I remember one Sunday when I was very young, maybe 4 years old and I was with my parents doing what we did every Sunday. I was sitting in the back seat of our car on the way to church. I had my special white gloves that I only wore on Sundays. They were either plain white gloves or lacy ones in the spring and summer. I also had a special church pocketbook and for some reason I don’t know, I had special church handkerchiefs. Some came from my grandmother in Switzerland and were embroidered with alpine flowers, others had cartoon characters printed on them. I usually took six or seven with me. I removed them from my pocketbook and looked at them and organized them in the pew at church to entertain myself during boring sermons. Anyway, one Sunday like every Sunday I was in the car with my parents and we passed a tennis court. I looked up in time to see that there were people playing tennis. My mind sprung into action. How could this be? It was Sunday morning! Years later my mother told me that I had arrived at the only possible answer…which I shared from the back seat…they must have gone to the early church service. In the simple world of my early childhood, it was unthinkable that someone would not be going to church on Sunday morning. I had not yet been exposed to the idea of different religions. Much less unbelief. Only Tennis after an early church service could fit into my world view.
Of course, this world view did not last. By the time I was 7 my best friend had died and the questions began. Why did she die? Why did unfair things happen? Why did God allow this or that to go on? Why was the world like this and not like that? A few years later, I absorbed the images of concentration camps shown in school, the pictures of starving children offered at church and TV footage in my living room from the My Lai massacre in Viet Nam and race riots in nearby Newark. This was not the world as it was supposed to be and I was the kind of child who lay awake at night puzzling over such things. If Jesus was the answer, he wasn’t sharing that answer with me. It’s interesting that many people turn to the Bible for answers. Sometimes, we do find the answer we need in these pages, but these very pages are also filled with questions. In fact, the word why occurs 4231 times in the Bible and why is only one way to begin a question. Here’s a sampling of Biblical questions:
Why have you brought trouble on this people?
Why have you sent me?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
Why this uproar among the nations?
Why do you stand so far off?
Why do you hide when times are hard?
Why does my enemy oppress me?
Why do you forget we are exploited?
Why do the wicked prosper?
Why am I discouraged?
Why is my soul downcast?
Why have you rejected us?
For a book where people seek answers, there sure are a lot of questions. In fact, even Jesus flings his own soul-wrenching question from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Few of these questions get direct answers. I am reminded of a book I read by Rainer Maria Rilke in the midst of my youthful questioning, Rilke writes in response to the questions of the young poet. …I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart …Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
I thought of this recently when I was reading the story of Nicodemus in the gospel of John. Nicodemus is a smart, educated, well-positioned leader, but something is missing. He’s wondering about things that don’t make sense. He’s a spiritual seeker, longing to understand more about God and about his own path for life. We’re told that Nicodemus came to talk with Jesus at night. Many commentators assume that Nicodemus went to Jesus at night because he was embarrassed to go during the day. He didn’t want others to see him with Jesus, to appear to be straying into unapproved places. Or maybe Nicodemus just thought that night was the best time to catch Jesus alone and get his full attention.
Rabbi he says, 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. Nicodemus begins with what he knows…and leaves the rest unspoken, all that he does not know and longs to know. Jesus answered truly I tell you no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. Nicodemus has two questions. How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born? Nicodemus longs to understand more, but he is stuck with his very concrete, literalistic mindset.
Jesus doesn’t make fun of Nicodemus. He tries to help him see in a new way The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. According to Jesus’ words here, being born again is not a formula, it is not a creed, it is not legalistic proposition, it is life lived open to mystery, life lived open to the unexpected, it is being receptive to the movement of the spirit, And Jesus is inviting Nicodemus into this spirited, windswept realm where you might be led to places you never could have imagined.
But how can these things be asks Nicodemus who is still confused. Jesus is not giving him the 4-step plan he wants. Nicodemus would have been right at home in the self-help section of any bookstore but Jesus is refusing to be pinned down between the covers of a book. Even if that book is the Bible. The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. Jesus doesn’t provide a set of rules, but instead offers a relationship of ongoing trust and love. And speaking of love, we come to a verse that is one of the most famous verses in the New Testament. It’s a favorite slogan of religious fundamentalists, often reduced even further at sports events where fans just hold up the numbers John 3:16. Tim Tebow used to paint it on his face.
For God so loved the world….it goes on to say that God gave God’s son and all who believe in him will be saved, and presumably win football games…I too believe that God so loved the world… and loves the world, but no true love can be reduced to a placard. We can’t tame the mystery and power of love and bend it to our control, to our limitations, rules and regulations, to something we can possess and hold in one hand with a hotdog or a beer in the other. How strange it is that this very text has been used perhaps more than any other in the whole bible, to close the door on our questions. It’s strange because Jesus takes Nicodemus’ questions seriously. When did church become a place where you come for answers but get the feeling that questions are unwelcome, where questions are pushed into the shadows? Jesus welcomes Nicodemus’ questions. He does not condemn him.
If you Google images on line for John 3:16, you’ll get tons of them. If you Google images for John 3:17. You get nothing. John 3:17- Indeed God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him. I wonder why John 3:17 isn’t as popular as John 3:16? John 3:17 is uncomfortable. It even challenges me when I condemn those who misuse John 3:16.
Speaking of questions, a colleague of mine is a social work supervisor and child specialist at Harlem Hospital. He’s also a pastor. A few days ago, he was asked to help a father explain to his six year-old little girl that her mother and sister died in the recent explosion that killed 8 people in East Harlem. Whatever he says, whatever the father says, is not likely to satisfy that little girl’s questions. No matter what answers emerge as to gas leaks and building infrastructure, they are not the kind of answers that will provide any comfort to that little girl, nor to her father.
I think our life together is part of the answer. The father of that little girl will likely never have good answers for her, but if he keeps on keeping on in the midst of his grief, if he gets the support he needs and is able to surround her with love and show her that her life is precious, that her life matters, he will help her live into a new day. Our stumbling, fumbling attempts at love in the face of pain are part of the answer.
It seems that Nicodemus found his answer in living the questions too. When he leaves his conversation with Jesus, there is no sign that anything is really resolved for him. But we meet him later in John’s gospel, on two occasions. When Jesus is arrested and the disciples have all run away, hiding in the shadows. Nicodemus steps out into the light and speaks out on Jesus’ behalf. He takes a courageous risk for the sake of justice and truth. And then again, after Jesus has been crucified, a man named Joseph of Arimathea goes to Pilate and asks for Jesus body in order to bury it.
Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, …and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
All those fragrant spices– a hundred pounds, carried by Nicodemus to bury Jesus. All that love. Like us, Nicodemus never got is copy of Christianity for Dummies with all the answers inside. But he found a way to live with his questions, to risk truth and stand up for justice and bear the weight of love. I think that NIcodemus was born again, or at least, his life showed signs of the new creation we await when all is clear and we will dwell in that place described in the book of Revelation where the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb and night will be no more. Until then, we live the questions. risk truth and stand up for justice and bear the fragrant weight of love.
One thought on “When Jesus Denied Nicodemus a Copy of Christianity for Dummies”
What a relief to read this liberation of John 3:16 from its role as battle axe to Good News within a larger context not only of the passage but of the Church in the world! Thank you!