"Out of the Shadows & into the Light"

2 Lent.A.
John 3:1-17
The Rev. Melanie L. McCarley

With all that we Episcopalians are blessed with--a finely tuned sense of liturgy, beautiful aesthetics, Cranmer’s prose and a willingness to look at all sides of an argument before making a decision--we are, I have come to believe, sorely lacking in one arena. We’re far too self-conscious. As a rule, a sense of decorum trumps spiritual fervor in spades. It’s not that we don’t have deep spiritual yearnings--we just don’t like to talk about them (thank you very much), and heaven forbid that we appear to display emotion beyond a proper sense of approval (or disapproval) as the situation merits. Episcopalians don’t, in short, like to make a scene.

I’m not completely opposed to this, mind you. There is, as I see it, a place for proper decorum--for toeing the line, minding the que (if you happen to be in England) and maintaining a sense of polite repose. However, perhaps we should consider that there are moments (not many, mind you, but a few) when a sense of propriety might, in fact, be a liability. When, instead of emboldening us to make decisions, and to live for Christ, we find ourselves fading into the background, unsure as to how to respond to questions probing the depth of our spirituality.

There is a story told of a lady (surely, she must have been an Episcopalian) who was born and raised in Boston, a woman of unassailable moral uprightness and class, who found herself face-to-face with an inquiring evangelist. “Have you been born again?” The earnest fellow inquired. The woman tilted her head slightly to the heavens and replied: “If you’re born in Boston, you don’t have to be born again.”

Bearing this in mind, I’ve come to the conclusion that Nicodemus should be considered the patron saint of all those of us who struggle between inner seeking and outer embarrassment. Let’s bring him out of the shadows for a clearer look. Nicodemis wasn’t a person living on the fringes of society. He was a Pharisee, a leader of his people, a man of the Sanhedrin, a highly respected Jewish court of law. In short, he was a pillar of his community. And one night he steals away under the cover of darkness in order to meet with Jesus. Nicodemus, you see, had questions. They weren’t belligerent questions, designed to trap or humiliate Jesus; rather they were earnest questions
regarding the nature of the Messiah. “Rabbi, (said Nicodemus), 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.” Jesus recognizes the thoughtfulness, and sees the longing in the heart of this man, a reaching that comes from a true seeker, and he responds with compassion: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus is clearly puzzled. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus responds: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit…. Do not be astonished that I said to you ‘You must be born from above.”

At this point, we might want to proclaim that Nicodemus looked upon his Lord and responded with a confident: “Yes, Lord I believe.” He does nothing of the sort. In fact, we don’t find out what Nicodemus is thinking at all. He arrives in shadow, and seems to depart in kind. It is not until later in the Gospel that he reappears….four chapters later.

By chapter seven in the Gospel of John, the Pharisees are out to get Jesus in earnest. Nicodemus reappears (remember, he’s a member of the Jewish court of law) and urges a level head, allowing Jesus to be heard before being condemned. To those who would condemn Christ he says: “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” And then, once again, Nicodemus disappears from view, only to resurface at a most telling time and place. For it is Nicodemus who reappears by the side of Joseph of Arimathea after the death of Jesus, carrying a heavy burden of spices with which to anoint the body. Joseph of Arimathea, another secret follower of Christ, asks for permission to take the body of his Lord. Together, these two men, who never outwardly proclaimed their faith, place Jesus’ body in its shroud and lay him in the tomb. It hasn’t been a quick or easy journey for Nicodemus. He moves from a baffled questioner to a legal defender and finally a disciple. For some, Like Paul, the Holy Spirit changes a person’s life in a blinding instant. For others, such as Nicodemus, the Holy Spirit works in subtler, but no less astounding ways. In the end, Nicodemus was, indeed, born again.

For those of us who find ourselves perplexed and bewildered--perhaps going so far as to scurry for the closest exit in sight when confronted with some of the more blatant tactics of evangelism, the example of Nicodemus can be an inspiration. Notice how Jesus doesn’t try to convince Nicodemus of anything. He doesn’t reason with him, badger him or threaten him. Instead, he simply offers Nicodemus his presence and his thoughts--and gives him space and time to come to his own conclusion. In the end, Jesus offered Nicodemus the opportunity to choose this new life for himself.

For those of us who might find ourselves offended if asked “Have you been born again?” --perhaps we would do well to consider the question itself. Have we come to a place where we can say: “Yes, Lord, I believe.” --not believing because someone else told us to believe--but because we have come to the understanding that Jesus is, indeed, our Savior. Whether our spiritual journey is dramatic, like that of St. Paul, or quietly worked out in the shadows of the night streets of Jerusalem, like Nicodemus, the goal for each of us is the same--in our own time, in our own way, to arrive at a point of faith--and to each become a disciple of the Lord. Today’s gospel is an invitation to consider the questions of our faith, and continue our journey on the road to salvation. Travel well. In Jesus’ name. Amen.