By Jim Hatherly
Nicodemus has been invited, at some risk to all concerned, to meet with the disciples for the first time. He has heard rumours of the resurrection, but it is a tense time for followers of Jesus. Though their backgrounds are very dissimilar, Nicodemus and the disciples have their profound encounters with Jesus in common.
John 3: 1-17
Thank you, Peter. Mary. John and the others, for inviting me here to speak to you. To clarify a few things about my relationship with Jesus. Your master and teacher. Your friend.
I am afraid I am a bit formal with you, I can sense it in your manner. You are somewhat unsure about me. And I can understand why. After all, I, Nicodemus, am a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin. And on neither of those counts should you consider me a friend. Of you or of your master.
I know you have taken some risks in inviting me to this evening. I understand why you have chosen to meet under cover of darkness. These are not easy days for followers of your Christ. The hounds are out for you. Soldiers looking for those who follow The Way. Spies and informants. You do not know who to trust. Least of all me.
Yes, you are right. The rumours are true. I did meet him. We did talk. And I will tell you what we said. Every word of it. But before I do, I want you to know that what you say to me will be kept in strictest confidence. And I will not betray your location. Nor, except should you give me permission to do so, will I admit to the authorities that I ever met you.
What am I saying? I am the authority. It was my own people who turned Jesus over for trial. It was my Council who sought his death. Caiaphas, the old fox, he allowed the Council to be persuaded of the necessity of it. For the sake of the nation. For the sake of pax romana. This uneasy alliance we had struck with Caesar. Keep Israel quiet at all costs. Keep the rabble down. No instigators of rebellion. And for God's sake, whatever we do, no prophets!
O my friends. May I call you that? I wish to call you my friends. Though God knows you have every reason to despise me. My authority, my robes, my participation in Jesus' death.
You are silent. You simply wish me to speak. You have risked your lives to bring me here. You have not raised your voices. Nor your fists. May I call you friends?
O God, how I yearn for your acceptance. Your forgiveness. Your compassion. Maybe later for that. For tonight, I ask only your understanding.
I will start with why I felt compelled to meet him. The words of his teaching had reached my ears. Although his preaching was to the masses, the message spread much farther than those who actually heard him. To some, the Romans in particular, he sounded like trouble.
I do not need to tell you of the crowds that gathered around him. Among them, no doubt, were the peasants of the countryside. Those with simple faith and simple needs. People with aches and pains, and souls in need of spiritual healing. If the rumours are true, Jesus healed some of them. Nothing wrong in that, of course. Our faith is all about giving people hope. Even the most jaded of the Pharisees would grant the man that courtesy.
But to the keepers of the peace, it was alarming. For as we know, there are many among our people who look for a leader who will take up arms against Rome. Who smart under this foreign occupation. Desperate people will follow any leader they think will attain for them their ends. I suspect Jesus, for a time, attracted some of those. Maybe even your Judas. I can understand that, though I have no sympathy with revolutionaries.
Anyway, I had heard about his teachings. I knew that some of my brother Pharisees were skeptical. Others were jealous. Some were outraged that this Galilean peasant was attracting larger crowds than ever they could amass. I knew very well that by the time his words got to me, and his political sensibilities manipulated by others, that who he was and what he actually said had become distorted. I had to find out for myself.
It is interesting that we should meet at night. With not a small bit of fear surrounding us. For it was on such a night as this that I met Jesus.
I came by night because I feared my brothers would find out. I knew some of them would be suspicious of me, question my loyalty, should they discover the visit. Consorting with the enemy they would say.
The first thing I said to Jesus was, "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." I gave him a sincere complement, and I meant it. If what I had heard was in any way true, he was my equal in his understanding of God, even if he had not the status of a Pharisee. And if his signs and miracles were true, then he was indeed my better. He might, if I dared to believe the half of it, be my Messiah.
Jesus words to me, however, gave me pause. He offered a curious teaching. "I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born anew."
Confound the man! He was a true Rabbi. That is how we are taught, you know. A provocative statement is made by the teacher, and the student asks an inquisitive question. So I responded with a logical question. "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into their mother's womb, and be born again?"
The answer to my question was as puzzling as the first comment. "No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said, 'You must be born anew.' The wind blows where it wills, 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."
I was captivated by the man's intelligence. His mysticism. We had conversed like a teacher and student, but in all my years of study I had never had a conversation like this.
"How can these things be?" I asked, genuinely puzzled.
"Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?"
If he meant me offense, I took none. It was a legitimate thing to say to one who so obviously did not understand. He spoke at length then about his testimony to the world, and about God's love for the world, a love so deep that God's own son should be given to it. He spoke about eternal life, and God's hope for the world's salvation.
There was more, of course. We talked long into the night. I hoped the morning would never come.
Before dawn I took my leave and went home. We both needed rest.
His words have haunted me ever since. What did he mean about being born anew? Born of the Spirit? How was he connected to God? Was he a prophet? A teacher? Or was he more than that? Was he the one who would save the world?
O God, how I envy you your time with Jesus. The nights you must have spent talking with him. Your days of witnessing his miracles, sharing his ministry.
Perhaps you can tell me - for I suspect it is true - was he the one to save the world? I need to know, for it troubles my soul to think that I and my brothers should have failed to see it.
I could tell no one of my conversation with him - until tonight. To be honest, that is not true. I have a friend, another member of the Sanhedrin, who heard my story. You will have met him, some of you. Joseph of Arimathea. It was in his tomb that your friend, our friend, was buried after his crucifixion. Joseph and I have talked. He took his chances, too. The risk of being accused of sympathizing with Jesus. But sympathize he did. As I do. Under cover of darkness he assisted some of you to bring the body to his tomb.
And then the story took its strangest turn. More mysterious than the conversation I had with Jesus. Only you, who may have witnessed it yourselves, can tell me if it is true. And I wish you would tonight. To rest my soul at ease. Is it true, as they say, that he was raised from the dead? That he appeared to some of you, alive? Mary, is it? You are nodding your head. Peter, yes, you say your broke bread with him on the seashore? Then by God it is true!
If that is so, then I will find some peace. I will put my betrayal in its place. Peter, perhaps you know what I am talking about. I can see it in your eyes. Perhaps we will all find forgiveness for our sins. Perhaps we can all be - how did he put it? Born anew, of the Spirit of God.
What I do know is this - that his message has not died with him. You and I are here tonight to give evidence to that. And so many out there, though they may fear the authorities for speaking his name, have been touched by his life and healed by his hand and changed by his teachings. And, by God's grace, many more will hear it. But it will depend on us, will it not? Brothers. Sisters. Friends.
Copyright Jim Hatherly, all rights reserved.
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