Grace to you and peace from God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Pastor Alan Watt

In today’s Gospel, we see a rather unflattering picture of Nicodemus. In their late-night discussion, Jesus seems somewhat surprised that he doesn’t grasp what it is he’s trying to explain to him:“ Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”

As a Pharisee, Nicodemus would have been well versed in the Torah, that is, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible—and the works of the prophets as well. But not only did Pharisees know the scriptures, but, unlike the priestly class of the Sadducees, also followed what was called the “oral [or spoken] Torah.” In other words, they held debates with one another on how to interpret the Torah. So sharpening their views of the Law, they were regarded as more interested in learning about and practicing their faith. Yet there can, at times, be people who are well educated, yet miss the point of something that’s very important.

I know of a time I was accused of that very thing. It was at a dinner held in my honor at the church where I had been spending the past year as the vicar, the seminary intern. It was actually a farewell roast, at which, it just so happened, my future father-in-law served as the master of ceremonies. Following the meal, I was invited to come to the front of the parish hall and stand before everyone else. As soon as he introduced me, I knew I was in trouble! One of the first things he said was that I appeared, that I seemed like a really smart person. He then described meas “having that intellectual dumb look.”

Well, I guess we could say that about Nicodemus. As steeped as he was in the study of the Hebrew Scriptures, he seemed unable to grasp what Jesus was saying. He was taking literally instead of figuratively the words used to describe the life of a true believer—the life of someone who, by the power of the Spirit, knew deeply about the ways of God. And so Jesus, raised among common people in Galilee, was surprised to see this kind of cluelessness in such a man. Even after Jesus spelled it out to him, Nicodemus still did not get it, but instead asked: “How can these things be?”

His ignorance is all the more remarkable when compared to encounters Jesus had with at least two other individuals in the Gospel of John. One of them being the Samaritan woman at the well. In just one conversation, she came to understand who Jesus was and believe him to be the Messiah. The other person was the man who, from birth, had been blind and whom Jesus healed. Unlike the woman, it was a lengthier process for him to learn who Jesus was. Of course, when it comes to such things, it seems not at all uncommon for a man to take longer to figure out what’s going on. It may sound sexist, but I believe women as a whole tend to be more intuitive than we fellows are! So maybe it wasn’t unusual that the man who was given his sight at first said, when questioned by the Pharisees, that Jesus must be a prophet. Only when he met him a second time did “the light go on in his head,” so that he realized he was the Son of Man.

At the same time, we should not be too hard on Nicodemus. After all, faith might come in as many ways as there are people. In other words, just as no two individuals are exactly alike, to some degree the same might be said in terms of our faith. It may come to some persons

quickly, as in childhood and remain relatively the same throughout life. For others, it might be a spiritual journey that lasts for years, maybe even decades. The quality and strength of that faith may also differ from one believer to the next. In fact, I am sure of it. And certainly one’s faith may well changeover time.

There may be some who disagree with that view—who may accept some variety, but, on the whole, expect that Christian conversion and growth happens according to some preset formula. For example, many hold that becoming a Christian means having a born-again experience—to use some of Jesus’ words in the Gospel—during which a person undergoes an intensely emotional and spiritual awakening. This experience is so clear, so unmistakable that the individual can even say just when and where it happened. As in the old Gospel song, Amazing Grace: “How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed!”

Yet Jesus’ explanation of a second birth, a spiritual birth, is immediately followed by describing how mysterious is the nature of the Spirit: “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.”

In other words, we Christians do one another a disservice when we try to limit the ways that faith comes to each of us. Yes, of course, there are general patterns by which most of us learn and affirm the beliefs that we hold. But within them lies a fair amount of variety.

Here’s an example. I remember a catechetics class one year in which there were two brand-new students—a sister and brother. Neither of them had had any real exposure to the Bible, to Sunday school, to worship. The father had a distant tie to the congregation. But living outside the immediate community and due to some life issues, he had never taken the children to church. Recently remarried, he was encouraged by his new spouse to introduce them to what he himself had grown up with.

In catechetics class, the majority of the students were already somewhat familiar with the scriptures. That is, they knew a number of Bible stories, although it was now time to learn about them on a more mature level and how they all fit into the history of God’s plan of salvation. But the two new students were learning about these stories for the very first time. Now I think it was fairly confusing for the brother, maybe because he was the younger of the two. Or maybe it was, as I said earlier, that he was a male and so some things may take longer to sink in than they do females. In any case, on her part, she was taking it all in. She was asking one question after another and making connections some of the others were missing. I wondered whether those growing up in the church may have been so used to the stories that they didn’t seem as fresh and fascinating as they did for that girl. One thing was obvious: She was quickly overtaking them in her study and knowledge of the scriptures.

So it can be with faith. We don’t all learn it and make it our own in just the same way—at necessarily the same rate or with the same depth or with the same strength.

How might it be for you and for me? While many, if not most of us have had similar backgrounds in faith during our growing up years—except maybe for coming from different generations—I bet that, as adults, we have had among us more kinds of religious experiences—that God hasn’t imposed on us a cookie-cutter form of spirituality, but allowed us to grow in our faith in at least slightly different ways.

As it turned out, we might say that Nicodemus did eventually “come around”—did eventually “get it.” Later in the Gospel of John, when his colleagues began conspiring to arrest Jesus, he tried to influence them to treat him fairly: He said: “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”

More revealing was what he did after Jesus had been crucified. According to John: “…Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, although a secret one…, asked [Pontius] Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus, [which he did]. “Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes…[Together] they took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews.”

In his own way—not publicly like the Samaritan woman or the man who had been blind—but privately, still out of fear, Nicodemus demonstrated  both his faith and his love.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but…have eternal life.”

The ways in which we Christians believe in Jesus will not always be mirror images of one another. To some degree, they will differ—in terms of understanding of strength, of depth, of commitment, and in yet other ways. The important thing for all of us to remember is that God gave his Son to us all—to die for us and to rise from the dead for us—so that one day so shall we.