Thursday, February 14, 2008

Bible portraits: Nicodemus (Part 3)

Months passed. We heard from our informants that, not long after we had been there, John had identified the one to whom he had pointed. It was a cousin of his, a young carpenter from Nazareth named Jesus. It was not long before we heard stories about him as well.

His message, apparently, was not very different from John’s. But there were other stories as well: of his healing people, some of whom had incurable diseases or who had been disabled for years; of changing water into wine at a wedding reception—and more disturbingly of his offering divine forgiveness to people; and most recently of his striding into the Temple and causing quite a ruckus, turning over the moneychangers’ tables and setting free the sacrificial animals and birds.

Some of my fellow members on the council were scandalized by this and wanted to have him arrested immediately. I must admit that I was more fascinated than upset. To tell you the truth, I really admired someone who had the courage to challenge the corruption of the Temple authorities in the way he did. So through one of my connections I arranged to meet with him personally—privately, of course, as I did not want to do anything to jeopardize my standing on the council.

So it was that we met at night. In the moonlight I could distinguish the outline of his face and see the glisten in his eyes. Aside from all that I had heard already there was something in him that commanded my respect. I could not help but address him with deference. “Rabbi,” I said to him, “everybody is saying that you are a teacher sent by the Almighty himself. No one could do the amazing things I have heard about you without his divine power and blessing.”

It was almost as if he had not heard me. He looked at me and said, “Now listen to me and listen carefully, you will never see the reign of God unless you have been born from above.”

What did he mean by this strange language? What was he getting at? “Pardon me if I am missing what you are saying,” I replied to him. “But how can anyone be born when they are fully grown? Do you expect people to crawl back into their mother’s womb and go through the birth process all over again?”

“Listen again,” he said to me, “and listen carefully, for what I am saying is of eternal significance. No one can enter God’s reign unless they have been born of water and the Spirit. Don’t let my words about being born from above leave you in confusion. Think of the wind. You can hear it whistling in the trees, but you have no control over where it comes from or where it goes. So it is when it comes to receiving new life from the Spirit.”

I will not repeat to you the rest of our conversation. But I can tell you that when I came away my head was spinning. What did he mean by all this born again talk?

Slowly, as I thought about that night and as I thought about the time with John on the Jordan, things began to come together for me. As a Pharisee I had thought that we could make God’s reign a reality by our strict obedience to the Torah. John’s ministry had begun to make me wonder if there were not a better way, through repentance, through allowing God to wash away your defilements in the waters of baptism. But this Jesus was saying something more, that God’s reign is not a matter of trying to be good. It is not even a matter of being baptized. It is allowing God himself to breathe his Spirit into me and bring me life.

Since then this man Jesus has come twice through my life. It was not very long afterwards that his name came up at a meeting of the Sanhedrin. It seems that there were some who were hailing him as a Messiah, which put him on our list of dangerous characters. Some of them wanted to bring him to trial immediately, but I sought to persuade them to meet with him and hear from him in the same way as I had.

My attempt at reasonableness did not prevail. Soon he was being dragged into a mockery of a trial, where he was sentenced to the most humiliating death, the death of the most common criminal, death by crucifixion. One of my fellow council members, Joseph of Arimathea, persuaded me to assist him in providing the hundred-or-so pounds of spices that would be needed if he was at least to receive a decent burial. Since then we have heard reports that his body was not to be found, and, more amazingly still, that he has appeared to a number of his followers.

As I turned that conversation, and all the events since, over and over in my mind I began to recognize what my problem was. What was keeping me from the kingdom of God was the very thing I relied on—my vain attempts to get there through my own effort. What I needed was not more rules and ceremonies, but God’s Holy Spirit to give me life within. It is certainly not my intention to be intrusive. So pardon me if I ask whether this might not be an issue for you too. And if anything that I have said this morning has touched your heart, perhaps you would be willing to take a moment to pray with me now…

Gracious God,
we thank you that you have not made it difficult
to enter your kingdom:
that you do not require of us
works of righteousness or ritual acts,
but only that we open ourselves
to the fresh breath of your Holy Spirit;
breathe your new life into us, we pray,
that, filled with your presence,
we may know the reality of your reign.

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