“How Can These Things Be?”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
5/30/21 — Trinity Sunday
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 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.”
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”
10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (NRSV)
Nicodemus, a Jewish leader of some standing and influence, comes to talk with Jesus. Because this encounter doesn’t happen in a vacuum, let’s remember that Jesus has just done something unthinkable. Immediately prior to today’s text, Jesus runs the moneychangers out of the temple.
The moneychangers were there to facilitate Passover rituals. They were there to help pilgrims who had traveled from far and wide to exchange their local currencies for the currency they needed to pay taxes and to purchase animals for the sacrifice of atonement. This long-standing tradition was considered, for the most part, both necessary and helpful for the temple and the worshipers.
We can imagine how, in the minds of the Jewish leadership, Jesus’ actions attack the legitimacy of temple authority, the sanctity of Passover, and, therefore, the integrity of the Jewish faith itself. With this grave offense still a raw wound for religious leaders, Nicodemus’ desire to meet Jesus as something of an equal constitutes a significant risk. So, while concealing himself under the cloak of night may seem cowardly, it only says that Nicodemus understands the potential consequences of his actions.
Having said that, Nicodemus’ questions also suggest that his faith lacks depth and heart. Sure, he’s curious enough to go see Jesus, but self-preservation appears to be his first concern. And even when he hears directly from Jesus, he’s unwilling to commit himself to Jesus.
It seems to me that such is often the case when what we desire in matters of faith is a level of certainty that faith, by definition, does not offer. Thus does Nicodemus ask his frustrated question, “How can these things be?” Thinking literally and selfishly, he can’t imagine what Jesus means when he speaks of being “born from above” and “born of water and Spirit.” He can’t see the connection to his own life when Jesus says that “the wind blows where it chooses” without needing any kind of permission or explanation from human beings.
To Nicodemus’ question, Jesus says something that may sound insulting, but which I consider revealing and empowering. “Are you a teacher of Israel,” he says, “and yet you do not understand these things?”
The implication is that, as “a teacher of Israel,” Nicodemus has all the spiritual, theological, and priestly tools he needs to make sense of what Jesus is saying. If Nicodemus will listen with his heart to the stories he tells, and if he will feel, with his whole body, the rituals he practices, then what Jesus says and does should make sense. At their core, all those stories and rituals are sacred portals between this world and the eternal kingdom of God which Jesus has come to announce and reveal.
The same is true for us. Our stories and our communal rituals of prayer, worship, communion, service, and care for one another, and our work for justice in the world are not ends in themselves. We listen and look through these things to experience and to share the dynamic mystery we call God.
John seems to be saying that, for first century Jews, the rituals themselves had become idols because they had become the focus. Like closed windows, they kept the unpredictable but life-giving Spirit-wind at bay. So, when their faith had been reduced to religious business, the temple became a “marketplace,” a place consumed by consumerism, a place where profit and power rather than God were deified. And when Jesus called the status quo into question by clearing the temple of all of that well-intentioned but heart-darkening sin, then perhaps, somewhere deep within Nicodemus’ atrophied spirit, something began to stir. With the veil still covering his eyes, he creeps through the darkness to acknowledge that Jesus has some special connection to the holiness that the Jewish leaders were supposed to teach, but which they apparently don’t understand.
This returns us to Nicodemus’ honest but rather feeble question: “How can these things be?”
In The Message, Eugene Peterson paraphrased Jesus’ response to Nicodemus this way: “You’re a respected teacher of Israel and you don’t know these basics? Listen carefully. I’m speaking sober truth to you. I speak only of what I know by experience…There is nothing secondhand here…Yet instead of facing the evidence and accepting it, you procrastinate with questions. If I tell you things that are plain as the hand before your face and you don’t believe me, what use is there in telling you of things you can’t see, the things of God?”
In this encounter, Jesus invites Nicodemus—and all of us—to experience God in the concrete realities of human existence. That’s why the Judeo-Christian tradition tells stories and practices things like Passover and communion. Stories have characters, plot, humor, conflict, tension-and-release. And our rituals hinge on concrete elements—bread, wine, water—things that can be seen, heard, felt, smelled, and tasted.
The material stuff of Creation is itself a spiritual gift from God. It’s an outpouring of God. It’s only when we divorce the “flesh” from the “spirit” that the flesh becomes problematic, something to exploit, or worse, something to judge and condemn. So, while we proclaim Jesus to be the incarnation of God’s eternal Christ, the “earthly things” Jesus speaks of are the first incarnation of God. That’s why Paul can say to the Romans, “Ever since the creation of the world, [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things that [God] has made.” (Romans 1:20) Being human, Nicodemus saw all those concrete realities. He just seems to have missed the holiness in them.
In his book The Universal Christ, Richard Rohr echoes Paul, saying, “Everything visible, without exception, is the outpouring of God.”1 And the Christ, whom John and others call “the light of the world,” is the one through whom human beings see that innate holiness in the Creation. Light, observes Rohr, is not something we see, but that by which we see.2 The Christ, then, is the light by which we see that same Christ in other people and in the created order as a whole. So, Jesus is saying to Nicodemus, Until you’re willing to see God through me, no explanation I give you will help you.
In refusing to let Nicodemus off the hook, Jesus invites him to claim the gracious gift of faith, that is, the spiritual eyesight that sees the holy, eternal, and affirming presence of God in all things. For Nicodemus, and for us, that means taking the risk to trust something that cannot be proven, but which can—through faith, hope, and love—be seen, heard, felt, smelled, and tasted in the joys and the challenges of human existence.
As human beings, and as people of faith, we have the tools to experience God’s holiness. So, may we open our eyes, ears, hands, noses, and mouths to the presence of God and of God’s eternal Christ. And may we remain humbly aware of the holiness in ourselves and gratefully aware of it in those around us, so that our hearts become sails that catch the wind of God’s Spirit as it moves us from darkness to light, from apathy to action, and from clay-footed certainty to bright-winged faith.
1Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe. Convergent Books, NY, 2019. p. 13.
2Ibid. p 14.