The Student Teacher
Last week we considered how seeking precedes discovering and that in the Gospel of John discipleship often means giving up a belief. Well, both of these ideas come together in this week’s story about a leader of his faith who seeks to understand who Jesus is. Let us pray…
Have you ever been asked the question, “Have you been born-again?” If so, do you remember the first time you were asked? I do. I was coming out of basketball practice in the ninth grade. Where I grew up in a system of bussing, where kids were bussed from their neighborhoods to schools in other communities. To keep it fair, kids in the inner city some years would attend schools in the suburb and then in other years kids in the suburb would go to the inner city. So after elementary grades, I changed schools every two years, so in the ninth grade I started two years at Anderson High School in downtown Winston-Salem. I walked out of the gym after practice one day and noticed a young black gentleman with a Bible under his arm walking through the parking lot. Most of the guys on my team could walk home so they packed tight together when they saw him coming. I would learn later that they recognized this person. He was from the local Bible college and was doing street evangelism. They figured if they grouped up they stood a better chance of escaping him. It was kind of like wolves attacking a herd of elk. They always go after the one member of the herd who gets separated. Well that was me waiting on the steps for my mom to pick me up.
This guy walked over and asked straight out, “Have you been born again?” Now I’m 14 years old and just recently started attending a Methodist Church. I had no idea what he was talking about. When I said, “I don’t know,” his eyes lit up like the wolf who just got his elk. He explained that being born again means inviting Jesus into your heart so that you can be forgiven, which you want to do in order to be right with God, which you want to do so you don’t go to hell and spend eternity swimming in a lake of fire. He said, “You don’t want that do you?”
Again, I’m 14 years old and attended a Methodist Church. I wondered if this is all true, why we didn’t talk about it at my church. It seemed like important information to know. As intimidated as I was by this guy, his presentation was clear and simple. I said, “No, that doesn’t sound like much fun.” So he invited me to give my life to Christ and said a pray for me.
I was pretty stunned by the whole experience. I went to see my pastor. He helped me understand this scripture from John and the story about Nicodemus and what being born-again is all about. In many ways it’s true to say that my spiritual interest shot up that day. While I don’t advocate an approach like that young Bible College student, I also can’t say that I regret it, because being confronted with the question of whether or not I was born again made me wrestle for the first time with what I want to live for, and that’s an important question.
Have you been born again? That was the issue Jesus presented to a man who was among the most theologically learned of his day, but in Jesus’ company he realized how much he still had to learn. We could call this the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Student-Teacher.
Let’s begin by considering a few things we know about Nicodemus. First, he was A Pharisee. The word means “separated one.” A Pharisee was someone who separated himself for observing God’s law. This law is the Torah, and the heart of the Torah is the Ten Commandments. Over time Pharisees interpreted what it meant to keep these laws in daily life situations so there would be no question what it meant to keep the law, so that the Ten Commandments became hundreds of other laws. For instance, take the law that you shall keep the Sabbath holy and do no work. What constituted work? Defining that became 24 chapters of material. You could walk so far on the Sabbath but no further. You could only lift or carry so much and no more. Tying a knot was considered work unless it was a knot you could tie with one hand.
So you get the idea. Being a Pharisee meant you had to love rules.
• A Council Member. The council was the Sanhedrin, the group of 70 who
oversaw all religious affairs of Jewish people. In other words, to be a part of this council meant you not only lived a life of following rules, you represented that religion to other people. You defended it.
• Visited Jesus “at night” This may be the most important thing we know about
Nicodemus. He went to see Jesus at night because he didn’t want anyone to see him. We might assume Nicodemus had questions for Jesus, perhaps things he genuinely wanted to learn from Jesus. Maybe he saw and heard things in Jesus he wished he had. He goes at night.
Have you ever had that kind of experience? You have questions about what you believe, or doubts about what you believe? Have you ever been in a situation where you felt the need to represent that faith to others, children, friends, other family. You’ve been in church a long time. What would people think if you came right out and said, “I’m not so sure I believe that any more? I’m struggling with some things.” Have you ever wished you could go at night, when it’s safe, and talk to someone who could help you get to a new place in your faith?
In Nicodemus, you get the sense that here is a man for whom his faith no longer worked for him. Have you ever had a time when your faith no longer worked for you?
Adam Hamilton is the founding pastor of Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, the largest United Methodist church in the country. Adam didn’t grow up in church. When he was a teenager he was invited to a Pentecostal church and fell in love with the energy and power of their worship. And he admits, he liked the girls who went to the church. He came to faith there. But during seminary he experienced the tragic death of a good friend who had been his youth leader. He really struggled with this and the answers he was getting at his church weren’t helping. His mother-in-law was actually the most helpful. She said to him one day, “Adam, some things like this just happen. There’s no reason. It was an accident.” Adam realized that up to that time there had been no room in his faith for accidents. Adam to this day doesn’t discredit his Pentecostal background. That was how he came to faith. He just got to a place where his faith didn’t work for him anymore, and he kept searching and that is how he ended up in the Methodist Church.
Have you ever had a time when your faith didn’t work for you? When our faith no longer works for us it is a sign that we need to break through to a new level. That was where Nicodemus was, and it’s probably why Jesus jumped right to the issue. After Nicodemus’ opening flattery, Jesus says to him, “People can’t see the kingdom of God unless they’ve been born-again.” Let’s look at this word more closely.
III. The word used here in Greek is Born ‘anothen’ which means born-again and born-from above. Typically people try to translate it as one or the other, like Nicodemus did. He heard you must be born-again, which does have a physical reality to it. He wondered how an old man can literally be born all over. Born from above has a purely spiritually understanding to it. You must spiritually be renewed.
Because so many fundamentalist Christians emphasize born-again, as a dramatic, one-time life-changing experience, more liberal interpreters focus on born-from above. They emphasize a more esoteric idea of spiritual renewal. But what Jesus was saying was not either/or but both/and. This word connotes both aspects! William Barclay in his commentary says this: “When Jesus takes possession of our lives it is not only that the past is forgiven and forgotten; if that were all, we might proceed to make the same mess of life all over again; but into life there enters a new power which enables us to be what by ourselves we could never be and to do what by ourselves we could never do.”
In other words, if all we ever do is get “born-again” and have fresh starts, but nothing in life changes, we just live repeated patterns with the satisfaction of knowing we are at least forgiven. Let me see if I can make this applicable with something that hits very close to home. Recently someone in the church sent me a card they found on their windshield after worship one Sunday. (show pic) You can maybe imagine what went in the blank. Now I’m sure this could not have been left by a St. Luke’s member, but more likely a visiting southern Baptist, but think about it for a moment. It was most likely someone who just a few minutes earlier had prayed the Lord’s Prayer: “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us!” If we are just forgiven and nothing more, then we keep living the way we always have.
Now, believe me I don’t mean to get self-righteous here, because when I first saw this, I was tempted to get on my high-horse and then thought, how many times have I wanted to use a card like this at the shopping mall when I see someone double parked? Maybe without the expletive at the end. I honestly, thought for a moment, if you could remove the expletive, I wonder where I could get some cards like that? And I felt God say, “Is it really a lesser offense to use such a card at the shopping mall than it is at church?”
I don’t think God looks at it any different. Sure, God wants to forgive us, but God also wants to do so much more. God wants to change us. God wants to empower us. God wants to make us different people. Otherwise we just go through life just starting-over all the time. When a relationship doesn’t work, then it’s time to start over. When our church doesn’t work, then just start over. When our job doesn’t work, start-over. But just changing the exteriors of our life without giving attention to the interior is like changing clothes in order to recover from the flu. We may look better, but it doesn’t change what’s inside.
Reflection: When have you tried to solve an interior problem with exterior changes? When have you hit a point where life isn’t working, but you tried to fix that with just exterior things? God wants to do so much more for us than help us start-over. God wants to help us start different.
And this is where Jesus really stretched Nicodemus’ thinking. He used another word with double meaning—wind. Wind also means Spirit. Jesus said, being born anothen is like the wind. We can’t control it. It blows where it wills. The only way to tell the wind moves is because of the things that move. In other words…
III. The Invisible Moves the Visible.
Look at the Message translation of this verse: “Unless a person submits to this original creation—the ‘wind-hovering-over-the-water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom.” (3:5 MSG)
Sometimes we hope that changing the exteriors will change the interior, but really it is the other way around. God’s Spirit blowing within us, changing the interior is what allows us to face the exteriors of life. And that is the frustrating element of the spiritual life to many, because we don’t control that. It is God’s doing. The wind blows where it will says Jesus. God moves as God desires. We don’t control God, but just like putting up a sail to harness the power of wind, we can learn to open ourselves to presence and movement of God. And when this happens, we have something within us that changes us, that gives us something to hold onto, even when all of our exteriors change.
There is a woman in our church who knows what it’s like to have the exterior things of her life change. I sat down with her the other day to ask she about these changes, her faith, and how it sustains her…(video)
In talking with BJ about the things that helped her accumulate that presence of God within her she also mentioned hymn sing services as a girl. She loved these. They would just sing hymns and her favorite was “God Will Take Care of YOU.” You never know when you’ll need to rely on what’s stored up inside.
Reflection: What helps you accumulate spiritual depth?
IV. What Became of Nicodemus?
Let’s consider what became of Nicodemus. He shows no commitment of faith in this story. His last statement is “How can this be?” However in John 7:50-52, we read, “Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them, asked, ‘Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” He stood up for Jesus in his council. Obviously something was changing in Nicodemus. The only other mention is after Jesus’ death on the cross. His body is taken down and to prepare his body for burial it says, “Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.” (19:39) This would have been a financially significant act, but more importantly it was something done in public. Notice both of these statements remind us how Nicodemus was the one who came to Jesus at night. Now he’s not hiding.
We do not know of anything for sure about Nicodemus after this. But there was an apocryphal gospel written in the 4th century called The Gospel of Nicodemus. It was one of the first documents to suggest that after Jesus death he descended into hell. Now think about what hell is. Hell is the opposite of God. The Bible says God makes all things new again. Then hell would be a place where things are never new. Life is always the same.
Isn’t it interesting that someone in the 4th century would associate Nicodemus with this idea. Perhaps the legend of Nicodemus was that he was someone who lived his life testifying to God’s power to make life new. Do you know this power?