Nicodemus was thoroughly confused by what Jesus told him about being born a second time. He couldn’t get the concept. But eventually, after the crucifixion, Nicodemus shows up to help bury Jesus. He has begun to understand, at least on some level, what being born a second time means. He may never have totally understood the concept, but eventually he got the point. And so can we. We don’t need to wait until we comprehend every concept of Christianity. It’s enough to get the point, and that is that Christ is for us.
I owe a lot to my parents. They both helped me in the Christian faith, but each in different ways. My father is a thinker. He can talk about deep religious concepts. So, if I wanted something about religion explained, I found it best to ask him. In fact, if I first directed the question to my mother, she’d attempt an explanation, but sooner or later she’d say, “I don’t understand all of it either. You better ask your father.” I would, and he’d explain, but I didn’t always grasp it all.
But I learned about faith from my mother nonetheless, for she modeled Christian patience, love, forgiven, charity and other virtues quite well.
So, there were times when I might have missed the concept in explanation, but I got the point anyway in how it was expressed.
Nicodemus visiting Jesus provides an example of someone who has trouble grasping faith’s concepts. He is a smart and sophisticated man, one who, it seems, should “get it.” He is a Pharisee, and Pharisees were a well-educated group. And Nicodemus isn’t just any Pharisee, but a leader among them.
Perhaps he is even one of their better thinkers, for while the Pharisees opposed Jesus, Nicodemus sees him as a “teacher come from God.”
In any case, Nicodemus comes seeking to understand Jesus’ message, and right off the bat, Jesus tells him that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.
“Say what?” says Nicodemus. “What does that mean?” A second birth while in full maturity was not anything his previous experience had prepared him to understand.
So, Jesus, speaking in metaphor, tries again: “I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”
But far from helping, that just confuses Nicodemus further, and he admits he is lost. “How can these things be?” he exclaims.
Now it’s Jesus’ turn to express surprise. “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? ... If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”
Poor Nicodemus. We can’t blame him for being bewildered. What earthly things hadn’t he understood? Being born a second time and sired by the Spirit didn’t sound like anything of earth he’d ever heard before. Within about four sentences the man was in over his head.
Jesus doesn’t give up though and goes on to align himself with a story Nicodemus surely would know from Jewish history: The serpent of brass, an emblem placed on a pole by Moses and lifted up as a means of healing when the people of Israel and were bitten by actual serpents. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
Well, John doesn’t tell us whether Nicodemus finally understood, though the man does show up twice more in John’s Gospel. The first is when some Pharisees want to have Jesus arrested, and Nicodemus tries to stop them. He does not actually speak up in Jesus’ favor, but at least says that they shouldn’t act without giving him a hearing.1 The second time, I’ll tell you about in a few moments.
But let’s go back to Nicodemus. Many of us can identify with him. He came, apparently quite sincere about wanting to grow in his faith ― the same mood in which many of us come to church. But the discussion with Jesus didn’t seem to be taking him any nearer that goal, for the words were forcing him to deal with unfamiliar things, with concepts outside of his frame of reference. He had to struggle to keep up, and he was losing that struggle.
Doesn’t that happen to us sometimes? Don’t we sometimes go to listen to someone known as a spiritual leader but find ourselves not grasping what the person is saying? Don’t we sometimes start to read a book that’s supposed to be a spiritual classic but find that it doesn’t speak to us? It’s not that we are stupid or uninterested, but that like Nicodemus, we may not yet have the necessary frame of reference to connect with the concepts at hand.
Religious leaders have long known this to be an issue, and thus have taught that the spiritual life is more of a journey and less of an arrival point. Nicodemus was on the journey, but he wasn’t far enough down the road to make much sense of the concept of rebirth.
Providentially, there are always religious connections available for whatever faith stage we are at.
In one of my seminary classes, for example, we talked about an alternative way of encountering scripture other than just reading it. The idea was to experience it as though we were there. The class instructor had us sit comfortably. That part was easy because we were sitting in soft, easy chairs. Then he had us close our eyes and imagine that we were in the crowd gathered by the Sea of Galilee the day Jesus fed the 5,000. In a quiet voice, the instructor invited us to “smell” the scent of the lake, to “feel” the wind blowing across our faces, to “taste” the bread that was distributed by the disciples and to “listen” to the sound of Jesus’ voice.
Well, somewhere during all that, I got too comfortable and the next thing I knew, we were done. The instructor asked class members to describe what the experience was like for them. The guy next to me raised his hand and said, “I was really getting into it until Simon Peter here,” (pointing at me) “started snoring in my ear.”
The class had a good laugh at my expense, but of course the point is that spirituality is not just something to understand, but also something to be experienced. There are a lot of people like my mother who might say, “I don’t understand all of it, but I find it to be real in my life.” Experience has long been included as one of the valid pieces of evidence for faith.
Following the idea that spirituality is more a journey than a destination, consider this: The Christian writer Marcus Borg identifies three stages in the journey of faith.2 There may be more than that, but these three give us a way to think about that journey and evaluate where we are.
The first he calls “pre-critical naiveté.” He describes that as basically a childhood state in which we accept whatever the significant people in our lives tell us is true. So, when people tell us we should love Jesus, we accept that, even if we don’t really know what it means.
Somewhere along the line, however, many of us move into the stage Borg calls “critical thinking,” and by that, he doesn’t necessarily mean that we all become intellectuals. Rather, it is a stage where we begin to sift through what we learned when we were younger and decide what we can really keep for ourselves and what must be jettisoned. This stage is concerned with facts, reasoning and whether something makes sense. Now when we are told that we should love Jesus, we want to know why, what that means and why if someone else says they love Jesus, they don’t act better than they do. Some of us never leave this stage.
This is the stage Nicodemus was in. He wanted things explained. Give him facts, explanations that fit his frame of reference, concepts he could nail down. And here comes Jesus talking in metaphorical language and from another frame of reference. Hey, we’ve been where Nicodemus was, too. And maybe we still are.
But Borg also talks about a third stage, “post-critical naiveté.” This is where we revisit the things we heard as children and the things we discarded during critical thinking, but this time to see in them as a different kind of truth. The expression, that we should love Jesus, we begin to realize, means not so much that we have an emotional feeling toward him or that we understand what it all means, as that we make decisions about how we will live based on a larger commitment we’ve made to God.
Somewhere along the line, Nicodemus apparently moved beyond the “just the facts” stage, for the last time we meet him in the Bible is toward the end of John’s gospel, after Jesus has been crucified. There, Nicodemus shows up to help Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus. That probably indicates that he has become a believer. He’s begun to understand, at least on some level, what being born a second time means.
Here’s the thing: We generally need help to move into this third stage. A nudge of the Holy Spirit, an invitation from someone we trust, an explanation that helps us to see things in a new way ― something. But the story of Nicodemus gives us a model. He moved from being a seeker to being a follower because the teachings of Jesus, even when Nicodemus couldn’t understand them all, grabbed his attention. They were beyond what he understood, but something about them drew him to keep listening. And at some point, he discovered a truth in them he had only wished for previously. He may never have totally understood the concept, but eventually he got the point.
I’d like to tell you about Bruce, who in his way, was a Nicodemus. At 45, Bruce was rather late to be entering the ministry, but that’s what he was doing. A graduate of MIT, he held over 100 patents for things he had invented. He was an electrical genius. He had been a chief designer for the Cape Canaveral missile computer system, and later designed computers for the submarines and for the Atomic Energy Commission. He lived by facts and reasoning.
Then, as sometimes happens, Bruce discovered something was missing in his life. He drifted into alcoholism and drug abuse, but somewhere in that darkness he met Christ and began to see things in a new way. With God’s help, Bruce battled and overcame his addictions and eventually entered seminary.
But the way he had lived had taken its toll. While in seminary, Bruce had a serious heart attack and went through open-heart surgery, but he returned to school.
Later, he was interviewed for the campus newspaper. Bruce was quoted as saying, “At the age of 45, I’m late on the Lord’s bandwagon ... [but] I want more than I can possibly express to serve him well within whatever years he grants for that service.” Bruce was a bright enough guy that he didn’t have much trouble understanding the metaphorical language the Bible sometimes uses, but it was only when he saw that it connected for him, that there was a truth in it for him, that it changed his life.
Like Nicodemus, at some point Bruce moved from standing outside of faith looking in and being immersed in the faith and enlivened by it.
And so can we. We don’t need to wait until we comprehend every concept of Christianity. It’s enough to get the point, and that is that Christ is for us.
1 John 7:50.
2 Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, by Marcus J. Borg (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 49-51.