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. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/bridwell/detail.action?docID=1303715.

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.

Nicodemus (First Person Sermon) — Throwback Thursday Books

This is a first-person sermon I wrote several years ago, based on John 3:1-17, and the story of Nicodemus. It could readily be used for as the message for March 14, 2021. This sermon and other first person sermons can be found in my little book, The Half-Blind Mumbler (available as e-book or paperback). You can purchase this book by going to my “Books for Sale” page.

(Nicodemus enters, stretching and rubbing a very sore back): A hundred pounds of spices! A hundred pounds—just thinking about 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…

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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!