Lent 2A, 2011
A Liturgy is also available
NICODEMUS: PROTECTING THE CURIOUS IN US...
The streets were dark and deserted.
Not a soul could be seen. At least he hoped not.
There was one lonely figure, jumping from shadow to shadow,
never using the major streets of the town,
travelling only in out of the way places,
hoping not to be seen.
So, what’s he doing, jumping from shadow to shadow in the middle of the night?
He is going to pay a call on Jesus who is staying with friends.
He doesn’t want anybody to know that he,
one of the leaders of the community,
would be going to see this itinerant preacher.
Jesus is roused from his sleep, I presume, and meets Nicodemus.
Strangers in the night...
So begins a story sermon by probably one of the best in narrative preaching.
Eugene Lowry. (Lowry 1990:78-84)
It’s a really good example of a narrative or story sermon.
Yet I can’t help feeling that, in this,
and in other bits of the sermon I haven’t shared with you,
Lowry gives Nicodemus a bit of a ‘bad rap’, even if unwittingly.
Because I feel Nicodemus is reduced to a foil.
Portrayed as a narrow-minded, left brain, literalist,
Nicodemus’ so-called ‘illicit’ night-time liaison
is often interpreted as skulking about under the cover of darkness.
Or as Jack Shea suggests,
"stranded in twilight. He is not mesmerized by the signs... He wants a teaching, not another miracle. But before he can receive a teaching from God, he must receive a teaching about himself”. (Shea 1998:83-84)
But my own personal theological journey encourages me to continue to take another look at Nicodemus.
And I want to do that through the eyes
of both some Jewish and Christian new testament scholars.
This is a story composed by the teller we call John.
We only ever hear of Nicodemus in John’s writings.
Much debate centres around this story and
the storytellers use of this story at this point in the gospel.
But that need not concern us today.
What should concern us is the way traditional Christianity
appears to have used Jewish Jesus and Jewish Nicodemus.
Jesus was a Jew. A first century Galilean Jew.
His prayers were Jewish.
His thinking was Jewish.
His ‘voice’ is thick with Jewish history – personal and cultural.
We miss that when we follow traditional Christianity
and convert him into a proto-christian.
Much ‘Greekness’ has impinged his Jewishness.
Both the Nicene Creed and the Apostle’s Creed are silent on this fact.
They do not mention his Jewishness at all.
Which has caused Jewish New Testament scholar, Amy-Jill Levine, to say:
“With the stress in some churches on Jesus’s divine sonship, the cross, the resurrection, and the redemptory role of saving humanity from sin and death, his historical connection to Judaism gets lost along with his very Jewish message of the kingdom of heaven”. (Levine 2006:19)
Levine than goes on to point out that in popular Christian imagination Jesus is presented as:
against the Law,
against the Temple,
against the people of Israel,
as the only one to speak with women,
as the only one who teaches non-violent responses to oppression,
as the only one who cares about the ‘poor and marginalised’.
“No wonder even today Jesus somehow looks ‘different’ from the ‘Jews’: in the movies and artistic renderings, he’s blond and they are swarthy; he is cute and buff and they need rhinoplasty and Pilates”. (Levine 2006:19)
This ‘divorcing’ of Jesus from Judaism in biblical stories and traditional
Christian theology is neither honest nor helpful.
Especially when we hear John’s story about Nicodemus.
So, in light of these comments, let me offer some suggestions
about the Jewish Rabbi we call Nicodemus,
and his encounter with the Galilean sage we call Jesus.
I invite you to hear Nicodemus was a pilgrim. A sincere religious seeker.
A student who uses his precious study time to
“expand his search beyond the standard texts… and distractions of the day”. (PFarris.www.textweek.com 2008)
I invite you to also hear Nicodemus,
a member of the religious institution of his day,
as a mover of theological boundaries.
Willing to risk leaving behind past ‘truths’ as he and his colleagues
have been taught them and known them, in order to explore something new.
So instead of questioning his motives, as I feel preacher Lowry
and our general interpretive tradition has done,
I reckon Nicodemus’ motives need to be recognised
as both open and honourable.
For Nicodemus, as for us, must be allowed to respond to
‘the new’ or ‘the different’ in a variety of ways
rather than prescribing a single way of thinking or believing.
How else can he and we discover that our lives and our thinking might be different?
Not just by re-shaping, but by re-thinking and reconstructing!
Nicodemus and us.
Thinking about life.
What would we do differently if given half the chance?
How would we grow up differently?
How would we re-edit the story of our life?
The story of Nicodemus is an invitation to be curious about life.
To rethink and re-construct assumptions.
Not just to conduct an autopsy on our past,
but to look to the future through the eyes of new possibility.
To be born anew, metaphorically!
To consider how life might be different!
Nicodemus. Patron saint of the curious. (MHess.www.textweek.com 2008)
• May he protect the curious in each of us.
• May he place us in the company of earnest and compassionate teachers,
of whatever faith tradition, whose openness defines a new community
of hope and grace.
• May he give us the courage to dare to know creativity - ‘g-o-d’,
with heart and mind, with courage and strength,
as traditional theological boundaries are pushed...
And pushed again, with honesty and originality, wisdom and imagination.
Lee, B. L. The Galilean Jewishness of Jesus. Retrieving the Jewish Origins of Christianity. Mahwah. Paulist Press, 1988.
Levine, A. The Misunderstood Jew. The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. New York. HarperOne, 2006.
Lowry, E. L. “Strangers in the Night” in W. B Robinson (ed). Journey Toward Narrative Preaching. New York. Pilgrim Press, 1990.
Shea, J. Gospel Light. Jesus Stories for Spiritual Consciousness. New York. A Crossroad Book, 1998.