapolis, MN.: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2008.

Wengert, Timothy J. Martin Luther’s Catechisms: Forming the Faith. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2009.