Lent 2. Sermon preached by Dr Esther Elliott. 5th March 2023

Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, John 3:1-17 – the story of Nicodemus

We have a real treat today, we get the opportunity to hear and think about a character called Nicodemus. It’s a treat because we don’t often encounter his story because he only ever appears in one out of the four gospels. And it’s a treat, I think, because he is usually the victim of a lot of stereotyping and there is a lot of enjoyment and satisfaction to be had in being part of liberating people from the bonds of labelling, typecasting, and pigeonholing.

Just in case you cannot immediately bring to mind the traditional understandings of Nicodemus, they are all based on this story from John 3 that we had read to us today. He is named as a Pharisee and seen as a Jewish leader, who wants to know more about Jesus but is fearful of how his community will react if they know that. So, he goes to Jesus in the dead of night, completely misunderstands what Jesus is saying and then gets ridiculed by Jesus as not very good at his job as a teacher. Often Nicodemus gets to stand in for the whole lot of the Jewish leaders and teachers by a nifty bit of theological footwork with the text which pits the strict laws of Judaism against the freedom of the Spirit, lots of negative associations with darkness against positive associations with light, and condemnation against love. And let’s call it what it is – an antisemitic attitude is often knocking at the door of tellings of the story of Nicodemus.

I think we start to liberate Nicodemus from this stereotyping, as works for any occasion when an individual is understood by using a generalisation, by hearing a little bit more about him as a person. Nicodemus appears three times in John’s gospel. This story is the first time we meet him. We meet him again in his home territory of a meeting of the chief priests and Pharisees in chapter seven. They had sent the temple police to arrest Jesus, but the temple police decide not to and go back to the chief priests and Pharisees empty handed. The general mood in the room is that the police have been deceived by Jesus into believing what he says. Nicodemus puts his head above the parapet and points out that it’s pretty usual for the group to listen to someone before making a judgement about them. At which point, you can almost see the hands fly up in response – not you as well.

We meet Nicodemus for a third and final time in chapter nineteen after Jesus has died. He works alongside Joseph of Arimathea to take Jesus’ body down from the cross. Nicodemus supplies the myrrh and aloes, wraps the body according to Jewish customs and helps to put Jesus in the empty tomb. And then we hear no more of him.

And so, Nicodemus appears at the start of Jesus’ ministry, at the point when things start to turn ugly for him and just after his death by crucifixion. On each occasion Nicodemus is positive about Jesus. Perhaps not confident or certain, but definitely favourable and sympathetic. This is what I see in Nicodemus as a character in the great story of Jesus life, death, and resurrection. A sympathetic presence. A person who is a sympathetic presence from within the community he identifies with and has a role within. Let’s not quickly jump into criticising him for not leaving that community. Just sit for a moment with that image of a Jewish leader giving Jesus a Jewish burial. It’s a gritted teeth moment. An act of potentially enormous political significance. It could have been instrumental in a reconciliation between those who hated Jesus and those who in some way followed Him. It wasn’t otherwise history would be different, but Nicodemus wasn’t to know that in the moment. It was an act of enormous personal significance. There were very real potential negative consequences for him as a public figure if others knew he had done this.

And it was an act of love when love has just been killed on the cross. An extraordinary act of care and carefulness over the body of a criminal. An act which witnesses to death, in the arc of a story about life after death. And then we hear no more of him. After this Nicodemus disappears from the canon of the Biblical text.

Being a witness to death in a story about life after death is something people living in the aftermath of a trauma know a lot about. Traumatic events, by nature are so excessive, that they cannot be integrated into the flow of a persons’ life and so parts of the event keep coming back in a person’s body, mind, and soul. Life gets reshaped in the light of the tenacity of death to hang around. Persistent witness to the reality of this death, both by the person who experienced the trauma and those who accompany them, is critical to reimagining, reweaving, rebuilding life. But this is not life after death, or new life, it is life shaped around trauma. Death remains. Nicodemus is still wrapping Jesus’ body and placing it in a tomb, witness to what remains.

And so, the next act in the story is not the resurrection but Holy Saturday, the middle ground, where death is and new forms of life are imagined, where the spirit moves about, continually searching out new forms of life in the midst of death. No surprise then, actually if you think about it, that Jesus gave thoughtful Nicodemus that wonderful image of the Spirit as the wind, blowing about unseen, doing it’s work. Something for him to remember and mull over in this moment as he leaves Jesus body in the tomb.

Witness to death and also witness to love. Not flashy, confident, glorious love, but fragile, not really knowing what comes next love. Love that is like a faint glimmer, or as the theologian Balthazar put it, a weary trickle which nevertheless persists. This is the love he gives to Jesus and the love that he feels around Jesus. And perhaps his experience of that kind of love is something for him to remember as he later begins to hear the stories of the resurrection. The promise of the middle is that love remains and pulls death into life.

So, Nicodemus. We meet him as he, to pick up Marion’s theme from last week, turns to Christ, quite literally arriving on His doorstep. From then on, he is a character in the story we are preparing to re-experience. Seen this way, the story of Nicodemus is not really an illustration of a way of behaving or believing that will give me success as I turn to Christ during this period of Lent. Lets not colonise his story as a handy hack for our own spiritual development. It’s more the story of a glorious individual who experienced something of God through his encounters with Jesus Christ. Someone willing to be brave within his own community. Someone willing to care for a criminal. Someone who could respect that death haunts life and life bears death within it. Someone who, I think, ultimately points us in the direction of Easter; that divine love survives and remains. This is what we can turn to face.

Dr Esther Elliott