Nicodemus is a fascinating character. Nicodemus is a wealthy man. He’s a learned man, a man respected for his great religious knowledge. He’s a leader among the Jews. He’s one to whom people come for answers to deep religious questions.
As someone who knows a great deal about the faith, and unlike many of his friends, Nicodemus can’t simply dismiss Jesus as some religious nut who’s attracting crowds with false teachings. No, he secretly admires Jesus and sees in him something that he himself does not have. And he wants, very much, to have what apparently only Jesus has to offer. By all measures of success, Nicodemus has arrived. And yet, at the top of the proverbial heap, one can almost hear him asking himself, “Is this all there is?”
He has to talk with Jesus. But the “In” crowd, the circle of people in which Nicodemus moves, would surely disapprove greatly of his treating Jesus with anything but contempt. So he has to go to Jesus secretly, at night, under cover of darkness. After all, he has his reputation to protect.
Jesus knows what Nicodemus is up to. He knows that Nicodemus doesn’t have the courage to show his respect publicly. He could send him away with a proper rebuff: “Come back in the daylight and ask your questions, you hypocrite,” he could have said. But that isn’t Jesus’s way. He receives the man, as he is, lack of courage and all, because he perceives in him someone who is genuinely searching for truth.
Jesus doesn’t wait for Nicodemus to ask a question. He gets right to the heart of the matter: “Unless one is born anew he cannot see the kingdom of God.” “You’re wondering how you can have achieved so much. You have it all, Nicodemus—wealth, power, prestige—yet still there is a void in your life that makes everything else insignificant. You want that one added ingredient to your life that will make everything fall into place, give it all ultimate meaning.”
Nicodemus expected perhaps an elaboration on the meaning of the Ten Commandments, or an admonishment to give more money to the poor, or to say more prayers—something he could do to make his life meaningful.
The significance of Jesus’s answer was essentially, “You can do nothing to be a part of the kingdom of God. It is completely God’s doing. Just as you were born into this world through no effort on your part, so you are born into the kingdom of God through no effort on your part.”
And how does God bring about this new birth? Through baptism. At baptism we are reborn of water and the Spirit, for the Holy Spirit is given at baptism. One is, therefore, made a Christian at baptism. St. Augustine maintained that baptism marks the soul as the property of the Trinity and that even in the case of an apostate person—a person who has renounced his faith--that character remains just as the royal seal remains on a coin.
Here in the United States it’s not uncommon to be asked, “Are you a born-again Christian?” What is usually meant is, “Have you had an emotional experience in which you sensed the presence of God calling you to commit your life to him, and did you respond affirmatively to that experience? Furthermore, was that experience so strong that you date the beginning of your Christian life from that point?
We Episcopalians as a rule are uncomfortable with that kind of theology and terminology, just as we are uncomfortable with the same kind of question, “Are you saved?” So when someone asks the average Episcopalian, “Are you a born-again Christian, a not uncommon response is, “Why, no, I’m an Episcopalian.” The person who asked the question then believes that what he thought all along about Episcopalians is true and either goes about trying to convert a newly-discovered pagan or takes his leave quickly.
To talk about a born-again Christian is to be redundant. It’s like saying, “I’m a flesh and blood human being.” A person is born anew through water and the Spirit, in baptism. So look up the date of your baptism, memorize it, and the next time someone asks you if you’re a born again Christian you can say, emphatically, “yes,” and give that person the date.
Yet, while baptism does give a person rebirth in the Spirit, it still is only a beginning of a life lived totally in devotion to Christ. The non-Christian, living without Christ, has an excuse, in a sense, for living a self-centered life. The Christian, on the other hand, should live a life worthy of this new birth given at baptism. What does that look like? It means not doing what comes naturally, for one thing. When you have an urge to look at some pornography, a growing problem in our society, you don’t do it because it is not worthy of the newly-born creature in Christ. When you are drawn to cheat on your wife or husband, even when the chances seem slim that you’ll be caught, you don’t do it because of your new-born status. In the old life of sin that might be done, but not in the new life of grace. It means constantly learning about one’s faith—reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting Holy Scripture. It means putting our Sunday obligation at the top of the list of obligations in life. It means spending time with God in prayer daily. All of these things we do, not in order to inherit the kingdom of God, for we inherited the kingdom at baptism, but in order to reflect that new reality into which we have been born anew.
The sad fact of the matter is that Christians can all too often identify with Nicodemus, asking ourselves, “Is this all there is?,” finding little real meaning in our lives. When this is the case, we have not surrendered everything to Christ. We may be doing a host of right things—saying our prayers, attending church faithfully, giving sacrificially—but it still isn’t really life-changing. We think we want what Christ has to offer us, but we also want to maintain a style of life that isn’t completely Christian. And then we wonder why our lives are not completely blessed.
William Sloane Coffin writes, in Sermons from Riverside, 1987: “…all of us are like Nicodemus most of the time. When we find ourselves in distress, and when we seek guidance, we think we want to change. In fact, we want to remain the same, but to feel better about it. In psychological terms, we want to be more effective neurotics. We prefer the security of known misery to the misery of unfamiliar insecurity.” Similarly, Diettrich Bonhoeffer said, “The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.”
Apparently Nicodemus continued to follow Jesus, although probably always secretly. You may remember that Joseph of Arimathea provided a tomb for Jesus’s body. What you may not remember is that Nicodemus brought for Jesus’s burial about one hundred pounds of spices to be bound up with the linen cloths, which was a Jewish burial custom.
Lent is a time, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, when we examine our consciences and seek by God’s grace, to live more nearly into the reality of the new life we were given in baptism. May this Lent be such a time for us all.