I owe you an apology. I confess that I have not always held you in very high esteem. The fact is, in the past I thought you were—how to say this?—too cautious and, well, more than a little timid—and, if I’m being really honest, I sometimes thought that you were not the sharpest quill in the inkwell. I’m sorry I was so quick to judge you. I confess I hadn’t really read the story from your point of view.
I realize now, Nicodemus, that it was actually very brave of you to seek out Jesus that night when you two sat down to talk. Nothing timid about it. Some people think you came at night just because you didn’t want to be seen talking to the “enemy.” That’s the frame a lot of people put around your meeting with Jesus. They see the antagonism and contempt that some of your fellow Pharisees had for Jesus—but to be fair, he gave as good as he got, better really—anyway, people see that enmity in his back-and-forth with your fellow Pharisees, so they assume that you came to that meeting that night with a little malice and a big agenda.
I hadn’t really thought about it before, Nicodemus, but I can see now how much was at stake for you. John says that you were an archon, a leader or ruler of the people. And the language he uses indicates that you were a most highly respected teacher among your people. Plus you were wealthy. You had standing in your community as a righteous man, blessed by God. You had a big reputation to protect, and you were putting all that at risk in order to have a meeting of the minds with a man who many of your community regarded as a troublemaker. That could have badly tarnished your reputation, and I admire you for putting that concern aside so you could have an honest, personal discussion with Jesus, rabbi to rabbi.
Having said all that, I realize now that you probably came at night simply to avoid the crowds. I see now that what you wanted was a real conversation with someone who cared deeply about the same things you cared about.
Some have said that your coming at night was symbolic. They see you as a caricature of “those who walk in darkness.” That idea makes a certain kind of sense based on the ways that John’s gospel uses the themes of light and darkness. But since you came to Jesus, who later calls himself “the light of the world,” wouldn’t it make more sense to see you as someone who was moving out of darkness and into the light? You remind us that faith is a process. Understanding unfolds by degrees. Too often we forget that.
I’ve also been thinking, Nicodemus, about that first thing you said to Jesus when you sat down to talk: “Rabbi, 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.” It’s kind of sad, really, but in our time and our culture, when someone greets you with flattery like that, our first impulse is to hold onto our wallets. But I’ve come to think you were really in earnest when you said it. You showed him such respect, calling him rabbi and acknowledging not just the powerful things he had done, but the source of that power. You acknowledged his relationship with the one he called Father, though you couldn’t possibly have understood the true nature of that relationship.
But then, who does? Oh, we have no shortage of doctrinal formulas and illustrations to describe that relationship—relationships, really, because the Holy Spirit is part of that eternal dance of love we call the Trinity. But when you get right down to it, who can really understand the relationship between the Maker, the Christ and the Spirit? We recite the illustrations and restate the formulas and then think that because we found some language to corral it, we understand that mystic communion of love that is God. Our language, itself, betrays our lack of real understanding. In naming them Father, Son, and Spirit, we insert a separateness between them and ascribe roles. That is the antithesis of their relationship, their existence, their being, where they cannot and will not be separate. As Frederick Buechner said, they are the Mystery beyond us, the Mystery within us, and the Mystery among us—and it’s all one deep and eternal Mystery that gives us life. The best we can do is enter the Mystery and experience it—and understand that we will never completely understand. Saint Augustine said that it’s like trying to pour the ocean into a seashell.
Speaking of understanding, I now understand that I have greatly misunderstood your conversation with Jesus. When I dug a little deeper, did a little more homework, I came to realize that the dialogue between you two was typical of the way rabbis talked to each other and mulled over ideas in your time. I didn’t realize before that you were actually inviting Jesus to elaborate more on “being born from above” when you asked, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” You gave the obvious “dunce” response to Jesus so that he had a reason to go deeper into what he was teaching. It was a rhetorical device. You are far from a dunce, Nicodemus. I may be wrong, but your dialogue with Jesus now sounds to me like you and he were using a familiar and respected rabbinic method to engage in a kind of team teaching for the disciples. And you, with grace and humility, played the role of the “not so bright” student.
Even when Jesus says, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things,” it reads to me now as if he’s using you as a foil, and you great teacher that you are, you graciously play along. You help him make the point to those gathered around and listening, that these are not simple, easy concepts to grasp, these things that you two are discussing. Even a “great teacher of Israel” has to wrestle these ideas. You help him spur the other listeners into thinking more deeply and opening their minds and hearts more fully to the Mystery of God in, with, under and around them. You give them permission to have questions.
If you’re wondering why I’ve reassessed my opinion of you, Nicodemus, it’s because I took a good look at the two other times you are mentioned in John’s gospel, particularly that time in chapter 7 when the other Pharisees in the Sanhedrin are upset with the temple police for not arresting Jesus. They throw shade on him because he’s from Galilee, which is just pure prejudice. They say he should be arrested for misleading the people because “he does not know the law.” But you stood up for him, and with perfect irony said, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” That one cost you, I know. Somebody in that group tried to throw shade on you, too, when he said, “Oh are you from Galilee, too? Nobody’s ever heard of a prophet coming from Galilee.” But I think you were maybe beginning to suspect that he really was a prophet, and maybe something more than a prophet. Even if he was from Galilee.
And then there’s that other thing you did—that beautiful, generous, heart breaking thing. You were there when he was crucified. When his disciples had deserted him, you stayed. Right there at the foot of the cross. And when you and Joseph of Arimathea took his body down from the cross, you brought a mixture of myrrh and spices—a hundred pounds of myrrh and spices—to prepare his body for a decent burial even though the scriptures said he was cursed for hanging on a tree. Some have said that in preparing his body you were betraying that you didn’t really believe what he had said about resurrection. Well if that’s the case it’s no shame on you. Nobody else believed it either. Not then, anyway.
No…that was an extravagant act of deep respect, one teacher for another. That was an act of love. And that is why, Nicodemus, I have had to revisit what I thought about you. I realized that you were a person of profound integrity and generosity of spirit. I realized that you were a righteous man. I realized that I had no right to judge you to begin with.
So please forgive me, Nicodemus. And please know, teacher of Israel, that you have taught me a great deal.