Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Nicodemus Might Have Been A Lutheran

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ, Amen.

One summer my sister babysat for our neighbor’s daughter, who was three at the time. All day every day, she would point to everything within reach and ask “what’s that?” ‘What’s that?” Driving us all up the wall. I’m sure none of you has EVER known a toddler to do that, right??

The story goes that Martin Luther’s toddler Hans was running around the house, pointing at everything and asking “Was ist das?” What is this? (This story is in the introduction to the Small Catechism by Augsburg Fortress). And probably also driving his parents up the wall. But questions are how we learn. And so Luther used his son’s question to teach his students about the basics of Lutheran teaching. And so the Small Catechism was born.
So you might say that our Lutheran faith is built on asking questions. There is space for questions here. Questions are part of our DNA, in our most formational Lutheran documents like the Small Catechism. And things that happen in worship can cause us to ask questions too. For example, why are we reading from in the Gospel of John so much during Lent when we are in the year of reading Matthew?

Unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer for you. But I can say that it is only in John that we get the stories about Nicodemus, the woman at the well, a man born blind, the raising of Lazarus, the foot washing, and the post resurrection conversation between Mary Magdalene and Jesus in garden. A few of these stories we get to hear this Lent -  the woman at the well, the blind man, and Lazarus, and Nicodemus.

Who was Nicodemus? He was a member of a group called the Pharisees, and a leader of the Jews. Wait, leader of all the Jews? What does that mean? Well, most scholars agree that “the Jews” was John’s shorthand for the Jewish authorities who later opposed Jesus, not the whole nation or religion of Judaism.

But why would this leader of a group who opposed Jesus try to meet with him? And why might Jesus agree to such a meeting?

Perhaps Jesus has hope when Nicodemus admits his fledgling belief that Jesus comes from God. But Nick – from now on I’m going to shorten up his name – has trouble tracking with Jesus after that. Once Jesus starts in with the birth and spirit and wind stuff, Nick gets totally lost. He seems to stop asking questions, throwing up his hands, and exclaiming “How can this be?” in complete confusion.

Now if Nick had been Nicole, it might have been obvious to her that the tricky Greek word Jesus uses was not meant to be taking biologically. This word could mean many things, including born “from above,” born “again,” or born “anew”. We know, even if Nick didn’t, that Jesus was talking about another birth that most of us have experienced AFTER our physical birth. Water is still involved. But for this birth, it is God who carries us to term, and pushes us out into the world to be born. Jesus was talking about baptism.

Was is Das? What then is baptism?

Baptism is our rebirth into the family of God. In our baptisms, God chooses us as beloved and chooses us to be that love in the world. We no longer are defined by what family we are from, how much we make, or what orientation, gender, or race we are. We are defined only by the power of that love, reborn by water and the Spirit of God.

We may be baptized once, but its something that we need to remember as often as possible. According to Luther, in our baptisms our Old selves and our old desires are drowned daily and a new person rises daily. We are buried with Christ in our baptisms, and die to sin, so that we may rise to new life in Christ, as he has risen from the dead.

So why then, with all this death talk, do we baptized babies? Well, a baby can’t do anything on his or her own. She can do nothing to earn your love or to earn God’s love. God has already decided on you from the day you were born. God chose you when there was literally nothing you could do to choose God. Before you could even believe in God, God believes in you.

Jesus believed in Nick even when Nick found it hard to believe in Jesus. We shouldn’t be too hard on Nick, though. Nick does show up again in the Gospel of John. A little later, the Pharisees and Chief priests wanted Jesus arrested, and Nick uses his question-asking powers to defend Jesus, by asking, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” (John 7:50-51).

Nick returns a third time, when he along with Joseph of Arimathea, ask for Jesus’ body and brings one hundred pounds of burial spices to anoint the body of Jesus (John 19:39). Here we see that Nick is now “all in” with his faith in Jesus, bringing way more spices than necessary, and doing something that was considered at the time to be “woman’s work.” Imagine, a prominent leader of the Jewish authorities rolling up his sleeves to give a criminal a proper burial. What a “180” for a man who first met with Jesus in the secrecy of darkness, who now is instead drawn out of the darkness as a believer in Jesus.

Somewhere along the line, Nick learned to trust Jesus even in the confusion. Perhaps the conversation that he and Jesus had stuck with him, and Nick saw Jesus live out that famous verse that we all know, John 3:16 – that God loved the world enough to send Jesus to save it. And for those who believe and have faith, Jesus shares eternal life.

The Chinese character for “faith” is actually two symbols put together. The first looks like a stick person if you squint a bit, and the second looks like an open mouth with lines rising like words. When I was in China for a two-week cross cultural trip in seminary, I learned from our guide that this word has these characters for a reason. It looks like a person standing next to their word. You might say that faith looks like trusting that a person will stand next to what they say.

Who does Jesus stand for? And what is God saying?

Jesus stand FOR God’s love at work in the world, by standing WITH us.

Jesus stands with those who are lost in the darkness, those who have questions, and those who don’t have it all together. Jesus stands with those who are misunderstood and abandoned, with the voiceless and the powerless, and those who work to bring them justice. Jesus stands with people that others have forgotten and pushed aside.

We will see at work next week, with the woman at the well. She too had questions, but was at the opposite end of the social spectrum from Nick. She was a woman, a foreigner, cast out by all the men in her life and stigmatized by her community.  But we will see that Jesus spent time with her, took her seriously, and showed her that “people like her” have worth in the eyes of God. This is what Jesus does, over and over again. And Jesus does not stop doing this, even when the people in power would do anything to make him stop, even going so far as to silence him forever by nailing him to a cross. What Jesus said to Nick that night came true. Jesus was lifted up on a cross, so that he might save us all.

The journey of Nicodemus took him far out of his comfort zone. It started in the safety of darkness, but even there in the dark womb of God he was being prepared for his rebirth. Nick knew then that he had everything to lose, but slowly came to realize that this didn’t matter. Because he had everything to gain.

So Nick believed and he trusted. He acted in his life as if Jesus would stand by his word. And so he took chances and put himself at possible risk in order to do live that out. Nick didn’t know how it would work out. But as Dr. David Lose said yesterday at the seminary in Philadelphia to a room full of dedicated church volunteers out to talk about Sunday School on a Saturday: “Faith isn’t about having all the answers.”

Perhaps, faith is trusting God in the middle of all the questions.

What other questions do you wonder about? Perhaps these questions don’t have answers right now. But I WILL leave you with one more question today. It’ is a question I hope you think about, and I hope one that you will ask one another as well. This is a safe space here, and together we can help one another as we put words to how we may feel about God and faith.

So I ask you to think about this question today. What does having faith in Jesus mean for you? 

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