This is a reflection based on Jesus’ famous encounter with Nicodemus in John 3, but it also brings in ideas from his other two appearances in the gospel. The readings are: John 3:1-17; John 7:45-52; John 19:38-42.
“Why did you go, Nicodemus?
Why did you go to see this strange character, Jesus of Nazareth? Did you really think that he was a prophet? Search the scriptures you know so well, and you will see for yourself that no prophet comes from Galilee. He does look a bit like a prophet, it’s true. And sounds like one on occasions. He certainly acts like one sometimes, come to think of it. Whipping up that storm in the Temple, driving out the dove sellers and money changers: that was risky. Just the sort of thing that Isaiah or Amos might have done, I suppose. But we have no prophets now and if we did have any, they certainly wouldn’t come from Nazareth.
Perhaps you went to see a miracle? He certainly has quite a few tricks up his sleeve, doesn’t he? Lepers claiming to be healed, the lame leaping for joy, sight restored – there’ll be no beggars left soon! And there was that strange talk about the wedding he went to in Cana: a good man to have at a party, by the sounds of it! Even that old fox Herod seems intrigued by him, so they say, although apparently he’s just petrified that it’s John come back to haunt him. Like Samuel rising from the witch’s fire!
Did you go on your own account, or because others sent you? You called him ‘rabbi’, I hear; a bad place to start, if I might say so. It gives the man too much credence – and then you said, “we know that you are a teacher”. Who’s this “we” then? Are there others on the Council who feel the same way? I find it hard to believe that a group of such distinguished men could be so gullible. These are hard enough times to be a good Jew, without our leaders losing their heads too. Romans or no Romans, blasphemy is always blasphemy!
Why do did you go by night, Nicodemus?
Night time is a time for sleeping; for lying safe in your bed beside your wife, knowing that all the household and animals are safely locked up. Why, even a group of dis-organised brides searching for lamp oil wouldn’t raise me from my slumbers! What on earth possessed you to go out into the dark streets and seek the company of cutthroats and drunkards? Maybe it was because you did not want to be seen by anyone consorting with this strange Nazarene. He’s certainly not popular with some of your fellow Pharisees, is he? He seems to possess a real knack for getting under their skin: even you lost your cool a bit with him yourself, didn’t you – when he started talking about being born again. His habit of answering a question with another question really is infuriating, isn’t it? No wonder your friends, the chief priests, get so riled: no one else would dare talk to them like that. Or are they your friends, I wonder?
Perhaps, though, I am thinking of this like some strange gentile might in the frozen north. All their streets – if such barbarian settlements have streets – may be deserted by sunset. We are a warm-blooded people, though. Only fools would sit and talk about important matters in the heat of the day, when sensible folks seek the shade and their beds. Night time is the time to come alive, to ponder the deep things of life in the cool of the evening: just as when God walked with Adam in the Garden, in fact. It is then, with a welcome breeze slowly swaying the branches of the trees – and no, I don’t know where it comes from or goes to, either – it is then that we can think clearly, and talk through the deep things of life.
For this is a very deep thing that you are discussing, is it not? Matters of faith and belief, of orthodoxy and heterodoxy, of life and death. For who is this “Son of Man” of which he speaks? Is he talking about the one that Daniel – a proper prophet, and most definitely not from Galilee – of the one that Daniel said would come at the end times? Or is he – horror of horrors – talking about himself, in that strange elliptical way he has of speaking? If he is, then this is blasphemy pure and simple: to suggest that he has come down from heaven, that he will be lifted up again and, worst of all, that belief in him will lead to eternal life! You should have run away then, Nicodemus; this stuff is too hot to handle! This is the sort of thing that will get him into trouble, and you too, if you’re not careful. Performing a few miracles is one thing but this is blasphemy, and you – a teacher of Israel – know that only too well, don’t you?
Why did you go back, Nicodemus?
That wasn’t very sensible, was it? Going to Pilate, with Joseph of Arimethea and asking to have the body. I mean, really, what were you thinking of? You saw how angry the High Priest was and the rest of your fellow Council members. What a fuss, and all just before Passover as well: Passover of all times, I ask you. With the city full to bursting and the Romans on edge. No wonder it all got out of hand. Did you really have to make a scene with that other old man and get the body? I mean he’s dead now: he won’t mind whether he’s dumped on the heap with all the other felons, will he?
This is not the end of the matter for you; you know that, don’t you. People saw you ask for the body, and Caiaphas and the rest have very long memories. You won’t be trusted again – though perhaps you haven’t been properly trusted since you went the first time. But this. This seemed utterly pointless. “Let the dead bury their dead.” Now, where did I hear that phrase? Never mind.
What did you hope to achieve by doing this thing, by putting him into that tomb? Poor old Joseph had that specially cut for himself, and now he’s not even going to be the first tenant. Was it out of respect? Of admiration? Or was it out of hope? Did you still believe that he might have been a prophet, or perhaps even more than a prophet? Did you want him to be proved right?
That’s the frustrating thing about faith, isn’t it? Unless it’s tested by doubts and uncertainties then it’s not faith at all: it’s just knowledge. But to have faith – true faith – you must know doubt too. The deep, unsettling doubt that robs us of our sleep, and haunts us during the small hours of the night: perhaps that’s why you went to see him when you did? Did this strange man from Nazareth provoke in you feelings of wonder and awe that you thought had died long ago? Did what he say actually make perfect sense to you – once you had had time to digest it properly? Did you recognise the truth of what he was saying, and what he taught – did you see fulfilled in him the prophecies you know so well of the Messiah who is to come? Did he show you a better, more perfect way of being; did he reveal to you the deepest things of life – things you didn’t even know that you didn’t even know?
Wait, Nicodemus. Have faith, Nicodemus. Come back again in the three days, Nicodemus. Come and see that your faith is not in vain.”