Our Gospel text this morning is unique in that it gives us an easy way to enter into the narrative. We are with Nicodemus as he approaches Jesus in the cover of darkness and we stand with him as he tells Jesus that he knows he is “a teacher who has come from God.” And we are there when he asks “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” And we are with Nicodemus as he asks Jesus “How can these things be?” But then Nicodemus is gone from the passage and we are left alone facing Jesus as he explains how these things can be. Nicodemus fades and we find ourselves in an encounter with Jesus.
And we are in an encounter with a Jesus who has an invitation for us. An invitation not just for Nicodemus but for us too. Jesus uses this intriguing metaphor of birth in his invitation for us to be born from above. It is intriguing because we know that you can only be born once. As Nicodemus points out, a person cannot re-enter their mothers’ womb. So what does Jesus mean? Jesus means that God can change our lives. This metaphor of birth indicates that God is willing to do the hard work in re-creating us as Christians. But we have to let him do this work, we have to respond to God’s invitation to be born again in the Spirit.
And we know this isn’t easy. And we know this because there are other reasons why we find ourselves standing next to Nicodemus in this scene. We have a few things in common with him. He is a leader in his faith community, just as many of you are. Nicodemus, a Jewish leader, a Pharisee, is drawn to Jesus. But he isn’t ready to be public about his interest in Jesus. The Gospel specifically says that “he came to Jesus by night.” Nicodemus needs the cover of darkness to asks Jesus his questions. He wants to keep his curiosity about Jesus a secret and he wants to keep it separate from the rest of his life.
This is something we can all relate to. It is not trendy to be a mainline Protestant these days. If you don’t already think this, I would invite you to tell a stranger in an elevator or at a party that you are an Episcopal priest. The responses are varied, but you never get, “Oh how cool!” Because it isn’t so popular anymore and because we live in a pluralistic world, we tend to keep faith in its own realm. We do this to respect the different views of our colleagues and friends. We do this to keep up cultural norms. So even if we are devout believers, we often keep God talk to our church lives. And this kind of devotion is OK. Nicodemus does believe even if keeps it a secret. So private faith is still genuine, it isn’t broken. It just isn’t complete. There is room still to grow. Hence Jesus’s invitation to Nicodemus and us, to allow the Spirit to work in us and create a bigger faith. A faith that spills out of our church lives and into the rest of our lives.
Now you may be wondering what happened to Nicodemus. Did he take his faith public? Did he let the Spirit make his faith new? Nicodemus does in fact appear two more times in the Gospel of John. In chapter 7, it appears as though he is taking Jesus’ side in an argument with the Pharisees. But his advocacy for Jesus is lukewarm. He also appears at the end of the Gospel. Nicodemus helps Joseph of Arimathea with the burial of Jesus by bringing burial spices. Neither of these scenes are conclusive as to the state of his faith in faith in Jesus. We do not know if Nicodemus accepted Christ’s invitation to be born again from above. This ambiguity suggests that believing is hard. Even God will do the work, we have to let him in.
We have to give God a chance to help us be born from above. So I have decided that my Lenten prayer will be this, God please be at work in my life. I am so eager to control and organize every part of my life that I’m not sure there is always room for God to be at work. I’m not sure where he would fit into my daily calendar. So please invite God to do the work of making your faith bigger. Accept the invitation that Jesus offers to Nicodemus and to us, because believing is hard work and we need help. Amen.